austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,
austin_dern
austin_dern

Take a letter Miss Gray

Voting seems to have settled down on my informal little survey about how long the Pony Express operated, so I may as well reveal the answer. From your responses the most popular answer was ``about a year'', with eight votes; next-most popular was ``about ten years'' with six; and ``about five years'' with four votes. Bucking the trend the other answer, ``about 25 years'', didn't get any votes, at least when I checked and wrote this up.

The best answer was the first, about a year. Actually, the Pony Express ran for just about eighteen months between its first delivery (April 1860) and when they closed up shop (October 1861). It may have been a useful physical link and communications lifeline during some particularly challenging moments in United States history, but it was also a financial disaster which started out bleeding money and managed in short order to begin hemorrhaging it. It's hard to see where exactly the flaw in the business plan was: they just took a link which due to historical reasons provided a very low traffic rate, and built around 200 stations each needing staff and a small herd of horses, then hired a bunch of people to race through territory thick with bandits, hostile Indians, and absolutely unlivable terrain, to provide delivery in about ten days of just as many letters as could be stuffed into sleeves built into saddles, at a rate an order of magnitude higher than any other postal rate in the country, in the hopes that if they ran it long enough they might be able to get a government mail contract guaranteeing some minimum payment. Maybe they should have added ``dot com'' to their name and started giving away free plastic trinkets.

But I kid people who set out on ambitious projects without figuring out a reasonable projected budget from my secure spot a century and a half after the plan's flaws were revealed. Besides, as far as I can determine nobody actually studied whether businesses made any economic sense before about 1930, and then the results were so depressing nobody tried again until 1954. I exaggerate, but only slightly -- before James Webb (later of NASA fame) was at Truman's Bureau of the Budget there were shockingly few attempts to measure the economy. There's a curious alternate history, not to mention a good grand strategy game, to be seeded there: when Webb moved to the State Department he tried to introduce economics-style quantification of the world's political and diplomatic state. He couldn't get that started since so little of what he wanted could barely be guessed at, never mind actually measured, and he was busier trying to reform the State Department so that the Secretary of State could actually direct its employees to do things, and have them eventually done.

Trivia: AT&T's first coast-to-coast telephone line went into service in 1915. Source: Fortune's Formula, William Poundstone.

Currently Reading: Mister Lincoln's T-Mails, Tom Wheeler.

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