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The concept of the ‘MIB’ or message in a bottle has been around for centuries. These bobbing glassy containers have been used for a variety of different, unusual purposes over the years, from sending love letters and distress messages, to transporting human ashes! In fact, Queen Elizabeth I appointed her own bottle un-corker to try to intercept enemy messages, and even issued the death penalty to anyone else who opened a message.

The first known use of the bottle to transport a message was in a 310 BC study, by the philosopher Theophrastus, which as designed to investigate water currents. Bottles were used for this purpose up until the 1800s and similar devices called CTDs (Conductivity, Temperature and Depth instruments) are used today to monitor currents, however, unlike a bottle, these tools sink below the water’s surface.

One of these 19th Century water current monitoring bottles washed up this week on the shores of a West Australian beach, nearly 132 years after it was tossed overboard into the Indian Ocean. This is the first message of its kind to be discovered with its bottle still intact and is now the world’s oldest, beating the previous record holding bottle by 24 years. The glass gin bottle was found by a local family, and the damp scroll inside the removed and dried in a household oven. The faded paper revealed that the bottle was launched from a German sailing ship called the ‘Paula’ in 1886.

This bottle, and those like it, were part of an almost 70-year study to find faster shipping routes. Each parchment would also have contained the coordinates of the ship at the time the bottle was jettisoned and the craft’s home port. We can almost think of this as one of the first crowdsourcing attempts, as the discoverer would then return the slip of paper to the German Naval Observatory in Hamburg or the nearest German consulate for further study.

Crowdsourcing in the monitoring of water currents, and other ocean sciences, is still a hot topic today. Aspiring Oxbridge Geographers may wish to study ‘message in a bottle’ experiments further to better understand global ocean currents. Future Art Historians and Historian might be interested in investigating how we can better upskill the general public on preserving newly found artefacts and artworks.

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