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Dead medium: the pigeon post
Source(s): The Pigeon Post into Paris 1870-1871 by John Douglas Hayhurst Published by the author at 65, Ford Bridge Road, Ashford Middlesex 1970

Dewey: 383.144 H331p University of Texas Library

Since discovering this privately printed work, I've come to suspect that the strange story of the pigeon post during the seige of Paris is the sine qua non of dead media.

In the 1870s the pigeon post was a hobbyist's niche medium. Under the intense conditions of warfare between major industrial powers, this medium mutated and grew explosively.

With the energy of a whole nation diverted into a desperate need to communicate with the capital, there emerged a sudden technical nexus of hot-air balloons, magic lanterns, and photography (all of these were experimental technologies, all of them pioneered by the French). Unknown entrepreneurs suddenly became the linchpin of a seamless national communications system, combining pigeons, balloons, telegraphy, trains, messenger boys, magic lanterns, typesetting, handwriting and microphotography.

There was explosive, repeated growth in bandwidth, until the message-space within one gram of weight suddenly became too cheap to meter (though it was still metered). Large-scale currency transfers took place through pigeons (via microdot mail-orders). Encoded, compressed post- cards were invented (the *depeches responses*). Cryptography was used (by and for the government). There was hacking by the system administrator (when Dagron the microfilmist and war profiteer suddenly became the de facto postmaster of Paris, he discovered that he had many friends who didn't care to bother with normal allocation of channels).

And last but not least, information warfare took place, practiced by the besieging Prussians, who used forged messages sent through captured pigeons.

It was all over in 6 months, a skyrocketing arc of development followed by near-total media extinction, commemorated with medals, folklore and bronze pigeon statuary, but never to be repeated on such a scale again.

John Douglas Hayhurst, O.B.E., would appear to be (or have been) primarily a postal historian and philatelist. His slender 45-page history is a real treasure. (((My comments are in triple parens.)))

page 2

"As had been expected, the normal channels of communication into and out of Paris were interrupted during the four and a half months of the siege, and, indeed, it was not until the middle of February 1871 that the Prussians relaxed their control of the postal and telegraph services. With the encirclement of the city on 18th September, the last overhead telegraph wires were cut on the morning of 19th September, and the secret telegraph cable in the bed of the Seine was located and cut on 27th September. Although a number of postmen suceeded in passing through the Prussian lines in the earliest days of the seige, others were captured and shot, and there is no proof of any post, certainly after October, reaching Paris from the outside, apart from private letters carried by unofficial individuals.

"Five sheep dogs experienced in driving cattle into Paris were flown out by balloon with the intention of their returning carrying mail; after release they were never again seen. (((So much for "Sheepdog Post," a truly abortive medium.))) Equally a failure was the use of zinc balls (the *boules de Moulins*) filled with letters and floating down the Seine; not one of those balls was recovered during the seige. (...) (((A pity for enthusiasts of floating zinc-ball media.)))

page 3

"Millions of letters were carried outward from Paris by balloon but free balloons could not offer a reliable means of inward communication since they were at the mercy of the wind and could not be directed to a predetermined destination. The only balloon which made even a start of a return flight to Paris was the *Jean Bart 1* which left Rouen on 7th November but, after a first hop which took it 20 km towards Paris, the wind changed and further attempts were abandoned. During January 1871, a fleet of free balloons was being assembled at Lille but the armistice prevented it from being put into operation. Self- propelled dirigible balloons were then in their infancy and whilst, on 9th January, the *Duquesne,* fitted with two propellers, left Paris bound for Besancon and Switzerland, it got only as far as Reims. For an assured communication into Paris, the only successful method was by the time-honored carrier pigeon, and thousands of messages, official and private, were thus taken into the besieged city. (...)"

page 8

"Savelon has deduced the monthly statistics as:

September & October 1870 : 105 released, 22 arrived

November 1870: 83 released, 19 arrived

December 1870: 49 released, 12 arrived

January 1871: 43 released, 3 arrived

February 1871: 22 released, 3 arrived

"The weather was not the only hazard facing the pigeons: there were their natural enemies the hawks and there were countrymen with their shotguns seeking food for their families. (...) The best pigeons would have been the first to be used and as time passed the birds would have been less trained and so less likely to return safely to Paris. It was therefore no mean achievement that, on 59 occasions, they did succeed in getting back to their lofts. Their achievement was commemorated in the monument by Bartholdi and Rubin at the Porte des Ternes in Paris which was unveiled on 28th January 1906 and melted down by the Germans in 1944; around the central representation of a balloon were four pedestals each bearing a pair of bronze pigeons. (...)"