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Dead medium: the pigeon post
Source(s): The Early History of Data Networks by Gerard J. Holzmann and Bjorn Pehrson, IEEE Computer Society Press, 1995 TK 5115 H67 1994 ISBN 0-8186-6782-6 copies can be ordered from: IEEE Computer Society press Los Alamitos CA (book # 6782-04) $35 Phone 714-821-8380 FAX 714-821-4010

(((Gerard Holzmann is from the Computing Science Research Center at AT&T Bell Labs. Bjorn Pehrson is with the Department of TeleInformatics at the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. This book is obviously a labor of love involving years of tireless efforts in the archives, and it's hard to imagine a better book being written about the history and the technical details of optical telegraphy. Truly a must-have item for any serious dead media researcher; the book is worth the price for the meticulous bibliography alone. As a bonus, the entire first chapter is about long-distance media that are even older and dead than optical telegraphy -- including pigeon post.)))

(page 6)

"It is said that the outcomes of the Olympic Games in ancient Greece, around 776 BC, were sent by pigeons. But even in those days this must have been old news. As noted in a book by David Woods (((A history of tactical communications techniques, New York, Arno Press, reprint 1974))):

' the days of the Pharaohs the Egyptians announced the arrival of important visitors by releasing pigeons from incoming ships. This may have been common as early as 2900 BC.'

"The writer Harry Neal noted another ingenious use of pigeons from a few centuries later. He stated that King Sargon of Akkad, who lived ca. 2350 BC in Mesopotamia, had each of his messengers carry a homing pigeon. If the messenger was attacked en route, he released the pigeon. The return of the pigeon to the palace was taken as a warning that the original message had been 'lost,' and that a new messenger should be sent, presumably by another route.

"Homing pigeons were also used by the Romans, around the fourth century AD. In 1641, John Wilkins referred to it as follows ((("Mercury, or the secret and swift messenger, showing how a Man may with Privacy and Speed communicate his thoughts to a Friend" 1641, republished in Foundations in Semiotics Vol 6 1984)))

'Lypsius relates out of Varro, that it was usual for the Roman magistrates when they went unto the theatre, or other such public meetings, whence they could not return at pleasure, to carry a pigeon with them; that if any unexpected business should happen, they might thereby give warning to their friends or families at home.'

"The system was still in use some eight centuries later. Woods reports that in the twelfth century Genghis Khan (1167-1227) used a pigeon relay system to communicate messages across Asia and much of Europe. (...)

"Another seven centuries later, in 1918, the British Air Force kept over 20,000 homing pigeons, handled by 380 pigeoneers. The system was organized by Colonel A. H. Osman. Woods quotes him as follows:

'A small balloon was constructed with a metal [release-] band worked by clockwork. To this band was attached a small basket containing a single pigeon with a message holder on its leg, and to each basket was attached a small parachute. The balloons were liberated in favourable conditions of wind and at intervals automatically released from the special ring a single basket with a bird. These were dropped into Belgian and French territory when occupied by the Germans, and in French and Flemish a request was made to the finder to supply intelligence information that was needed, at the same time giving the finder hopefulness and cheer as to the ultimate success of the allies' cause and promising reward for the information supplied.

"Woods adds a sobering note:

'The Germans tried to stop this activity by replacing captured pigeons with their own birds, and then arresting and shooting anyone foolish enough to sign his name and address to the note.'

"With this much history, it is not surprising that pigeons were still used in 1981 by a group of engineers at a Lockheed plant in Sunnyvale, California, to transmit negatives of drawings to a test station 40 km away. As Jon Bentley described it: (((More Programming Pearls, Confessions of a Coder, Addison-Wesley 1988)))

The pigeon took just half the time and less than one percent of the dollar amount of the car (the birds worked, literally, for pigeon feed). Over a 16-month period the pigeons transmitted hundreds of rolls of film and lost only two."