Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Air Mail

I recently read a fascinating book, The Seven Ages of Paris, by historian Alistair Horne (Vintage, 2004). I’ll post a complete review here eventually, but in the meantime, here’s a fascinating bit about birds.

During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), communications in and out of the besieged city were almost impossible. Hot-air balloons were used to carry messages out of the city, but no return trips proved successful. Horne tells how the blockaded Parisians overcame this difficulty:
“It was the humble carrier-pigeon that was to prove the only means of breaking the blockade in reverse. A microphotography unit was set up in Tours, and there government despatches were reduced to a minute size, printed on feathery collodion membranes, so that one pigeon could carry up to 40,000 despatches, equivalent to the contents of a complete book. On reaching Paris, the despatches were projected by magic lantern, their contents transcribed by a battery of clerks. During the siege, 302 pigeons were sent off, of which 59 actually reached Paris. The remainder were taken by birds of prey, died of cold and hunger, or ended up in Prussian pies. As a counter-measure, the Prussians imported falcons, which prompted one of the many imaginative Parisian 'inventors' to suggest that the pigeons be equipped with whistles to frighten off the predators. When the war finally ended, there was talk of rewarding the noble birds (which some compared to the savior geese of Ancient Rome) by the incorporation of a pigeon in the city’s coat of arms.” (Horne, p. 256)
[Saviour geese of Rome? I’ll have to look that up.]

Microfilm technology, which had recently been developed by French inventor René Dagron (1819-1900) proved invaluable in producing very tiny, lightweight messages that contained large amounts of information. It was Dagron’s idea to use the microfilms to pass messages, rolling them so small that they could be inserted into goose quills, which were then attached to the pigeons' tail feathers.

Because pigeon mortality was high, the French typically sent copies of each despatch by several pigeons, to increase the likelihood that the information would arrive safely.

The pigeons were also used to sent private messages between citizens who could afford the service.

For more information, I recommend this history, which includes many interesting illustrations:

The Pigeon Post into Paris 1870-1871, by J.D. Hayhurst O.B.E.

For more fascinating images of the letters, etc., carried by the pigeons:

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