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Ancient communication methods - Pigeons

One of the earliest recorded forms of long-distance communication made use of pigeons. As early as 2900 B.C. in Egypt, a ship returning from an extended trip would announce its arrival well in advance by releasing carrier pigeons it had on board. Around 2350 B.C., during the reign of King Sargon of Akkad in Mesopotamia, royal messengers carried not just mail and goods but also at least one pigeon. If attacked, a messenger would release a pigeon. The return of the pigeon to the palace was taken as a warning that the original messenger had been intercepted and that a new messenger should be sent, presumably by another route.

It has been speculated that the ancient oracles, such as the one at Delphi, could have received early notification of events by the use of pigeons, thus enabling the oracles to know breaking news before their visitors did.

Pigeon post
Pigeon post is the use of homing pigeons to carry messages. As a method of communication, it is likely as old as the ancient Persians from whom the art of training the birds probably came. The Romans used pigeon messengers to aid their military over 2000 years ago. Frontinus said that Julius Ceasar used pigeons as messengers in his conquest of Gaul. The Greeks conveyed the names of the victors at the Olympic Games to their various cities by this means.

Before the telegraph this method of communication had a considerable vogue amongst stockbrokers and financiers. The Dutch government established a civil and military system in Java and Sumatra early in the 19th century, the birds being obtained from Baghdad. In 1851, the German-born Paul Julius Reuter opened an office in the City of London which transmitted stock market quotations between London and Paris via the new Calais to Dover cable. Reuter had previously used pigeons to fly stock prices between Aachen and Brussels, a service that operated for a year until a gap in the telegraph link was closed.

Details of the employment of pigeons during the siege of Paris in 1870-71 led to a revival in the training of pigeons for military purposes. Numerous 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. After pigeon post between military fortresses had been thoroughly tested, attention was turned to its use for naval purposes, to send messages to ships in nearby waters. It was also used by news agencies and private individuals at various times. Governments in several countries established lofts of their own. Laws were passed making the destruction of such pigeons a serious offense; premiums to stimulate efficiency were offered to private societies, and rewards given for destruction of birds of prey. Before the advent of radio, pigeons were used by newspapers to report yacht races, and some yachts were actually fitted with lofts.

During the establishment of formal pigeon post services, the registration of all birds was introduced. At the same time, in order to hinder the efficiency of the systems of foreign countries, difficulties were placed in the way of the importation of their birds for training, and in a few cases falcons were specially trained to interrupt the service war-time, the Germans having set the example by employing hawks against the Paris pigeons in 1870-71. No satisfactory method of protecting the weaker birds seems to have been developed, though the Chinese formerly provided their pigeons with whistles and bells to scare away birds of prey. However, as radio telegraphy and telephony were developed, the use of pigeons became limited to fortress warfare as early as in the 1910s. As an example, the British Admiralty discontinued its pigeon service in the early 20th century, although it had attained a remarkably high standard of efficiency. Nevertheless, large numbers of birds were still kept at the great inland fortresses of France, Germany and Russia at the outbreak of the First World War.


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