Jonathan Salem Baskin

Postage Paid

Today, postage paid for commercial innovation.

Aviation history was written by bold pioneers and wild-eyed entrepreneurs, and their networks in the air have shaped our world for over a century. Change came fast, too: Only 20 or so years separated Orville Wright’s first mechanized flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903 (he was in the air for 59 seconds and flew 852 feet), and the first flight around the world in 1924 (it took 175 days). Pan American World Airways, or “Pan Am,” was one of the leaders of global air travel, and it owns the record for the first commercial passenger flight around the world, which landed in New York on this day in 1942.

Pan Am wasn’t built on the idea of transporting people, however, but on delivering mail. Its first flight (in 1927) was to deliver mail from Key West, Florida to Havana, Cuba, and a series of lucrative postal contracts made possible its expansion across South America. It copied the same strategy to build its Pacific routes, cutting mail delivery time between China and the US from 6 weeks to 6 days. Its success would also allow it to incessantly move people around the world, fund the creation of new computers to manage reservations, and even prompt a lab to test nuclear-engines. While rising oil prices and competition are usually cited as causes for Pan Am’s decline later in the century, an employee-funded ad in the New York Times in 1974 laid partial blame on the US Post Office, which was paying foreign airlines five times as much for carrying the mail.

So whether classified ads in newspapers, or porn and chat on the Internet, the drivers of network growth are often unlikely or even unknown.

Here’s the link to Today in the Histories of Social Media, and this is the latest edition of Histories of Social Media