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Before 1891, folks who wanted to send a letter would have to visit their local post office to do so. Philip Downing invented a metal mailbox that is the predecessor for the modern version of the ones we use today.

Downing was born March 22, 1857 in Providence, R.I., although some have written that he hailed from Ontario, Canada. His father, George, was a successful businessman and abolitionist, and his grandfather, Thomas, set the tone for the family in similar fashion.

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The first of Downing’s inventions, the “New and Useful Improvements in Street Railway Switches,” approved in June 1890, allowed train operators to switch on and off power and proper times from the train cabin.

On October 27, 1891, Downing’s patent for the “Street Letter Box” made it possible for residents to leave their mail inside a tall metal box for the postman to pick up and take to their home post office. The Street Letter Box was fashioned with a self-closing hinge door that kept mail safe from the elements and potential thievery.

In 1917, Downing was issued a patent for a handheld envelope moistener, and the following year, he invented a new type of desktop notepad.

Downing eventually settled in Boston after living across New England and in Washington, D.C. He passed on June 7, 1934 at 77.

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