Skip

What... is the Airspeed Velocity of an Avian Carrier?
September 8, 2009 1:03 PM   Subscribe

For thousands of years they were the worlds' fastest means of communication. Count Rothschild benefited financially when knew of Napoleon's defeat long before any other persons in England, thanks to a swift personal message. One critical message traveled 20 miles in 20 minutes and this speedy delivery saved 150 British troops from disaster by less than five minutes. But in 1851, 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 Dover-Calais cable, and the days of pigeon post as a means of quick and reliable message transfer passed with the implementation of wire-based communications. 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. One of the last large-scale use of carrier pigeons ended in 2002, when India retired its Police Pigeon Service, opting for email and telephone to access remote areas. Contrary to appearances, this was not the end of the pigeon post.

Though largely considered a spoof, IP over Avian Carriers was implemented by a group of Linux enthusiasts in Bergen, Norway in 2001, when they transferred a "ping" with help of Vesta Brevdueforening carrier pigeon club and Alan Cox, with a calculated network speed of 0.08bps (previously).

When it comes to tough terrain and limited to no wired or wireless access, homing pigeons provide a quick answer to data transfer. Photos taken by a rafting company are transferred via digital media files or 35mm canister attached to a pigeon, allowing photos to be developed or printed and ready more quickly, though data loss or delay due to predatory birds and bad weather are still an issue (via). In South Africa, homing pigeons beat out business ADSL in an unofficial test run, with a timed run contest set up to take place on September 10 (via).

More bird-racing fun: On calculating the speed of an unladen swallow, previously, and 4,233 replies on an account request procedure form for What... is the Airspeed Velocity of an Unladen Swallow?
posted by filthy light thief (48 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
For thousands of years they were the worlds' fastest means of communication.
Maybe of arbitrary communication, or at least simple arbitrary communication, but signal fires are much faster.
posted by Flunkie at 1:09 PM on September 8, 2009


Fantastic post. I particularly liked the bit about the rafting company using pigeons for photo transfer.
posted by pombe at 1:21 PM on September 8, 2009


This is my favorite image of the mighty pigeon!

Great post.
posted by palindromic at 1:26 PM on September 8, 2009


this was not the end of the pigeon post [more inside]

I see what you did there.
posted by fiercecupcake at 1:31 PM on September 8, 2009 [8 favorites]


That is a completely kick-ass FPP. Good on ya!
posted by five fresh fish at 1:33 PM on September 8, 2009




Oh my God, do we have to go through the messenger pigeon versus signal fire debate again? Jesus, you people will never let that one die, will you?
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:34 PM on September 8, 2009 [20 favorites]


*idly wondering what a dos attack would be like*
posted by Danf at 1:34 PM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oops, looks like I skipped a paragraph below the fold.
posted by lekvar at 1:35 PM on September 8, 2009


*idly wondering what a dos attack would be like*
posted by Danf at 4:34 PM on September 8


It looks like this.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:38 PM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


Everything I know about pigeons I learned from this in-depth PBS documentary, now free in its entirety on YouTube.
posted by rokusan at 1:41 PM on September 8, 2009 [2 favorites]


something like this

on preview: jinx
posted by danny the boy at 1:42 PM on September 8, 2009


Maybe of arbitrary communication, or at least simple arbitrary communication, but signal fires are much faster.

What about drum telegraphy? It's not as fast as the speed of light, and it requires a network of villages to travel more than a few miles, but it's usable in conditions without line of sight, it's bidirectional, and the materials involved are easy to make.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:47 PM on September 8, 2009


Wow, this is an excellent post. Thanks, filthy light thief!
posted by effugas at 1:49 PM on September 8, 2009


This picture of an war pigeon equipped for aerial photography is quite impressive. I'll have to work it into one of my presentations.
posted by jasonhong at 1:52 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Oops, looks like I skipped a paragraph below the fold.

I was trying to figure out the best way to format this post, and figured I'd hint at the more recent revival of carrier pigeon services, to keep the front page from being one huge article about carrier pigeons.

In the link about the South African business that tested their ADSL line vs. pigeon, they are currently spending 45,000 Rand (~$6,000 USD) per month, and pigeons could save them some 78% per month. This sort of "sneakernet" reminds me of the quip: Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway. Now it's bested by pigeons with MicroSD cards.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:57 PM on September 8, 2009


A new pigeonhole principle of zeros and ones?
posted by woodway at 2:00 PM on September 8, 2009


Oh my God, do we have to go through the messenger pigeon versus signal fire debate again? Jesus, you people will never let that one die, will you?

