It is certainly not the most precise of communication tools. In fact, a messenger or carrier pigeon is a more exact means of communication when compared to a message in a bottle. It can take years floating and bobbing in the sea for a message in a bottle to make landfall or be discovered, if ever. But the imprecise nature of the message in a bottle is perhaps a part of its intrigue and charm. It is also a great way to recycle your old glass beer and liquor bottles…
The First Known Message in a Bottle
The first known message in a bottle was sent on its oceanic journey around 310 BC by the Greek philosopher Theophrastos (371 – 287 BC) . His message, however, was not a romantic gesture to a loved one. Rather, the message in a bottle was released in an attempt to prove that the Mediterranean Sea was connected to the Atlantic Ocean. Theophrastos is best known as one of Artistole’s pupils and ultimately his successor at the Peripatetic school. His work there led him to be considered the “father of botany,” not the father of the message in a bottle. In reality, Theophrastos’ message in a bottle ocean experiment was conducted with several sealed jugs, which were thrown into the Aegean Sea near Athens. Ancient Greeks throwing jugs into the sea certainly doesn’t conjure the same image as the archetypal message in a bottle.
The Pragmatic Message in a Bottle
Though he may have been the first, Theophrastros was not the only to use a message in a bottle as part of a scientific study of ocean connectivity and currents. In fact, in the early days of oceanography, throwing a message in a bottle overboard at a specified point was one of the simplest ways of investigating ocean currents. Finders of the bottles where asked to note the date and place of discovery and send it back to to the researchers’ place of work. Today, researchers have foregone the message in a bottle for much more high-tech free drifting instruments that communicate via satellite.
Beyond scientific research, message-bearing bottles are perhaps best known as whimsical alternatives to e-mail. Yet certainly not all messages in bottles were full of notes to loved ones. Some were much more practical.
In a treacherous voyage back to Spain, the famous (or infamous) Christopher Columbus sent a series of messages and a report in a barrel overboard out of fear that should his ship sink, his “discovery” of the New World would be lost. We know from history that Columbus made it back to Europe; the barrel, unfortunately, did not. In the 16th century, the British Royal Navy used classified messages in bottles to communicate with those on land regarding the whereabouts of the enemy. This secrecy was considered so important that in 1590 a law was adopted which pronounced the unauthorized opening of a discovered message in a bottle was punishable by death. In fact, Queen Elizabeth I appointed an official “Uncorker of Bottles” for this very task.
The Archetypal Message in a Bottle
Perhaps the best known message in a bottle type is that of the SOS or love letter. There are countless accounts of shipwrecked sailors and ship passengers sending messages floating into the vast ocean with the hope of being rescued. While some of these tales include a happy ending (such as the story of 88 shipwrecked migrants rescued off the coast of Costa Rica in 2005), many do not. From messages from the famous sinking of the Titanic and later the Lusitania to unknown wrecks dating as far back at the 18th century, the message in a bottle has served as a means of last hope in disaster.
But the message in a bottle has also been used to capture words from the heart. Whether simply a private message to one’s self or a divine force, releasing a message in a bottle is much like tossing a coin into a fountain or tying a note to a balloon. For many, a message in a bottle represents ritual full of wonder. For others, the message has an intended recipient, a lover or a family member, but is released with only the small bit of faith that it will find its destination. Statistics say that it is near impossible, but there are some awe-inspiring stories out there.
Looking for more message in a bottle stories? Here are some of the most famous message in a bottle experience. And for you history buffs, there is even a timeline of interesting message in a bottle tales.