The History of Technology and Parcel Delivery

The courier and logistics industry, employing hundreds of thousands, sending literally millions of parcels, and producing billions of pounds each year, has been the unsung driving force of globalisation, the emergence of consumer culture and the modern-day explosion of online commerce. Couriers have played a pivotal role throughout, providing a logistical platform for other industries to grow exponentially. Technology has mirrored the growth of logistics. As consumers demand more, technology has redefined logistics, while logistics has redefined technology.

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In the UK, the faithful Royal Mail, one of the Kingdom’s oldest institutions, delivered its first letter as far back as 1516. Established by King Henry VII, the Master of the Posts was established to maintain an efficient communication route between the King and the appointed Scottish Privy Council. Traveling by horseback, messengers would spend days riding  to deliver the King’s letters. In 1603, the route became famous as Sir Robert Carey, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, rode from London to Edinburgh in three days to inform her heir, James VI of Scotland of his mother’s death. The 436 mile Great North Ride is now a yearly tradition for horse riding enthusiasts.

Until the late 1600’s, roads in Europe were little more than glorified, often muddy, tracks unable to cater for demand for an effective transport route. The popularity of horse drawn carriages, available for hire in London from 1605, were a primary driver of the development of an effective logistics route. This meant larger and more developed roads that were horse-friendly, but also catered for carriages were drastically needed. The foundations of a national courier network was born.

The industrial revoloution lit the fires of all industry, with travel and logistics at the heart of it. Train lines, steam ships and communications technology meant larger loads of parcels and products could be transported, further and quicker. Pottery crafted in Sheffield could be sold in Boston shops weeks after it was made, while silver forged in the London could be enjoyed by Chinese aristocrats sipping British imported Indian tea. The up-and-coming European empires were desperate to improve their logistics networks, for the sake of trade and military mobility. Logistics and technology fired this ambition.

Improvements here at home were notably drastic. Trains carrying sacks of letters and packages up and down the country gave-way to the modern postal service we know today. In one day letters and packages loaded in London could be distributed by posties armed with bicycles and horses in across the country. The invention of the car, and shortly after, the delivery van, meant individuals could deliver far larger amounts of letters and packages to anywhere connected by a road. This provided an opportunity for more advanced commercial enterprises, that technology would help revolutionise.

Demand for growth led to rapid urbanised development schemes. People needed to be connected to receive the benefits of a changing world. Cities were expanding all over the globe, with more shops and services providing people with everything they needed and ever wanted. Competition, first provided by the long reach of empire and competing counties would now take a lead in connecting the world. The logistics industry would need to develop, and it needed help. To become globalised, courier companies would need to be armed with the latest technological advancements.

Air travel changed the logistics landscape forever. As technology progressed, the transportation of goods overseas left the confines of slow moving ships to the emerging fast-paced aviation industry. As with many things, conflict between nations led to immense leaps in technology – with logistics no exception. Transport planes fitted with powerful engines and large container spaces meant packages could be delivered to the other side of the world in 24 hours. Factories in China could now supply shops in the USA with the latest in consumer products in remarkably short time. These products had their materials sourced in India, Africa and the South Americas. Planes powered with fuel sources from the Middle East had brought logistics to a new level.

Cities would now have to adapt. Logistical needs would have to be fitted into city planning, with the large scale development of city hubs. Courier companies operating enormous sorting centres can direct parcels to any address, across entire continents. These facilities have become increasingly advanced as the need to out-do rival courier groups by decreasing delivery times to customers has led to extraordinary leaps in technology. Alibaba, China’s largest online retail company has just built a staggering distribution centre in Eastern China with the single goal of providing same-day delivery to 25 cities, in 24 hours, to 140 million people.

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The US online giant Amazon is pursuing the future of delivery with typical determination. Amazon is currently trialling drone delivery with the intention of same-day delivery to any location. Its recent patent acquisition has provided some details on the scope of the company’s ambition. GPS technology in people’s smartphones could be used by Amazon’s drones to trail customers to a suitable delivery location, removing the one of the key hindrances of ‘final-mile’ delivery. This could include customers on boats, or in moving cars. The customer could direct the drones landing location with their smartphone. The latest specifications of Amazon’s drones hints at highly sophisticated technology. Self-management systems for example that make the drone capable of adapting to new locations, avoiding cars, people, animals and buildings. Hard to reach locations are already being catered for with unmanned flying vehicles, both in Germany and China.

Technology, particularity mobile tech like smartphones has had a major role to play in the development of logistics. Through retail convenience, customers can access their favourite online stores day and night, so courier companies have had to develop their capacities and flexibility to deal with demand. Last year, during China’s Singles Day, Alibaba processed 278million orders in only 24hours, with profits exceeding $9.3billion. Alibaba, to deal with this demand has had to massively overhaul China’s logistics network. As companies the size of Amazon and Alibaba now compete head to head with ownership over market space through consumer convenience, logistics and technology companies must develop to deliver.

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