Airmail and its five predecessors

March 2nd, 2014

On the 18 of February 1911, the mail was delivered by plane for the first time. However, the airmail had been successfully developing long before the correspondence was transported by aircrafts.

In this article we've compiled a list of airmail's predecessors and will describe below some interesting ways to deliver letters by air.

Airmail appeared in the early 20th century, when airplanes were introduced into use. The first aircraft with the correspondence on board went in flight on the 18 of February 1911. It was in India. The vessel flying from Allahabad to Naini contained more than six and a half thousand letters and about two hundred postcards. The plane covered a distance of 13 kilometers. The airmail helped many collectors gain rare specimen of stamps. Philatelists studied postal routes and sent letters to various corners of the world.

First air express delivery, Leaside. Deliveries are to T. Eaton Co. in Toronto.

Airmail is the easiest and fastest way of letters delivery by air. It's the only mean of delivering paper correspondence across continents. Needless to say, that this way of mail delivery is actively used in our time. However, long before the advent of airmail people had come up with ways of sending messages through the air. Let's focus on some of the most interesting kinds of airmail.


1. Pigeon post originated long ago. It was used in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. Interestingly, the names of the winners of the First Olympic Games were reported using pigeons. This method of mail delivery was used until the 20th century. The pigeon post principle is simple: the message is tied to the bird's foot and the pigeon is sent by the familiar route. Later people sealed the letters in special capsules. Certainly, the amazing ability of pigeons to return home played an important role, however birds also needed a special training. Well-trained pigeons could travel longer distances – more than 800 kilometers! In the late 19th century in France while delivering mail from the ship to the land, a pigeon covered about three thousand kilometers. By the way, the average speed of some species reaches 125 kilometers per hour. That means a pigeon can deliver mail faster than car, telegraph or, moreover, courier.

The pigeon post is sometimes linked to an unprecedented success of the Rothschild family – famous British bankers. According to some reports, the pigeon brought to Nathan Rothschild message about the outcome of the Waterloo battle (1815). He received the news two days before everyone and cranked a successful transaction on the exchange. All were convinced that the British had been defeated. Rothschild immediately began selling his shares on the stock exchange. Other brokers followed him. Stock prices fell sharply, whereupon Rothschild's agents bought them on the cheap. The banker made 40 million pounds on it.

Pigeon post

By the way, sometimes besides mail pigeons delivered shells. Of course, it was only in time of war. Few know that sometimes instead of pigeons bees were used! Of course, for this purpose large species were used, they were even specially "tamed".


2. Perhaps, one of the most unusual kinds of airmail is cannon mail. People began using this method in the 15th century. The correspondence was hidden right in the cannon-ball and was shot in the direction of the desired "address". For this purpose, special "mail cannons" were used. Of course, ordinary citizens couldn't use cannons to exchange letters. It was the prerogative of the military forces. "Mail cannons" were stored in the fortresses, as well as on the warships and the merchant ships. By the way, mail was thrown from the ships ashore when the ship was unable to stop.


3. Balloon mail was the method of mail delivery on balloons, which appeared in the late 18th century. It was impossible to send correspondence far by this method.

Balloon mail

The test flight took place on January 1785. The mail was sent on balloon from England to France. The disadvantage of this method didn’t only consist in low speed – 10-20 kilometers per hour – but also in special requirements to weather conditions and in short distances this transport could overcome.

John Wise starting the first airmail delivery in the US

For example, in 1859, during the first official airmail delivery in the United States, due to bad weather, the balloon was forced to land and the letters were further sent by train.


4. The next kind of airmail can hardly be called fast too. In the beginning of 20th century people began delivering mail by airships and Zeppelins – called so after their inventor F. Zeppelin. Mass mailing by airships was spread in the 20s and 30s.

Postcard - Zeppelin LZ-4 on Lake Constance

In that time planes weren't yet able to cover long distance and fly from one continent to another. Airship mail was widely used in Russia. For instance, in 1930 the airship brought letters to Moscow and a year later – in the Arctic, where people from the "Malygin" icebreaker got mail.

65c airmail Graf Zeppelin, United States, 1930

Graf Zeppelin Block. North Korea, 1988


5. Another interesting sort of airmail is rocket mail. It got its spread in the 30s of the 20th century in England. However, the first experience dates back to the end of 19th century. At first "rockets" didn't mean familiar to us bulky constructions. They were made of 2-meter iron plates. The mail was inside such rocket, by and large, it wasn't fixed in any way. So you can imagine in what state it was received at the "other end". The rocket could travel distances greater than 2 kilometers.

Rocket mail

But it was difficult to calculate the accuracy of its flight, that's why such constructions often got lost. In general, many flights of such "mail-carrying rockets" were realized, but for the experimental purpose.

Missile Mail cover launched from USS Barbero