Friday, February 04, 2005


Pigeons En Masse, Alas

Looking at the first Skeptic's Circle, I remembered a tale that may be about 30 years old. It goes something like this:
An aerospace firm in southern California wanted to reduce the amount of time spent by couriers driving through traffic across the mountains to transport engineering drawings between plants. Engineers could have designed some sort of fancy telecommunications scheme, but they came up with something much simpler: Carrier pigeons, with microfilm capsules.
Nowadays, of course, engineering drawings are created by computer, and available instantly worldwide through the company's intranet. Many companies have scanned old drawings, so there is no paper storage at all. But in 1975, this seemed like a nice, simple idea, in-the-face of the complicators.

But consider the logistics of such a system:
  • You need a microfilm camera at each source facility.
  • At each destination you need an enlarger and a developing tank suitable for the largest size of drawing in the system.
  • You need people to do the photographic work.
  • The system works only in good weather. Fortunately this is usually not a problem in California.
  • You need lofts in which to keep the pigeons until they are needed.
  • You need someone to feed and bathe the pigeons.
  • You still need couriers to transport the pigeons across the mountains to the source locations.
  • Pigeons become oriented to their current location in a few days, so you need to forecast your needs, in order to have enough pigeons at each location to handle the requests. If you overestimate, you have to take some pigeons back empty. (This once doomed a suggestion to use pigeons as communication between Navy aircraft and their carrier.)
  • If you have more than two locations on one side of the mountains, you have to have a separate set of pigeons for each location,
  • Security is the killer. Your pigeons are vulnerable to hawks and hunters. Indeed, spies might station themselves along the pigeons' route with shotguns. This might be made easier due to the tendency of pigeons to follow highways. The possibility of interception is a serious problem for commercial information, and devastating for military information.
So where did such a story come from? Does anybody know for sure? Maybe like a lot of urban legends it has a nice ring until you think about it for a while.

However, there is some recent research on the subject.

This story doesn't have much to do with evolution, which is the central theme of my blog. Although, Darwin spent a long time breeding pigeons, to study variation from one generation to another. Maybe the main message here is a caution: If something seems so simple that you wonder why people ignore it, maybe it's not as simple as it seems.


Blogger Saint Nate said...

Geez ... I can't help myself ... I spot a legend, I have to find out if it's real or not. I"m insatiably curious.

I did a quick Google search for "carrier pigeons microfilm california" and found this forum post that repeats the legend along with dates and places (note it says 1981, not 30 years).

I know Lockheed has a facility in Sunnyvale; they employ one of my best friends and I visited him while he was working out in those parts (not the facility itself, just him). So I added "lockheed" I found this newspaper article that reiterates the story.

So, yeah, this one looks pretty credible.

February 9, 2005 at 3:37:00 PM EST  
Blogger John Wendt said...

Ah. I had done the same sort of search, but didn't find this one. Thanks.

February 10, 2005 at 9:00:00 AM EST  
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