Today, the very first airmail service is used to
break a siege. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Bismarck's Prussian troops
had Paris under siege in September, 1870. They
surrounded the city and cut its communication
lines. One reason Paris managed to withstand the
siege for five months was her airmail service. And
since this was 33 years before the Wright Brothers
flew, you may well wonder what I'm talking about!
I'm talking about balloons. The first hot air and
hydrogen balloons had flown in Paris 86 years
before the siege. Balloons had seen their first
serious military use ten years before, in the
American Civil War. Lincoln set up an air balloon
corps in 1861.
For two years the American armies in the East had
been pretty static. The Union Army had ten balloons
in service most of that time. They rose on tether
lines to reconnoiter enemy positions. Some even
used telegraphy to communicate with the ground.
Those balloons were useful until the war started
moving faster than the few balloons could. The
corps disbanded in 1863. But it'd established that
you can gather information from the air.
Now, seven years later, Paris had an urgent need to
communicate with the outside world. The French were
already using tethered balloons to observe the
enemy. Now they decided to set up an air mail
service. They sent out a call for every existing
balloon in Paris and they set up shops for building
far more balloons.
In all, 66 balloons left Paris carrying information
to France beyond the German lines. Most flights
were made at night. In all, the balloons delivered
102 passengers and 11 tons of mail. The mail
amounted to 2-1/2 million letters. The balloons
also delivered 400 carrier pigeons for return mail.
To bring mail back by pigeon, the French outside
Paris used early photography to reduce 16 pages of
text to a 1¼" by 2" piece of film. But
pigeons are unreliable. Only one in eight ever
The balloonists had their troubles too -- but less
than anyone expected. Two were lost at sea. Six
were captured by the Germans when they landed. When
others came down behind enemy lines, their pilots
managed to deliver the mail anyway. One landed on
an island off the coast of Brittany. The most
dramatic flight was one that landed in a Norwegian
forest after an astonishing 875-mile trip. One
flight carried the Minister of the Interior. He
landed in an oak tree. But he landed
Getting back into Paris was another matter. You
can't control where balloons go. So Paris lost an
aeronaut on every flight. Several tried to catch
favorable winds and fly back in. None succeeded.
The very last flight out, made on January 28, 1871,
carried news of the Armistice.
So the point had been made. Flight meant
communication. This was the harbinger of enormous
change. The world had been altered in ways that
would reach far beyond one more forgotten war.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds