Postage meters are used today by millions of businesses to imprint postage on envelopes and parcels. Meter indicia serve as proof of payment, functioning as a postage stamp, a cancellation mark, and a dated postmark all in one.
Pitney filed a patent application, in Stamford, Connecticut for the world’s first postage meter on December 9, 1901. He presented, demonstrated and perfected his invention over two decades – but it was not until he partnered with English-born industrialist Walter Bowes that the postage meter was approved by the U.S. Postal Service.
He co-founded the Pitney-Bowes Postage Meter Company in 1920. Today, the company that bears his name, Pitney Bowes, is a $6.1 billion provider of software, hardware and services related to documents, packaging, mailing and shipping, collectively referred to as the mailstream.
Arthur Pitney was born in Quincy, Illinois in 1871. In 1890 he moved to Chicago, where he attended the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, spending days viewing the mechanical inventions on display.
Later, while working as a clerk in a wallpaper store he identified a problem that was costing his firm time and money—affixing postage stamps to hundreds of envelopes was tedious and inefficient and left the company vulnerable to large losses due to stamp theft, a common crime at the time.
An inventor in the classic “tinkerer-putterer” mode, he created a device to simplify business mailings. The first postage meter device consisted of a manual crank, chain action, printing die, counter and lockout device.
He formed the Pitney Postal Machine Company in 1902, which became the American Postage Meter Company in 1912. In the interim, the machine’s acceptance by the public and the postal administrations dragged on slowly without resolution. A disgusted Pitney—his finances and marriage both wrecked by the project—resorted to selling insurance. But he continued to persist.
In 1919, Pitney was introduced to Walter Bowes, an industrialist who had success marketing a Post Office stamp canceling machine. In April 1920, the Pitney-Bowes Postage Meter Company was formed. In September of that year, the Model M Postage Meter was approved by the U.S. Postal Service, legislation was passed by Congress and the first postage meter was put into commercial use on November 16, 1920.
Pitney and Bowes set up a manufacturing presence in Stamford, Connecticut and by 1922 there were branch offices in a dozen major cities and the Pitney-Bowes postage meter was also approved for use in Canada and England. He was awarded the Franklin Institute's Certificate of Merit in 1922.
While the company was growing, neither Pitney nor Bowes enjoyed this success. The two men were constantly at odds and in 1924, Arthur Pitney resigned from the company after a dispute with Bowes. While his innovations led to the creation of an entire mail processing industry, his efforts brought him little joy. Pitney suffered a stroke in 1927 and died in 1933.
- FORTUNE Small Business, Meter Men, September 2002.
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Cahn, William (1961). The Story of Pitney-Bowes. New York: Harper & Brothers.