A new record in crowd-sourced science: message bottle found, from 1886
March 6, 2018 9:47 PM   Subscribe

The world’s oldest known message in a bottle has been found on a beach in Western Australia, containing a roll of paper printed in German and dated to 12 June 1886. This bottle was part of an official drift bottle experiment conducted by what was then known as the Deutsche Seewarte, or German Naval Observatory. From 1864 until 1933, thousands of bottles were tossed from German ships to improve maps of ocean currents, of which more than 660 have been re-collected by what is now Bundesamt für Seeschifffahrt und Hydrographie (Federal Maritime and Hydrographic Agency of Germany).

Similarly, Marine Scotland Science in Aberdeen is still logging bottles found from another century-old ocean current study, their most recent coming home after 105 years, which was beat by UK's Marine Biological Association and their 108 year old bottle that was found in 2015. Back in 2012, when a 98 year bottle was the then record holder, The Atlantic had a write-up on the crowd-sourced citizen science experiments that were and are efforts to track ocean currents with floating materials.

These so-called "bottle papers" were first deployed in 1801 (Google books preview), and found by "a network of beachcomber informants" (to steal language currently found on the related Wikipedia page) starting in 1809 to improve the general understanding of ocean current patterns. The fifteenth annual report of the Fishery Board for Scotland, being for the Year 1896 documented some ill-fated floats (Gbp), noting that sea creatures tend to be fond of paraffin and paper.

If you want to get really deep in the (sea)weeds and history, check out The Fluid Envelope of our Planet: How the Study of Ocean Currents Became a Science (Gbp) by Eric L. Mills.
posted by filthy light thief (16 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
This is delightful.

Also Beachcomber Informant is the name of my new seapunk zine
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:50 PM on March 6 [9 favorites]

If only we had an accurate map of the ocean current that had been carrying this for the past 132 years.
posted by hippybear at 9:50 PM on March 6 [2 favorites]

Beachcomber Informant is the title of the next Thomas Pynchon novel.
posted by hippybear at 9:51 PM on March 6 [5 favorites]

Seems I'm not alone in being alone.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:56 PM on March 6 [6 favorites]

Nobody is, really. Can I at least offer a hug? *hugs*
posted by hippybear at 9:59 PM on March 6

If only we had an accurate map of the ocean current that had been carrying this for the past 132 years.

Based on the third link, it sounds like it was likely washed ashore and buried in a sand dune a long time ago, and recent storms unburied it.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 10:15 PM on March 6 [2 favorites]

Sting could not be reached for comment...
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 2:25 AM on March 7

First Dog On The Moon weighs in.
posted by acb at 2:50 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

Back in 1963 I launched several messages in bottles mid-Atlantic from a passenger liner, and got several relatives to do the same. Maybe 10 bottles in all. Two of them were found, one in the Shetland Islands and one in the Orkneys. Who knows, maybe another one could still be found, although the finder might have a hard time finding me since I'm nowhere near my childhood address. Per the Wikipedia page linked in the post, the typical recovery rate for messages in bottles in the Atlantic is 10-11 percent, so my 20 percent rate has that beat nicely.
posted by beagle at 7:15 AM on March 7 [3 favorites]

Also, the fact that the note was in a gin bottle raises some questions. Firstly, if the German Naval Observatory launched thousands of these, why did it rely on recycled bottles rather than ordering its own? Surely the logistics of gathering thousands of bottles from the public would have exceeded the expense of ordering a thousand bottles made to its precise specifications. Unless, of course, this was the excuse for officers to have a regular drink on the Navy.

Secondly, was gin a popular drink in 1880s Germany? (My understanding is that gin was specifically a British phenomenon, an adaptation of Dutch genever, adopted during the Wars of Religion to displace the impolitically Catholic French wines that were popular and popularised with quinine tonic during the Empire's expansion in the tropics; did it undergo a period of popularity in Germany as some sort of quid pro quo for Britain adopting German monarchs and Christmas traditions?)
posted by acb at 7:25 AM on March 7 [3 favorites]

Also, the fact that the note was in a gin bottle raises some questions.

Seems gin isn't completely unknown to the Germans. As of the mid-1870s, the Prussian Adler Gin was in production at the behest of the government. That would explain why gin bottles were used: they were probably being procured already for boozy research.
posted by ptfe at 7:44 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

why did it rely on recycled bottles rather than ordering its own

It's possible they did use custom bottles for most of the messages, but also used the empties of whatever was consumed on board. This bottle came from a distillery in Schiedam; Schiedam was the leader in exporting gin in the 1880s; the German ship departed from Cardiff, Wales, where a supply of this gin may have been acquired.
posted by beagle at 7:51 AM on March 7 [1 favorite]

And gin is very popular with sailors, I can confirm from copious exposure to both gin and sailors. And East Frisia, which borders the Netherlands, has its own long tradition of juniper-flavoured spirits, so the presence of gin on board a German ship is not even a little surprising. Gin drinking was certainly popular in Germany before WWII, although it lost out to vodka afterwards.

Whether the good oceanographers of the Deutsche Seewarte could provide thousands of bottles through their own efforts alone who can tell, but five thousand bottles (say) over the seventy years of the project is only one bottle every six days or so - well within the capability of even a single scientist with a taste for the stuff. A committed team with a dependable thirst would have no problem whatsoever, and I have no doubt that I could recruit such a team in almost any scientific discipline at short notice even today.

Für die Wissenschaft! Für das Meer! Für den betrunkenen Ozeanographen!
posted by Devonian at 12:22 PM on March 7 [3 favorites]

Does it read, "Zwei peanuts walk into a bar..."

Be careful, people.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 1:43 PM on March 7

"Sende Nacktbilder"
posted by ZipRibbons at 2:07 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure whether the finding family's original web posting has been linked yet, so here goes. Of interest, they mention that the bottle was found without any kind of cap or cork, which explains why the note was described as being damp. I'm guessing the cork deteriorated and disappeared gradually over the course of being buried in damp sand for more than a century. But presumably, the note would not have lasted much longer if it had not been found.
posted by beagle at 4:56 PM on March 7 [1 favorite]

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