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Celebrating Penny Black

One of the more instrumental traits was the entrepreneurial spirit shown by the inventor of the Penny Black, Rowland Hill. An “exceptional man” by all accounts, he had shown his inventiveness in various avenues: running his father’s school, in his leisure as a fine artist, as well as in social reform.

Hill turned his attention to reforming the Post Office and came up with a bold new system: send a letter anywhere in the UK for the cost of a penny.  His proposal came to the attention of the Postmaster General, and it is said that in this interaction sprung the idea for “a small adhesive label that could be struck on an envelope to indicate pre-payment”.

Although criticised by some experts of the day, he had backing from other prominent entrepreneurs; most notably receiving the support of Henry Cole, who (among other things) invented the Christmas card. With this ambitious group leading the charge, Parliament ordered Hill’s new postal system to be put in place with Hill to head the operations.

After calling for a national design competition, the winning design eventuated through a collaborative effort. On 20 February 1840, the Queen approved the completed design and by the 6th May, they were on sale.

Barring a few dissenters, the new postal system and Penny Black were an almost immediate success. Tens of millions became hundreds of millions of letters being sent every year. Families were reunited; friends shared thoughts and ideas more easily; businesses boomed, and perhaps most importantly, there was mass social reform as this new method of communicating increased literacy rates.

The Penny Black is an important invention that revolutionised communication and added to British innovative history.

Penny Black 1840
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