Stupid Question ™
Oct. 18, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: How did the tradition of putting messages in bottles and tossing them into the ocean get started?
A: Humans crave communication, sailors are lonely and bottles float.
It’s been reinforced in our time by the scientific practice of tracking ocean currents with bottles containing postage-paid reply cards.
There are heaps of great message-in-a-bottle stories, most of them completely unverified. In almost all cases, the supposed message no longer exists, so I won’t continue the hearsay by quoting their reported contents.
There are tales of sailors marrying women who found their bottle notes; mutinies undone by pleas for help in bottles; final farewells from sinking ships. There have been jokes and pranks, like the message that claimed to be from a sinking sub carrying an escaped Adolf Hitler. Christian evangelists and Tawainese dissidents have spread their messages in bottles.
But the most common message continues to be the mostly basically human: “Please write back!”
I suspect messages in bottles are relatively recent, at least as a widespread practice. Very long sea voyages and literate sailors date mostly to the past 500 years.
Indeed, historical bottle accounts are hard to find, and I could confirm none of them. It’s said the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, c. 300 BC, used bottles (some say with messages inside) to track currents in the Mediterranean. There’s a story that Christopher Columbus, fearing a storm was about to sink him on the way back from the New World, sealed the good news into a barrel and tossed it overboard.
One historical claim is indeed false: that Benjamin Franklin used note-carrying bottles to track the Gulf Stream. Ben did chart the current with bottles—but only by using them to scoop up water for temperature-checking.
Oceanographers began using bottles to track currents around 1900; by having the find return a numbered card, they could plot its time and direction of travel. One such bottle had the longest verified voyage in history: 16,000 miles from Australia to Florida in five years.
Today, large numbers of bottles are released by oceanographers and average folks (one oceanographic study alone released nearly 150,000), and hundreds, probably thousands, are found each year.
We’ve even taken bottle messages into our new frontiers. Cyberspace “Bottle Mail” programs allow you to send and receive e-mails that are delivered to a random person at a random time: virtual messages in virtual bottles.
And the ultimate message in a bottle might be the gold-plated records affixed to the Voyager 1 and 2 space satellites, which are now sailing far beyond the solar system. Built to last 1 billion years, they contain photos of scientific info and everyday life; natural sounds like bird and whale songs; a selection of music; greetings in 50-odd languages; and a map of where Earth is.
Said Carl Sagan, who chaired the record-material selection committee: “The launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”