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Dead medium: the pigeon post
From: (Bruce Sterling)
Source(s): OLD POST BAGS: The Story of the Sending of a Letter in Ancient and Modern Times by Alvin F. Harlow D Appleton and Company, New York 1928 383 H227o University of Texas

(((Harlow's charmingly dated work takes an extensive interest in the pigeon post.)))

page 447

"(...) it is said that during the siege of Acre by Lion- Hearted Richard of England, the town kept up communication with Saladin, the Saracen leader, by pigeon. Another good story is that during the siege of Ptolemais the crusaders captured a pigeon carrying to the city news that the sultan was bringing an army to its relief, and would arrive in three days. The captors substituted a forged letter in which the sultan was made to say that he could do nothing at the moment, and released the bird again; and by this the town was so much discouraged that it promptly surrendered. When the sultan arrived three days later he found the stronghold in the hands of the Christians.

"(...) it seems probable that they were used by the Venetian Admiral Dandolo in the siege of Candia in 1204, at the siege of Haarlem by Frederick of Toledo in 1572 and of Leyden by the Spaniards in 1575, and coming down to a later day, at the seige of Antwerp by the French in 1832.

"Early in the nineteenth century, when the lottery craze was in full blast, pigeons were sometimes used to hasten the announcement of the winning number, especially by shrewd tricksters. This was common between Paris, a great lottery center, and Brussels, a large consumer of lottery tickets. One operator, by means of very swift pigeons, gave his Belgian confederates the winning numbers, which they proceeded to buy up, if possible, before the official news arrived. In this manner the schemer acquired a considerable fortune; but his device was finally discovered, and being somehow construed as fraudulent, he spent the rest of his life at hard labor in the galleys of Toulon.

"Nathan Meyer Rothschild, head of the London branch of his family's banking business, was one of the earliest of modern financiers to use pigeons to bring the latest market news from other capitals of Europe. He spent considerable sums on his pigeon cotes, and was always ready to buy birds noted for unusual speed. There is a story that he received by pigeon the new of the French defeat at Waterloo, which he at first pretended had been a British defeat, and thus made a killing on the Stock Exchange. (...)

"Pigeons were thereafter used by stock brokers, especially in England and France (where they were called *pigeons de la Bourse*) until the invention of the electric telegraph. They usually flew between London and the French coast in an hour and a half. (...)

"Julius Reuter, founder of the great press-dispatch service bearing his name, used pigeons in his first press line. (...) there were telegraph lines from Paris to Brussels, and from Berlin to Aix-le-Chapelle; and to hook these two together he established a pigeon line between Brussels and Aix. (...)

"Probably the most famous pigeon messenger service in all history was that which was carried on during the German siege of Paris in 1870-1871. (...)

"One by one the great city's communications with the outer world were severed. A telegraph line cunningly hidden in the bed of the Seine was discovered by the Germans and cut. The Director-General of Posts and Telegraphs caused light copper balls to be made, in which letters were floated down the Seine by night; but the enemy soon discovered the trick, stretched a net across and gathered them all in.

(...) "Parisian balloons continued to land in various parts of Europe, sometimes just where they should not be. One travelled all the way to Norway and landed eight hundred and forty miles from Paris. Another fell into the North Sea and the aeronaut was drowned, but his letters were saved. The Germans devised anti-aircraft guns, but did not hit any of the mail carriers. One aeronaut told of seeing cannon balls come almost to his basket, then fall back. Some balloonists fell in or near the German lines and underwent heroic adventures.

"The Parisian balloons were made of thin cotton cloth, covered with two or three coats of a varnish composed of linseed oil and oxide of lead, and were inflated with the illuminating gas used to light the streets. From Metz, during its seige, smaller balloons made of various materials were sent out without human occupants. The correspondent of the *Manchester Guardian* planned the first one, which was made of strong white paper and inflated by means of a wisp of lighted straw under it, the stock of coal in the city being too small to permit the use of gas. It carried eight thousand letters in a rubber cloth wrapper, accompanied by a note promising one hundred francs reward to anyone who found the package and took it to the nearest postmaster or the mayor of the commune and got a receipt for it. Others sent out later were made of thin paper lined with muslin, or of varnished cotton cloth, inflated with atmospheric air by means of a rotary fan.

(...) "After this modern demonstration of the value of pigeons, they were taken up by nearly all the European armies, and special attention given to their breeding and training. During the recent Great War in Europe they were extensively used. The First and Second American Armies in France had one thousand birds each, and the Third Army six hundred and forty. Counting the instruction and breeding sections, we had over five thousand three hundred pigeons in France.

"In the Meuse-Argonne offensive, 442 American pigeons were used, and 403 important messages delivered by them. One bird delivered fifty messages. The pigeons were carried from their automobile 'lofts' to the trenches in baskets slung on soldiers' backs. There were gas-proof bags for the baskets in case of a gas attack. But a pigeon might be liberated during such an attack and come through safely, presumably because it rose above the gas. The pigeon-veterans' home at Fort Monmouth still houses many veterans of the Great War, some of them bearing honorable scars. 'Cher Ami,' who lost a leg on the Verdun front, frequently delivered messages over a thirty- kilometer front in twenty-four minutes. 'The Mocker' had an eye shot out. 'President Wilson' was liberated with an important message on November 5, 1918, during an intense machine gun and artillery fire, and reached his loft at Rampont, forty kilometers distant, in twenty-five minutes. On the way one leg had been shot off and his breast pierced by a bullet. The message was still hanging to the ligaments of the torn leg. A few months ago President Wilson was still alive at Fort Monmouth."