This was the world’s first mechanical sorting machine. It’s called the ‘Transorma’, which is an abbreviation of ‘transporting ’ and ‘sorting’ and the initials of both inventors Marchant and Andriessen.

The machine was invented in the 1920s and first used in the 1930s. Before then mail was sorted manually in ‘pigeon holes’. The fastest sorters could sort up to 1,800 letters per hour.

At the beginning of the 19th century, more and more people started sending mail. This increased the need for a faster, mechanical sorting process. Sorters who operated this machine were called ‘Transormists’. To become a ‘Transormist’ required special training. Sorters had to memorise all the regional place names, and corresponding routing code as well as the codes of countries in the world.  

The mail was deposited in large bundles in a black bin. The ‘Transormist’ would enter the code of the city on the top letter into a panel. The letter disappeared into a transport tray and be transported upwards and then deposited into a blue tray. The blue trays ran along the entire length of the machine and worked with the help of a fan system. The entered code corresponded with a specific mailbox and corresponding position of the fan. Letters were mechanically sorted into the right box via this system. 

The sorting machine could sort 3,000 letters per hour, almost twice as much as done manually. The machine contained more mail boxes than a manual sorting system. This Transorma is relatively small, with just 160 mailboxes. Most machines had over 400 boxes.

If the ‘Transormist’ entered the code too early or late, the letter would end up in the ‘0’ box and have to sorted again.

The Transorma was so efficient that it was installed in over 20 of the largest post offices in the Netherlands, including The Hague, Rotterdam, Haarlem, Utrecht, Den Bosch and Breda. This one was used in the post office in Breda until 1956.

In the 1960s, a new sorting machine was introduced. The new machine could sort over 20,000 letters per hour. This new version replaced all Transormas. The last Transorma was used until 1981.

Modern sorting machines operate electronically and can sort up to 40,000 letters per hour. They use modern scan technology that recognises hand writing. The Transorma is still used in some countries, such as remote locations in Brazil.

Fun fact

“Transorma matches” were organised for personnel of the Dutch Mail (PTT). The person who could sort the most letters in the shortest possible time, and made the least number of mistakes would win.