Postal services around the world have trialled many, sometimes bizarre, methods of transporting mail. To mark the 80th anniversary of internal airmail in the UK we look at some of these innovative and intriguing experiments.
Birds, Boules & Balloons
During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 the Prussians besieged the city of Paris, cutting off traditional lines of communication to many.
Desperate to maintain communications with those outside the city, the people of Paris were willing to try anything.
Boule de Moulins
Hollow zinc spheres the size of a man’s head and covered with fins; each Boule de Moulins could hold between 500-600 letters intended for the inhabitants of the besieged city.
The idea was to place them into the river and let them float along on the current, just below the surface, to be caught with nets across the river in Paris.
Although a very innovative idea, only one boule arrived successfully and the service was cancelled after just 11 days.
30 have subsequently been found, most recently in April 1982. A selection of these can be seen at l’Adresse Musée de la Poste, Paris: www.ladressemuseedelaposte.fr
The main communication link out of the city during the siege was hot air balloon. However, this method had one major, and occasionally fatal, flaw; the pilot couldn’t control where the balloon would land.
From trees to enemy territory and out to sea, once even to Norway over 650 miles away, these balloons found their way all over Northern Europe.
Attempts were made to add propellers and even birds of prey to guide the balloons but to no avail.
All in all it was a successful venture, with the majority of the cargo arriving safely, whether that was post, people or pigeons.
As the siege began animals, including dogs and pigeons, were flown out of the city in hot air balloons with the intention that they would be used to bring messages back into Paris. The dogs, once released, were never seen again, but the pigeons proved more reliable.
With tiny, lightweight tubes, containing despatches on paper, and later microfilm, attached to their tail feathers pigeons were set free to deliver their messages. For some this freedom was short lived.
Once the Prussians caught wind of this use of pigeons they started flying falcons to ‘intercept’ them.
The desperately hungry people of Paris were also known to kill them as they were considered a good meal.
Multiple pigeons were often charged with delivery of the same message to ensure at least one arrived.
While the French Post Office refused to guarantee the delivery of messages sent by pigeon it is estimated that of the 95,581 despatches sent 60,000 were received safely.
While pigeons, balloons and zinc balls were being used in the Siege of Paris, advances in technology were producing even more innovative means of moving the mail across The English Channel.
For the British postal service speed was everything, even a two minute delay needed explanation – in writing! As such the Post Office used these technological advances to create innovative new systems for moving the post more efficiently.
Opening in 1863 the London Pneumatic Despatch Railway was one such invention that came out of these technological advances. It originally ran between Euston station and Eversholt Street sorting office in Central London, then in 1866 was extended down to Holborn.
Carriages were propelled through underground tunnels which were little more than 80cm in both height and width using a massive 21 foot wide fan.
Although officially only used to transport mail, it has also been described as the ‘theme park of its day’ with reports of thrill seeking, and often inebriated, Victorian gentlemen climbing on board before being fired off down the tunnel at speeds of up to 30mph.
However, as exhilarating as it may have been for passengers it proved ineffective at reducing mail delivery times and was taken out of service in 1874.
It wasn’t gone for good though; in 1928 there was an explosion in the disused tunnels in Holborn from a build-up of gas. This caused windows to be blown in, flames to shoot 30 feet into the air, tremors which could be felt for hundreds of metres in every direction and one fatality.
In the hope of speeding up postal deliveries, in 1930 central London almost had its very own monorail. The brainchild of George Bennie, Railplane - effectively an airplane with its wings cut off - was designed to run above the train line between Croydon and the Holborn Viaduct, cutting journey times from one hour to ten minutes.
Although a test line was set up in Glasgow, and remained there until 1970, it was never progressed and remained only a pipedream.
The British Isles include over 130 islands with permanent inhabitants; some, like Bardsey off the Welsh coast, have as few as four residents. Sending and receiving mail remains a vital form of communication in these remote areas where often there are no physical links to the mainland or even telephone or internet connections.
This means other methods become necessary to deliver mail, including in the 1930s, rocket!
Gerhard Zucker, a German inventor who is believed to have gone on to help create the V-2 rocket responsible for causing great damage to British cities during the Second World War, carried out a number of Rocket Mail tests in the UK, including on the Scottish Islands, in 1934.
He thought that a good way to get mail to remote areas quickly was to pack letters into explosive-driven zinc cylinders and fire them to their desired destination.
Sadly all but one of these tests failed, resulting in some rather singed letters. Safe to say, the Post Office never opted to pursue this method.
Of all the technological advancements the UK postal service made in speeding up deliveries the longest lasting was Mail Rail.
At the turn of the 20th Century London was regularly covered in thick smog, and subject to heavy congestion as the narrow streets were not designed for more modern transport. This meant there were severe delays in getting mail between the main post offices and the railway stations.
To combat this in February 1911 a Government Departmental Committee recommended the construction of an ingenious underground electric railway with driverless trains.
The trains were to run between Paddington in the West and Whitechapel in the East in just 30 minutes, rather than many hours above ground. The tunnels were finished in 1917 but with resources being diverted in support of the First World War, work had to stop.
Instead the tunnels were used to store valuable artworks belonging to the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate.
The railway finally opened on 5 December 1927 and ran constantly, even during the Second World War, until 2003 when the system was mothballed, but this wasn’t the end of Mail Rail.
In 2016 The Postal Museum will make this amazing technological advancement accessible to the public for first time in its almost 100 year history. To find out more visit www.postalmuseum.org
Delivering into the 21st Century
As the 20th century progressed, delivery methods became slightly more sedate, but no less innovative.
From Postbuses to quad-bikes, Royal Mail still employs unusual modes of transport to convey both post and people in remote areas, such as the Scottish Highlands and islands.
Mail by cats
Most people think of cats as being best at catching mice; the Post Office even paid cats a salary to catch them and then pensioned them off like any other employee. Not everyone felt the same though.
In 1876 The Belgian Society for the Elevation of the Domestic Cat thought that catching mice was a waste of the cat’s ‘superior sense of direction’ and attempted an experiment to get them carrying mail.
“the criminal class of dogs undertakes to waylay and rob the mail-cats”
According to the New York Times they were so confident that this would work the only way they could see it failing was if “the criminal class of dogs undertakes to waylay and rob the mail-cats”.
As you may expect this proved a little too ambitious and in practice the mail-cats were both undisciplined and reluctant to deliver mail. Who would have thought it?
Exhibition content & research — Sarah Carr, Communications Officer
Exhibition content — Dominique Gardner, Exhibitions Officer
Digital production — Rachel Kasbohm, Digital Media Manager
Additional images — l’Adresse Musée de la Poste, Paris