THE AIRGRAPH SERVICE (17 April 1941 to 31 July 1945)
In the early months of World War II, the Ministry of Transport in Great Britain was faced with serious problems in maintaining a postal service for forces stationed in the Middle East (GB controlled the Suez Canal from 1882 to 1952). After the French surrender to Germany in May of 1940, and with Italy a key Axis member, the western and central Mediterranean were under Axis control, with key parts of North Africa also Axis-dominated, thus closing the short route to the Atlantic.
The preferred alternative was to send mail by air, but space for mail by air was extremely limited, so letters to and from the Near and Far East were taking 3 to 6 months to reach their destination by the only method remaining - via ship around the southern tip of Africa.
The British Post Office realized that the solution could lie in the Kodak microfilm system (Recordak) that had been used for record-keeping by banks and other businesses since the early 1930's. It had even been proposed to the B.P.O. before in 1932, simply as a means of reducing the cost of sending mail, but it had been rejected then as unacceptable to the public. By 1940, however, things had changed dramatically, and almost anything that could aid the war effort seemed worth trying. Thus the "Airgraph" was born, the word becoming a registered trademark of Kodak Ltd., who controlled the process.
The basic concept was simple. Letters were photographed on the sending end, then the negatives were sent by air to the destination end, where they were printed and delivered. The volume and weight of the film were less than one fiftieth of the volume and weight of the letters, so a large number of letters could be transported quickly at a relatively small cost. The Kodak office in Cairo already had the equipment required to photograph the letters, and was able to start processing almost at once. Airgraph service started from Cairo on April 21, 1941, arriving in London May 13.
That first shipment comprised some 70,000 letters, a testament to someone's efforts to sell the concept. About 350,000 messages were sent during the first month of the service and over 500,000 in the second month.