Email and the Pony Express have been compared before (not necessarily in the most positive of lights). Given that both are (or were) systems of mail delivery, this isn’t especially shocking. There are, however, ¬†innumerable differences between the two. One relied on strong-backed equines; the other relies on server up-time. One took days; the other takes seconds. One predates the Emancipation Proclamation; the other not so much. Differences – you get the idea.

pony express and email

Image by William Henry Jackson

Among the many differences, though, there are some similarities. The Pony Express’s two-year run (1860-1861), albeit short, provided for plenty of history. In this post, we’ll examine that history and see how it relates mail’s past to its present. Let’s ride.

1. Fast Delivery, Relatively Speaking

Email communication takes (in most cases) mere seconds. When a friend or coworker sends a message your way via email, chances are good that “you’ve got mail” just seconds later. The brevity of the whole operation – involving the mail user agent (MUA), Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), DNS server, message transfer agent (MTA), etc. – is truly remarkable.

Equally remarkable (at the time) was the quickness with which the Pony Express was able to transmit messages from the Eastern to Western United States. In November of 1860, folks in California were notified of Abraham Lincoln’s election just seven days and 17 hours after word spread on the East Coast. With this time, the Pony Express had accomplished an unmatched feat (a feat crushed shortly thereafter with the rise of the transcontinental telegraph).

2. Risk of Attack!

At Sherpa, we often stress the importance of awareness when it comes to communicating via email. It turns out that email, like other forms of information exchange, is susceptible to attack from outside users. If someone is on the same network as you, it becomes even easier for them to intercept information. This is why regulatory compliance is a must.

Riders of the Pony Express were vulnerable to attacks and interception attempts, as well. In what was one of the more extreme examples of these attacks, the Paiute Indian tribe launched (without the support of its peace-giving chief) a series of raids and ambushes against Pony Express stations in Nevada. The aftermath saw 16 dead employees and over 100 stolen or lost horses. Eventually, the U.S. government stepped in with troops to resolve the conflict.

3. Communication Networks

With email, the internet is the collection of networks that allows us to communicate with anyone who has a connection at any place on Earth. Without these networks (interconnected nodes through which we transmit information) email would be impossible. Networks keep the person who fills the pail from also having to put out the fire.

The Pony Express utilized its network of over 184 stations to prevent one horse-rider pairing from having to travel too far. Swing Stations facilitated mount exchanges, and Home Stations provided room and board for riders. By relaying mail from one node to the next, the service accomplished transcontinental delivery with (what was at the time) great efficiency.

So there you have it – three commonalities between modern email and the Pony Express. We hope you’ve enjoyed the history lesson. If you have any interesting insights pertaining to email or the Pony Express, feel free to share in the comments below!