The first known use of pigeons as postal messengers was in ancient Egypt. In 2900 B.C.E. in Egypt, incoming ships released pigeons as an announcement of important visitors. Around the time of Moses, the Egyptian army used carrier pigeons to deliver messages. In 2350 B.C.E. King Sargon of Akkadia—the present Iraq—ordered each messenger to carry a homing pigeon. If the messenger was about to be captured, he released the pigeon, which flew back to the palace. Its arrival meant another messenger should be sent. Pigeons also bore messages in ancient China, Persia, India, and Greece, where the names of Olympic victors were carried back to their cities.
During the Dark Ages the Arabs established regular airmail pigeon courier services. According to one tale, a caliph in North Africa satisfied his taste for Lebanese cherries by having pigeons fly them in. Each carried one cherry inside a silk bag. It was the first parcel post. Reportedly, a prize pair of carrier pigeons in the Arab empire could fetch one thousand gold pieces.
During the Crusades Richard the Lion Heart's men captured a pigeon that carried a message reporting that a Moslem army would arrive in three days to break the Christian siege of Ptolemais. A forged message was substituted, saying that no help would be coming. The besieged town surrendered. The Moslem relief army arrived to find the Christians solidly entrenched.
Pigeon post was the world's fastest communication system for all the centuries of the Dark and Middle Ages, and remained so until Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph in 1844 and Guglielmo Marconi's invention of radio in 1895. Stockbrokers and bankers relied on pigeons through much of the nineteenth century. London banker Nathan Rothschild made a killing when a pigeon brought early news of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. In 1840 the European news agency Havas ran a London-to-Paris pigeon news service with the promised flying time of six hours. In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, a gap existed in telegraph lines between France and Germany. Julius Reuter bridged it with pigeons and made the fortune he used as the basis of what is now Reuters, one of the world's great news agencies.
During World War I, The American army kept several thousand homing pigeons. The fledgling British Air Force kept more than 20,000 for an unusual mission—intelligence gathering. Each pigeon, with a message holder attached, was placed inside a basket that was attached to both a parachute and a rigged balloon. When the wind was right, the balloons would be released. The rigging freed the basket over enemy territory, and the parachute gave the pigeon inside the basket a gentle landing. A message asked anyone who found the basket to supply intelligence information, put it in the message holder, and, for a promised future reward, free the pigeon to fly home. The Germans caught some of the birds and responded by shooting anyone they caught who sent a pigeon aloft with information.
Even in modern times, pigeons have been postal couriers. In 1981, Lockheed engineers in California needed to send negatives on a regular basis to a test station. The birds covered the distance in half the time and less than one percent of the cost of a car. Other means of communication have replaced the cooing messengers, but here and there they can still be found doing the useful work that made them the email of the Middle Ages. And they work for… pigeon feed.
Alphabet to Internet
Mediated Communication in Our Lives
by Irving Fang
Rada Press, forthcoming, 2008