What can be more intriguing than a message in a bottle? If you put a message in a bottle, and tossed it into the ocean, what are the odds that someone will find it? Where will it end up, and how long will it take? And who in the world first came up with the concept of a message in a bottle? These are the questions that came to mind when I recently read about Merle Brandell, an Alaskan beachcomber who found a bottle that had been launched by a fourth grade student, Emily Hwaung, in 1986. The bottle took approximately 21 years to travel 1,735 miles from Seattle to Alaska. I decided to do a bit of research on messages in bottles to quench my curiosity. Here’s what I found.
Although no one knows for sure when the first message in a bottle was released, the ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus is the first known person to release a message in a bottle. Theophrastus launched his messages in bottles around 310 BC, to himself, in order to prove that the Atlantic flowed into the Mediterranean Sea. The success of his experiment was quite likely the inspiration for Benjamin Franklin to replicate it and create his charts of sea currents (in particular the Gulf Stream) in the mid-1700s.
In the days of early explorers, traveling by ship—and shipwrecks—were common. Once, when Christopher Columbus was caught up in a severe storm, he wrote a report of his discoveries, along with a note asking that his report be passed on to the Queen of Spain. His hope was that his report would be received, even if he did not survive the storm. Columbus survived, but to this day, no one knows what came of his message in a bottle.
Although we think of discovering a message in a bottle as an exciting experience, in the 16th century, discovering a message in a bottle and opening it could result in the death penalty. The English Navy used messages in bottles to send information about enemy positions and other intelligence reports. After finding out that a boatman at Dover had opened a bottle containing an intelligence report, Queen Elizabeth I created a new job position: “Uncorker of Ocean Bottles.” The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles was the only one permitted to open found bottles. All others who found—and opened bottles—would be put to death.