Both are hindered by bad weather. Carrier pigeon + MicroSD Card = Triumph.* I'd like to see your smoke signals send me a picture (of something other than smoke signals).

* Ignoring bird of prey.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:10 PM on September 8, 2009


If the Rothschild story interests you, Niall Ferguson's The Ascent of Money has a small piece on it, saying that Rothschild very nearly lost everything, having bought too much gold (envisioning the war to go on a lot longer than it did, thanks to Waterloo). The speedy message certainly helped him, as he started buying bonds, but he held on for a year until he sold.
posted by djgh at 2:11 PM on September 8, 2009


Excellent post!
Made me look up the story in China. Seems one the earliest claimed uses of a carrier pigeon to transmit a message in China is Liu Bang, who went on to found the Han Dynasty, in his wars with Xiang Yu; but one of the clearest early records is apparently in the Five Dynasties-era 开元天宝遗事 (author Wang Renyu d. 956):
张九龄少年时,家养群鸽。每与亲知书信往来,只以书系鸽足上,依所教之处,飞往投之。九龄目为飞奴,时人无不爱说。
When Zhang Jiuling was a child, he reared many pigeons at home. Whenever he wanted to communicate by letter with one of the people who were his sources of information, all he had to do was was tie it to one of the pigeon's legs, which would then fly to deliver it according to the place it had been taught to. Jiuling regarded them as his flying bondservants; they were the talk of all his contemporaries.
No-one talks about my flying bondservants at all. Must be doing it wrong.
posted by Abiezer at 2:12 PM on September 8, 2009


data loss or delay due to predatory birds and bad weather are still an issue

There can be other problems as well.
posted by weston at 2:13 PM on September 8, 2009


Pigeons have a faster data transfer rate than many commercially available ADSL connections.

But man, the lag when you're playing TF2 is HORRIBLE.
posted by GuyZero at 2:13 PM on September 8, 2009


Denial of Service attack
posted by Lleyam at 2:27 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Re: the Rothschild story, David Kynaston shoots down this particular pigeon in his history of the City of London:

During the latter stages of the Napoleonic Wars [Rothschild] made his fortune through the audacious conduct of crucial bullion operations on behalf of the British Government, in the course of which he was much helped by large credits from his four brothers who were based in various financial centres on the Continent. That was the prime source of his initial great wealth; it was not (contrary to legend) a major killing on the stock market from being on the inside track over the battle of Waterloo.

The story actually originated as an antisemitic myth. It suited a lot of people to believe that the Rothschild fortune came from war profiteering.
posted by verstegan at 2:33 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


lekvar's Pigeon Enabled Internet was such an exciting concept when my friends and I first heard about it five years ago, that we immediately set about trying our own network protocols.

Over a 100km distance, transmitting 4 gigs of data, thus far, the results stand like this:

Rabbit Enabled Internet: Packets made it 100m. Began to eat lawn.
Bumblebee Enabled Internet: Packets traveled 0m. Data too heavy. Packet grew angry and stung sysadmin.
Crow Enabled Internet: Status unknown. 100% packet loss, speculation: Crows took shiny data cards to play with.
Cat Enabled Internet: Packets traveled 110m after Rabbit packets and then disappeared. Speculation suggests that they are sleeping on the end of a bed somewhere.
Dog Enabled Internet: Status: 33% data transmitted. Dog ate card, taken to vet 100km away, at receive site.
Monkey Enabled Internet: Status: investigating. Monkey gained root access reprogrammed system to shock anyone who interfered. Then forced department budget into unknown bank account for the purposes of providing lifetime supply of food to an undisclosed location. Monkey whereabouts currently unknown.

So the moral of the story is, stick with pigeons, not only do they work better, they also don't steal all your funding and get you the nickname 'sparky'.

I hate monkeys.
posted by quin at 2:36 PM on September 8, 2009 [3 favorites]


Semaphore lines started operating decades before the telegraph and were also a considerable improvement on messenger pigeons in terms of speed.
posted by Authorized User at 2:50 PM on September 8, 2009


One common method of Denial of Service attack involves saturating the target with external communications requests.
posted by kyrademon at 2:53 PM on September 8, 2009


Birdman, motherfucka.

nsfw lyrics first link
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:56 PM on September 8, 2009


One critical message traveled 20 miles in 20 minutes

60 mph? No effing way...

