Message For You, Sir: The History of Messages in Bottles and Balloon Mail

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Recently, a message in a bottle was discovered on a beach in Germany. Was it an S.O.S message or a wartime letter home? Nope. The bottle, which is thought to be dated between 1904 and 1906, contained a message from the Marine Biological Association of the U.K.

Although the bottle’s contents can be construed as a little anticlimactic, this story made the news because it is possibly the oldest message in a bottle ever discovered. And it only took 108 years for the bottle to reach human eyes.

So, if such long delays in delivery may be expected, how did alternative forms of written communication – most notably, messages in bottles and balloon mail – come to be?

Messages in Bottles

A message in a bottle is a well-known pop culture trope. It is the title of a Police song, a Nicholas Sparks novel, and a film. It is, simply, a message stuffed into a sealed container (glass, Pyrex, etc.) which is then set afloat in a body of water.

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Messages in bottles have been around for centuries and are used for a variety of purposes. The first known message was released circa 310 BC by Greek philosopher Theophrastus, whose intent was to study the current pattern of the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, many messages in bottles have been released for the scientific purpose of studying ocean currents. The Marine Biological Association of the U.K., which released the recently found 108 year-old bottle, set afloat some 1020 bottles in the early 1900s in order to track water flow patterns.

Of course, the more popular notion of messages in bottles is that the messages contained within are personal in some capacity. Several messages in bottles have been found containing delicate messages. Case in point: in 1999, a bottle was found off the coast of England containing an 85 year-old letter from a British soldier at war to his wife. The soldier died in combat two days after the message was set afloat; in effect, the message in a bottle was the soldier’s last attempt at reaching his family before his demise. The bottle was returned to his adult daughter upon discovery.

Balloon Mail

Balloon mail is, very simply, the transport of mail by a hydrogen or helium balloon. The balloons are historically unmanned and unguided, meaning that they are simply set afloat in the hopes of reaching a Good Samaritan who will then deliver the mail.

Why balloon mail? Historically, balloon mail arose out of necessity in times of war – specifically, out of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. French forces had no way to get messages out of Paris as opposing forces had cut telegraph lines and shot all couriers headed out of the city. French leaders would strap communications to unmanned balloons and set them afloat, to surprising success. Balloon mail was also sent from Poland during WWI.

In recent times, balloon messages have been set loose as part of competitions to see whose balloon can travel the furthest.

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