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Dead medium: the pigeon post; the balloon post
From: (Marcus J Ranum)
Source(s): Encyclopedia Britannica 11th edition

"The use of homing pigeons to carry messages is as old as Solomon, and the ancient Greeks, to whom the art of training birds came probably from the Persians, conveyed the names of Olympic victors to their various cities by this means. Before the electric telegraph this method of communication had a considerable vogue amongst stockbrokers and financiers.

"The Dutch government established a civil and military pigeon system in Java and Sumatra early in the 19th century, the birds being obtained from Bagdad.

"Details of the emplyment of pigeons in the siege of Paris in 1870-71 will be found in the article Post and Postal Service: France. This led to a revival in the training of pigeons for military purposes. Numerous private societies were established for keeping pigeons of this class in all important European countries; and, in time, various governments established systems of communication for military purposes by pigeon post.

"When the possibility of using the birds between military fortresses had been thoroughly tested attention was turned to their use for naval purposes, to send messages between coast stations and ships at sea. They are also found of great use by news agencies and private individuals. Governments have in several countries established lofts of their own. Laws have been passed making the destruction of such pigeons a serious offence; premiums to stimulate efficiency have been offered to private societies, and rewards given for destruction of birds of prey.

"Pigeons have been used by newspapers to report yacht races, and some yachts have actually been fitted with lofts. It has also been found of great importance to establish registration of all birds. (((mjr: bird escrow? Clipper birds?)))

"In order to hinder the efficiency of the systems of foreign countries, difficulties have been placed in the way of the importation of birds for training, and in a few cases falcons have been specially trained to interrupt the service in war-time, the Germans having set the example by deploying hawks against the Paris pigeons in 1870-71.

"No satisfactory method of protecting the weaker birds seems to have been evolved, though the Chinese formerly provided their birds with whistles and bells to scare away birds of prey.

"In view of the development of wireless telegraphy, the modern tendency is to consider fortress warfare as the only sphere in which pigeons can be expected to render really valuable services. Consequently, the British Admiralty has discontinued its pigeon service, which had attained a high standard of efficiency, and other powers will no doubt follow the example. Nevertheless, large numbers of the birds are, and will presumably continue to be, kept at the great inland fortresses of France, Germany, and Russia.


"The ingenuity of the French postal authorities was severely tried by the exigencies of the German War of 1870-1. The first contrivance was to organize a pigeon service carrying microscopic despatches prepared by the aid of photographic appliances. The number of postal pigeons employed was 363 if which number 57 returned with despatches.

"During the height of the siege the English postal authorities received letters for transmission by pigeon post into Paris by way of Tours subject to the regulation that no information concerning the war was given, that the number of words did not exceed twenty, that the letters were delivered open, at 5d a word, with a registration fee of 6d prepaid as postage. At this rate the postage of the 200 letters on each folio was L40, that on the eighteen pellicles of sixteen folios each, carried by one pigeon, L11,520. Each despatch was repeated until its arrival had been acknowledged by balloon post; consequently many were sent off twenty and sometimes more than thirty times.

"The second step was to establish a regular system of postal balloons, fifty one being employed for letter service and six for telegraphic service. To M. Durnouf belongs much of the honour of making the balloon service successful. On the basis of experiments carried out by him a decree of the 26th of September 1870 regulated the new postal system. Out of sixty-four several ascents, each costing on the average L200, fifty-seven achieved their purpose, notwithstanding the building by Krupp of twenty guns, supplied with telescopic apparatus, for the destruction of the postal balloons. Only five were captured, and two others lost at sea.

"The aggregate weight of the letters and newspapers thus aerially mailed by the French post office amounted to about eight tons and a half, including upwards of 3,000,000 letters; and besides the aeronauts, ninety-five passengers were conveyed.

"The heroism displayed by the French balloon postmen was equalled by that of many of the ordinary letter carriers in the conveyance of letters through the catacombs and quarries of Paris and its suburbs, and, under various disguises, often through the midst of the Prussian army. Several lost their lives in the discharge of their duty, in some cases saving their dispatches by the sacrifice."