Then I read this:
"Other authorities consider the homing pigeon to be the fastest bird because it can maintain a high rate of speed for long distances. It has been accurately measured at a speed of 94.3 MPH. One homing pigeon averaged 73 MPH over a distance of 182 miles, and several have flown over 90 MPH for distances of at least 80 miles."

I regret my ignorance in calling these magnificent birds "flying rats" and will never do so again.
posted by clearly at 3:12 PM on September 8, 2009



Oh my God, do we have to go through the messenger pigeon versus signal fire debate again? Jesus, you people will never let that one die, will you?


Well, I'm sick of that "light speed" canard. I mean, it's faster over a distance of, what, a hundred feet? Three hundred? Please. Talk to me when your signal-fire-relay can cover 20 miles before my pigeon does.

And, even THEN, when your highly trained relay-watchers and their expensive, prebuilt fire-stations can only transmit, basically, a SINGLE binary bit . . . well, just saying, Pigeons win every time.
posted by absalom at 3:16 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Back then, pigeon was also the best way to communicate a snarky response to Metafilter. If you sent it any other way, your reply would likely not meet the 30 day cut off.

Of course, getting the town crier to spend some time announcing Metafilter instead of 4chan was an even bigger challenge.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:17 PM on September 8, 2009


Oh my God, do we have to go through the messenger pigeon versus signal fire debate again?

All I know is while you guys waste hours messing around with your banding and your microfilm and dealing with mountains of pigeon shit full of viruses, my signal fire just works.
posted by rokusan at 3:44 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


And, even THEN, when your highly trained relay-watchers and their expensive, prebuilt fire-stations can only transmit, basically, a SINGLE binary bit . . . well, just saying, Pigeons win every time.

Especially if you tie a memory stick to the pigeon's leg. Just try sending the complete works of William Shakespeare by signal fire.

It's been done, and it's fast. Check out the original post's link (homing pigeons beat out business ADSL). "Basically we will be flying a pigeon with a 4GB micro SD card from Howick to our central site in Hillcrest. We did a dry run yesterday. Here is the stats: Pigeon took 48 minutes to deliver the data. ADSL is still downloading."
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:01 PM on September 8, 2009


Faster than carrier pigeon.
posted by empath at 4:05 PM on September 8, 2009



The story actually originated as an antisemitic myth. It suited a lot of people to believe that the Rothschild fortune came from war profiteering.


Indeed.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:22 PM on September 8, 2009


A lovely song about a famous carrier pigeon that makes me cry. Every. Single. Time.

Damn you, Suffering Gaels!
posted by corey flood at 5:05 PM on September 8, 2009


Well, I'm sick of that "light speed" canard. I mean, it's faster over a distance of, what, a hundred feet? Three hundred? Please. Talk to me when your signal-fire-relay can cover 20 miles before my pigeon does.
Yeah, a hundred feet, or three hundred. Or, in the case of the Great Wall of China, four thousand miles.
And, even THEN, when your highly trained relay-watchers and their expensive, prebuilt fire-stations can only transmit, basically, a SINGLE binary bit . . . well, just saying, Pigeons win every time.
One could imagine something akin to morse code built on smoke signals in day or large shuttered fires at night. In fact, such things have actually been implemented in the real world, so you don't have to imagine it.

I'm all for pigeons, especially after Walter Pigeon's response to this article, and I'm not saying that signal fires are in all ways and all cases superior to them as a means of communication. But I think that you're underestimating the efficacy of signal fires.
posted by Flunkie at 5:51 PM on September 8, 2009


Re: the Rothschild story, David Kynaston shoots down this particular pigeon in his history of the City of London:

During the latter stages of the Napoleonic Wars [Rothschild] made his fortune through the audacious conduct of crucial bullion operations on behalf of the British Government, in the course of which he was much helped by large credits from his four brothers who were based in various financial centres on the Continent. That was the prime source of his initial great wealth; it was not (contrary to legend) a major killing on the stock market from being on the inside track over the battle of Waterloo.

