Message in an old bottle

Adrift at Sea: The Long-Awaited Recovery of the Oldest Message in a Bottle

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Two years ago, a bottle was found with a message in it that had been released before the outbreak of World War One. It had survived not only the ravages of the seas, but both world wars and the life of its sender. It surely had encountered many obstacles on its voyage. No one will know for sure the route it took or if it was at rest for periods along the way, but it was certainly an unusual modern-day odyssey.

A message in a bottle is a form of communication. The image of this object that most people are familiar with today is that of a message written on paper, and placed within a glass bottle. Messages in bottles are normally released into a sea or ocean, and may serve a variety of purposes. Some, for instance, were meant to send distress signals, whilst others contained invitations to potential pen pals. Yet others were used as a means for scientific studies of ocean currents. The oldest message in a bottle, in terms of the number of years between its release and finding, is 108 years old, being released in 1906, and found in 2015.

The oldest message in a bottle in the world, found by the Winkler family. (Image: Winkler family handout)

Messages in bottles are known to have been used since ancient times. Towards the end of the 4 th century BC, for example, the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (a pupil of Aristotle) is recorded to have released messages in bottles in order to test his hypothesis that the Atlantic Ocean flowed into the Mediterranean Sea. In 16 th century England, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, an ‘Uncorker of Ocean Bottles’ was appointed by the court, as it was thought that some bottles may contain secret messages sent by English spies from France. Therefore, it was a capital offence for anyone else to open a bottled message.

This romanticized Édouard Riou drawing of a message in a bottle was included in Jules Verne's 1860s book In Search of the Castaways. (Public Domain)

This romanticized Édouard Riou drawing of a message in a bottle was included in Jules Verne 's 1860s book In Search of the Castaways . ( Public Domain )

In more recent times, messages in bottles have been, and still are, used in the discipline of oceanography as a means of studying global currents. Typically, researchers would release thousands of bottles with messages into the oceans from ships, and then wait for people who found these bottles to contact them. For example, the Drift Bottle Project was initiated in 2000 by Eddy Carmack, a climate researcher at Canada’s Institute of Ocean Science. The initial goal of this project was to study the ocean currents around northern North America. In the following 12 years, the project brought Carmack, his colleagues, and their bottles across the world. About 6400 bottles were released by the researchers, of which 264, about 4 %, have been found and reported.

A handful of the 1000s of bottles dropped to study ocean currents by Eddy Carmack’s Drift Bottle Project

A handful of the 1000s of bottles dropped to study ocean currents by Eddy Carmack’s Drift Bottle Project (Image: Studentsonice.com)

Other bottled messages, however, took a much longer time to be found. This is the case of the oldest message in a bottle. Between 1904 and 1906, about a thousand messages in bottles were released by George Parker Bidder III, a British marine biologist, in the North Sea. This was part of Bidder’s study of ocean currents, and was meant to demonstrate that the North Sea’s deep-sea current went from east to west. Incidentally, Bidder was successful in doing so, as the return rate of the bottles is reported to have been around 55%.

One of Bidder’s bottles used to study ocean currents.

One of Bidder’s bottles used to study ocean currents.  (Image: The Marine Biological Association )

One of these bottled messages, however, was only found long after Bidder’s death in 1954. In 2015, it was reported that one of Bidder’s bottles had been found by a retired postal worker by the name of Marianne Winkler on a beach in Amrum, an island in Germany. When Winkler got the note out of the bottle, she found that it was a postcard addressed to George Parker Bidder at the Marine Biological Association (MBA) in Plymouth, England. Fortunately for Winkler, the MBA is still in existence, and the postcard, after the blanks on its back were filled up, was sent there.

The postcard in Bidder’s message in a bottle, the oldest of its kind.

The postcard in Bidder’s message in a bottle, the oldest of its kind. Image: ( Public Domain )

On the postcard, Bidder also promised to reward its sender with a shilling. Since Decimal Day on the 15 th of February 1971, shillings fell out of use. The MBA, however, intended to keep Bidder’s promise, and having found an old shilling, sent the reward to her, along with a letter of thanks. Eventually, Bidder’s message in a bottle was recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as being the oldest of its kind. The previous record holder was a bottled message released by Captain C. Hunter Brown of the Glasgow School of Navigation in 1914, and found 98 years later, in 2012, near the Shetland Islands.

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