With the popularity of cell phones and e-mail, it's already hard to imagine how people got along without them. Harder still is picturing life before the telegraph -- or even a sophisticated postal system. However, one of the most amazing early methods of communication endured from ancient times until well into the 20th century: the carrier pigeon.
For thousands of years, humans have recognized the remarkable homing mechanism of pigeons. If you release a homing pigeon hundreds of miles from its nest, it will invariably return home. It's as if they have a built-in GPS. In fact, we still don't know exactly how their homing mechanism works. Most researchers believe pigeons use a "map and compass method" by determining both direction from the sun and the earth's magnetic field.
Whatever the method they use, pigeons have served as invaluable to people who need to send important messages over long distances. In the process, some special pigeons have saved hundreds of lives and were even decorated by governments. We'll go over some of these remarkable stories in the following pages.
Brutus and the Siege of Modena
Ancient Greeks and Romans used homing pigeons to send all types of messages. As early as the 8th century B.C., Greeks used homing pigeons to send news of the Olympic champions. We also know of a Roman magistrate in the 4th century who sent a pigeon to merely say that he'd be late coming home from the theater.
But perhaps the greatest ancient use of carrier pigeons was in 44 B.C., during Marc Antony's siege of Modena (a city in Northern Italy, then known as Mutina). Marcus Junius Brutus successfully defended the city, thanks in part to his use of pigeons to send messages to his allies, Decimus and Hirtius.
Pliny the Elder actually writes about Brutus using pigeons, saying, "Of what avail were sentinels, circumvallations or nets obstructing the rivers, when intelligence could be conveyed by aerial messengers?"
The Rothschild Fortune and the Battle of Waterloo
The Rothschilds, the infamous European family and banking dynasty, can thank a pigeon for much of their large fortune.
The Battle of Waterloo in 1815 between England and France is now famous for being a pivotal loss for Napoleon Bonaparte. But at the time, before the age of the telegraph, news traveled slowly, and Europe waited anxiously for news of the victor.
The financial sector also held its breath, waiting to see whether the value of British government debt would rise with a victory -- or sink with a loss. But Rothschild had set up a sophisticated, multifaceted system of messengers and communication, including a pigeon post. Because of this, Rothschild was one of the first to know the outcome and capitalized on that knowledge. He found out a full 24 hours before the rest of London, and even before the government itself.
As it turns out, Napoleon's loss was Rothchild's gain.
The Pigeon Post During the Siege of Paris
By the 1870s, the telegraph had been well established, and one might suppose that the pigeon post was a thing of the past. However, pigeons continued to come through for people in dire circumstances.
This was the case when the Prussians besieged Paris in 1870, cutting off communication for months between the residents of the city and their families living far away. Thankfully, many pigeons were still kept by enthusiasts, and the Parisians were able to use hundreds of the birds to send messages to loved ones.
Because pigeons only return home, the Parisians had to send the pigeons out via balloon to send messages. The pigeons could then return with responses. Also, to send longer messages without overloading the bird, the people shank the messages by means of microphotography.
Cher Ami and the Lost Battalion
During World War I, an American 77th Infantry Division battalion accidentally wandered into enemy territory and found itself surrounded. Luckily, it had trained carrier pigeons with them, so soldiers sent them out. Amidst the enemy fire, only one pigeon emerged: a British-trained pigeon by the name of "Cher Ami."
A veteran, Cher Ami had already delivered about a dozen messages for the Americans. Flying 25 miles in 25 minutes, Cher Ami successfully arrived with the message and saved the lives of "The Lost Battalion." However, the heroic pigeon suffered a blow to the foot and head during his trip, dying later from the wounds.
Cher Ami was decorated by the French government, and is now stuffed on display in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History.
G.I. Joe to the Rescue
In October 1943, during World War II, the Americans were scheduled to bomb the German-occupied town of Colvi Vecchia in Italy. However, at the last minute, German defenses fell to the British 56th Infantry Brigade, and the Germans retreated. The British had the town now, but they needed to send word to the Americans to cancel the scheduled bombing.
Unfortunately, radio transmissions were failing, and the British had to rely on a pigeon by the name of "G.I. Joe" to deliver the message. The valiant G.I. Joe flew 20 miles in 20 minutes. He arrived in the nick of time, just before bombers lifted off, saving the town and 150 British troops. The British awarded G.I. Joe the Dickin Medal for Gallantry.
The U.S. Army maintained their "Pigeon Corps" until 1956. And in the 21st century in France, pigeons have been used to carry blood samples to testing facilities from remote locations.