The story actually originated as an antisemitic myth. It suited a lot of people to believe that the Rothschild fortune came from war profiteering.


My understanding was that for the Napoleonic wars pre-Elba, that was how he made money. He capitalised on the network of brothers throughout Europe to buy and sell gold at the best possible prices (making profit), and delivering £1.2m of gold to the British (getting a commission).

However, he did make a profit from Waterloo, just not in the way he planned. When Napoleon returned from Elba, Nathan Rothschild bought a ton of gold, expecting that the British government would want him to perform a similar service as before over a long period of time. Obviously, Waterloo happened, and he was stuck with a ton of gold. So he assessed that the stock of certain bonds would rise, and bought them. The carrier pigeons helped (Ferguson asserts that he knew 48 hours in advance of everyone else), but he continued buying gold and then sat on it for a year. So he did profit from the war, but it wasn't really profiteering with the negative connotations associated with that - had he known when everyone else knew, he just would've bought at a higher price, making less profit. He actually bought twice more, months later, paying a higher price each time.

The profiteering angle was seized on by the Nazi propaganda machine, however, and tied in with their anti-Semitic crap. It wasn't really the whole knowing first thing that made his fortune (although it probably helped), he just realised that the value of bonds would go up if the British won. The fact that he sold much later puts paid to the spin put on it by the Nazis.

As to where his wealth came from (buying and selling for the government, or from the punt on bonds), I don't know how much wealth he had before the bond situation (presumably, a lot), but Ferguson asserts that he made £600m in today's money from the buying and selling of bonds post-Waterloo. Rothschild had apparently been in gold smuggling before, and the textile business. His earlier work with the government had gained him commission on £1.2m (in 1814 terms), and also on the 12.6m Francs (I assume in 1814-ish levels for this as well).

When Napoleon returned, he was able to make transactions totalling £9.8m (assuming 1814 levels) in anticipation of a long war. So I guess for comparison (i.e. when did the Rothschilds make the bulk of their fortune), what is almost £10m from 1814ish worth in today's money?

Just so y'all know, I'm not some expert in this, just cribbing from Ferguson's book.
posted by djgh at 5:52 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


60 mph? No effing way...

I had a similar conversation with a coworker a while back. He and his dad used to raise them, and he pointed out that with the exception of a couple of birds of prey, they are pretty much untouchable.

He likened them to the stereotypical image of a jock; not very bright, but possessing a singular ability when it came physical feats of speed and endurance.

I too looked at them with a bit more respect after that.
posted by quin at 5:55 PM on September 8, 2009


Don't forget Cher Ami, who helped win World War I, received the Croix de Guerre, and still sits, stuffed, at the Smithsonian.
posted by beagle at 6:12 PM on September 8, 2009


This is an amazing FPP. I look forward to digging through it all night.
posted by EatTheWeak at 6:16 PM on September 8, 2009



My favorite pigeon.
posted by notreally at 6:24 PM on September 8, 2009


King Of Hearts Le Roi de Cœur
posted by hortense at 6:34 PM on September 8, 2009


I must admit I'm a sucker for Sally's Pigeons.
posted by dhartung at 9:54 PM on September 8, 2009


Carrier pigeon phone sex.
"...though, by the time you receive this, I'll probably be wearing something else."
posted by MrVisible at 7:21 AM on September 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


My favorite pigeon.

PS: This is a great post.
posted by Skygazer at 12:12 PM on September 9, 2009


Pigeon beats Telkom speeds:
Local news agency SAPA reported the 11-month-old pigeon, Winston, took one hour and eight minutes to fly the 80 km (50 miles) from Unlimited IT's offices near Pietermaritzburg to the coastal city of Durban with a data card was strapped to his leg.

Including downloading, the transfer took two hours, six minutes and 57 seconds -- the time it took for only four percent of the data to be transferred using a Telkom line.
Via Slashdot, where someone noted that this might have been an unfair comparison, as network connections carry more than a single data set. Of course the whole thing is a bit of a stunt, as you could attach a 16gb SD card on the pigeon and quadruple the "data speed" (ignoring time to offload data from the SD card).
posted by filthy light thief at 10:54 AM on September 10, 2009


No, these are the best pigeons.
posted by chronic sublime at 5:50 PM on September 11, 2009


« Older Steel Harmony performing "Transmission" by Joy...   |   Arab-European League to be... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post