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Dead medium: the pigeon post
Source(s): *Ancient Inventions* by Peter James and Nick Thorpe Ballantine Books 1994 $29.95 ISBN 0-345-36476-7

An extraordinarily interesting new book that deserves a place of honor on the shelf of any dead tech enthusiast. Some of its speculations (the ancient Peruvians may have had hot-air balloons, the Parthians apparently had chemical batteries) seem a tad far-fetched; but the book is all the more interesting for that. This book is remarkably erudite, well- documented, very wide-ranging, over six hundred pages long, and its illustrations are particularly apt.

The book's brief chapter on "Communications" in very close in spirit to my idea of an eventual tome on Dead Media, if I ever get around to writing one.

page 526

"Airmail Service

"The earliest mention of domesticated pigeons comes from the civilization of Sumer, in southern Iraq, from around 2000 BC. Most likely it was the Sumerians who discovered that a pigeon or dove will unerringly return to its nest, however far and for however long it is separated from its home. The first actual records of their use as carrier birds comes from Egypt. By the twelfth century BC pigeons were being used by the Egyptians to deliver military communications. And it was in the Near East that the art of pigeon rearing and trainind was developed to a peak of perfection by the Arabs during the Middle Ages.

"The caliphs who ruled the Moslem Empire after the death of Muhammed in AD 632 developed the pigeon post into a regular airmail system in the service of the state. Postmasters in the Arab empire were also the eyes and ears of the government, and with the local postal centers stocked with well-trained pigeons there was little chance of the caliphs failing to be warned of potential troublemakers in the provinces.

"The state airmail was occasionally employed for more lighthearted purposes. Aziz, the caliph of North Africa between AD 975 and 976, one day had a craving for the tasty cherries grown at Baalbek, in Lebanon. His vizier arranged for six hundred pigeons to be dispatched from Baalbek, each with a small silk bag containing a cherry attached to its leg. The cherries were safely delivered to Cairo, the first recorded example of parcel post by airmail in history.

"The Arab pigeon-post system was adopted by the Turkish conquerors of the Near East. Sultan Baybars, ruler of Egypt and Syria (AD 1266-1277), established a well-organized pigeon post throughout his domains. Royal pigeons had a distinguishing mark, and nobody but the Sultan was allowed to touch them. Training pigeons for postal work became an industry in itself, and a pair of well-trained birds could bring as much as a thousand gold pieces. The royal pigeon post was also invaluable as an advance warning system during the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. When Timur the Mongol conquered Iraq in AD 1400, he tried to eradicate the pigeon post along with the rest of the Islamic communications network.

"The Chinese seem to have learned the art of pigeon training from the Arabs. Strangely, for a civilization with such a well-organized bureaucracy, the state never established an intelligence network using carrier pigeons, which were generally used only for commercial purposes. The Arabs also reintroduced the skill to medieval Europe, where it had lapsed after the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century AD. After the collapse of the Roman light telegraph system, the pigeon post was left as the fastest means of communication in the world. And so it remained unto the perfection of the electric telegraph (by Samuel Morse in 1844) and radio (by Guglielmo Marconi in 1895).

"It was normal practice, even well into this century, for navies, military installations and even businessmen to have pigeons on the payroll. The range of tasks for which pigeons have been employed has changed little since ancient times."