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Collectors like stamp printers

(ran HP, HL, HC)

If stamp collectors were allowed to print stamps, what would they do? The answer, postal officials say, is try to print a lot of errors.

That's precisely what the officials say has happened with an 18-month-old project that has allowed postal customers to print their own stamps from vending machines. Patterned after highly successful European postal devices, the U.S. machines contain rolls of blank stamps whose value _ 19 cents to $99.99 _ is determined by how much money a customer inserts.

The first model was introduced in Oklahoma City on Aug. 20, 1992, and a second model was supposed to follow later that year. It never happened.

The main reason was what James Buie, manager of delivery and customer service equipment at the Postal Engineering Center in suburban Merrifield, Va., calls "the collector problem."

"We had quite a few problems with the collectors," he explained in an interview. "They kept trying things to make the machine fail, like putting their fingers over the stamp exit chute, trying to make the stamps overprint."

That would make for an exciting rarity, but all the collectors created was enough headaches for postal engineers to postpone introduction of a second model of the vending machines. It has taken that long for postal engineers and contractors to work out all the problems they encountered with the first version, a beige-colored machine made by ECA Gard that remains on duty at a number of post offices in the Washington area.

The second model, called the Unisys Postage and Mailing Center (or PMC in the postal lexicon), was placed on duty in the lobby of the Merrifield Post Office on Feb. 19. Stamp collectors were expected to be out in force to get first-day cancellations of stamps generated by the machine. So were postal engineers, if only to keep the collectors from attempting to foil these machines.

Stamps dispensed by the new machines feature the same relatively bland red and blue design of the stamps used in the first machine. Designed by Joe Brockert of the Postal Service, the stamps feature patriotic bunting under a federal shield and the lettering "USA." The stamp's value will be printed by the machine on each stamp as it is sold.

After collectors were discovered printing large numbers of one-cent stamps on the first machines, the Postal Serveice raised the minimum price for a stamp to 19 cents, the rate needed for postal cards.