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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

(((Hayhurst's tale continues and the highly intriguing figure known only as "Dagron" makes his appearance on the dead media stage.)))

"At the Exposition Universelle of 1867 in Paris, a photographer, Dagron, had demonstrated a remarkable standard of microphotography which he had described in "Traite de Photographie Microscopique" published in Paris in 1864. (...) Arrangements were made for him to leave Paris by balloon, accompanied by two colleagues, Fernique and Poisot, the latter being his son-in-law. For making the journey by balloon, Dagron was to receive 25,000 francs (to be paid by the delegation at Tours) and Fernique 15,000 francs (to be paid before he left Paris). In the event of their deaths during the journey, their widows would each have an annual pension of 3,000 francs for life.

"They departed on 12th November in the appropriately named balloons *Niepce* and *Daguerre,* but the latter, with the equipment and pigeons in it, was shot down, fell within the Prussian lines and was lost. The *Niepce* was also shot down and landed in Prussian-held territory, but Dagron and his companions just escaped capture, losing still more of their equipment and becoming separated.

"Shorn of his equipment and finding unsatisfactory replacements at Tours, Dagron failed to achieve what he had promised by way of.... images 'prenant le nom du point,' in other words, microdots. Dagron had sought to reproduce a page of the *Moniteur* in 1 sq mm (...) Dagron finally attained success on 11th December (...) Thereafter, all the despatches were on microfilm, with a reduction of rather more than forty diameters, a performance that even today evokes admiration and yet he was achieving it a century ago. These later microfilms weighed about 0.05 gm and a pigeon would carry up to 20 of them. (...)

"The introduction of the Dagron microfilms eased any problems there might have been in claims for transport since their volumetric requirements were very small. For example: one tube sent during January contained 21 microfilms, of which 6 were official despatches and 15 were private (...) In order to improve the chances of the despatches successfully reaching Paris, the same despatch was sent by several pigeons; one official despatch was repeated 35 times and the later private despatches were repeated on average 22 times. (...) The practice was the send off the despatches not only by pigeons of the same release but also of successive releases until Paris signalled the arrival of those despatches.

"When the pigeon reached its particular loft in Paris, its arrival was announced by a bell in the trap in the loft. Immediately, a watchman relieved it of its tube which was taken to the Central Telegraph Office where the content was carefully unpacked and placed between two thin sheets of glass. The photographs are said to have been projected by magic lantern on to a screen where the enlargement could be easily read and written down by a team of clerks. This should certainly be true for the microfilms but the earlier despatches on photographic paper were read through microscopes.

"The transcribed messages were written out on forms (telegraph forms for private messages, with or without the special annotation 'pigeon' ) and so delivered. (...) The first private messages got to their destinations fairly quickly, but with the increasing volume of traffic during and after November and the deterioration of the weather from mid-December, from handing in to delivery could easily span two months."

page 20

"The despatches

"The content of nearly every despatch, official and private, which was photographed is known today. As has already been said, the letterpress of each set of private despatches was used to provide a permanent printed record and a total of 580 pages were bound together in six volumes, a set of which is in the Musee Postal. (...)

"The official despatches (...) were in a mixture of numerical cypher and clear language (...) The greater part of all the official despatches was in manuscript; messages in manuscript could be produced more quickly than in letterpress (...)

"Before leaving the official despatches , it is appropriate to mention two bogus official despatches sent by the Prussians. When the *Daguerre* fell within enemy lines on 12th November, 6 pigeons were saved from the Prussians and used to notify Paris of the loss of the balloon. The remaining pigeons were caught by the Prussians who later released 6 of them with messages calculated to dismay Paris. One message was:

'Rouen 7 decembre. A gouvernement Paris -- Rouen occupe par Prussians, qui marchent sur Cherbourg. Population rural les acclame; deliberez. Orleans repris par ces diables. Bourges et Tours menaces. Armee de la Loure completement defaite. Resistance n'offre plus plus aucune chance de salut, A Lavertujon'

"The pigeons reached Paris on 9th December going to the loft of Nobecourt, whose father carried the message to Rampont. The fraud was apparent; it was known that Nobecourt had been captured and Lavertujon, a French official, was actually in Paris. Another message in similar terms arrived addressed to the editor of *Figaro.* These messages were tied to the pigeons with ordinary thread, whereas the French always used wax thread; further evidence of the attempt at deception. The conclusion that the message had come from the enemy was, however, scant consolation for the bitterness of learning almost immediately that they were partly true: Rouen and Orleans were in Prussian hands."

page 30

"(((The pigeon post service))) permitted the transmission of postal orders with a maximum value of 300 francs (...) 1,370 orders with a value of 190,000 francs were sent by pigeon.

"(...) the use of *depeches responses.* The method of operation was announced to the public inside and outside Paris in a special supplement to No 7 of the *Gazette des Absents* (one of the miniature newspapers published for carriage out of Paris by balloon) and again in No 8. In a letter written in Paris and addressed outside, a correspondent could ask four questions, each capable of being answered by a 'yes' or 'no.' With the letter would go a card purchased at a post office for the price of the 5 centimes postage stamp affixed to it. The recipient of the letter then entered in four columns his answers as *oui* or *non* on the card, taking care to get the order right, affixed a 1 franc postage stamp to the card, and sent it to the designated post office.

(((The cards were sent to the microfilmist Dagron at his labs in Tours and Bordeaux.))) The message, consisting of the address, the ouis and nons transcribed as o's and n's, and the replier's name, was included in a page among messages in clear language, and the whole photographed and, in due course, formed part of a despatch. (...) There were about 30,000 messages so abridged, representing about one-quarter of all the private messages.

"Also included in the private despatches were messages under the heading 'Services et Autorisations' which were intended to be official messages (...) There were many abuses and numerous messages which were so sent were personal message from officials with access to the service. Dagron himself sent many messages on behalf of others; these can be recognized by the real sender's name being followed by that of Dagron.

"The success of the pigeon post (...) did not pass unnoticed by the military forces of the European powers and in the years that followed the Franco-Prussian War pigeon sections were established in their armies. The advent of wireless communication led to a diminution of their employment although in certain particular applications pigeons provided the only method of communication. But never again were pigeons called upon to perform such a great public service as that which they had maintained during the seige of Paris."

(((Dagron died in Paris on 13th June 1900 at the age of 81.)))