From Papyrus to pigeon post

24th March 2006 at 00:00
Egyptian scribes

Egyptian papyrus, made from Nile River reeds, was manufactured as early as the first Egyptian dynasty (around 3000bc) and it continued to be used until the end of the 11th century AD. Drawings of writing tools were found in the tomb of Mereuka at Saqqara, dated around 2330bc. However, although the means to send letters were available, letters must have been relatively rare, since they had to be commissioned from a scribe and sent by courier.

Two scribes were later revered as gods: Imhotep (2667-2635bc), was an architect, vizier and doctor, while Amenhotep (1391-1354bc) was also one of Egypt's greatest Pharaohs, the first to issue royal news bulletins about his marriages, hunting trips and building projects, sending the information inscribed on large stone scarab seals out across the empire - rather like government mailings today.

The oldest post?

In China, an organised postal infrastructure was put in place during the Qin Dynasty (221-207bc), and expanded during the Han Dynasty. A mail system has even been traced back to the Zhou Dynasty (1122-256bc), when Confucius (551-479bc) wrote: "News of deeds travels faster than the mail." That system was perhaps built on one started in the Shang Dynasty (1766-1050bc).

The network and routes have remained continuous until today, giving the Chinese the accolade of the oldest operating postal system. In ad105, the invention of paper was reported to the Chinese Emperor by Ts'ai Lun, a court official, though recent archaeological investigations suggest that the process started 200 years earlier. Writing was key to Chinese literature and communication and to art, with calligraphy the most widely revered accomplishment.

The post - but by other means

Letters have been sent by many methods. The Sultan of Baghdad established a pigeon-post system in ad1150, exploiting the homing sense of pigeons to send fast messages they can travel thousands of kilometres and have reached speeds of up to 145kmh). Telegrams were sent via pigeon during the 1870-71 siege of Paris and the 1899 siege of Ladysmith in Africa. They were still being used in the Second World War.

Mail has been transported by quite a few other methods throughout history, including dog sled, balloon, rocket and pneumatic tubes. Pneumatic tubes were pioneered in Paris in the 1880s and taken up with enthusiasm in the US. The messages were loaded, 600 at a time, into cartridges which were then pumped at speeds of up to 35 miles an hour by compressed air through tubes buried beneath the surface and laid over bridges. The service was continuous, which was where it scored over the large load-sorting of wagons full of mail. Decay of the infrastructure and improvements in air traffic meant that the system was discontinued in the US by the mid-1950s but you could still send a pneu in Paris until 1983.




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