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The Pigeon Post into Paris: The First Important Application of Microfilm (September 19, 1870 – January 28, 1871)


During the four and a half months, from September 19, 1870 to January 28, 1871, of the Siege of Paris by German armies in the Franco-Prussian War normal channels of communication were interrupted, and the only way for the provincial government in Tours to communicate with Paris was by pigeon post.

During the Siege French photographer and inventor of microfilm René Dagron proposed using his microfilming process to carry messages by carrier pigeons. Dagron was not the first to produce microfilms, examples of which were shown by John Benjamin Dancer during the 1850s. The process was sufficiently well known that on July 9, 1853 John F. W. Herschel published a letter in the Athenaeum suggesting the microfilming of "reference materials." However, Dagron was the first to systematize and patent the process, publishing in 1864 a small illustrated booklet of 36 pages in 12mo entitled Traité de photographie microscopique giving details of his process and a price list of his equipment and supplies. This was the world's first treatise on microfilming techniques

Rampont, the man in charge of the carrier pigeon program, agreed to Dagron's proposal, and a contract was signed on November 11, 1871.

"According to the contract Dagron was to be paid 15 francs per 1000 characters photographed. A clause in the contract, signed by an official named Picard, gave Dagron the title of "chief of the photomicroscopic correspondence postal service" mentioning in French: 'M. Dagron a le titre de chef de service des correspondences postales photomicroscopiques. Il relève directement du Directeur Général des Postes,' which translates as 'Mr. Dagron has the title of the chief of the photomicroscopic correspondence postal service. He reports directly to the Director General of the Post Office.'

"After a period of difficulties and through hardships brought on by the war and the lack of equipment, Dagron finally achieved a photographic reduction of more than 40 diameters. The microfilms so produced weighed approximately 0.05 grams each and a pigeon was able to carry up to 20 at a time. Up to that point a page of a message could be copied in a microfilm approximately measuring 37 mm by 23 mm but Dagron was able to reduce this to a size of approximately 11 mm by 6 mm which was a significant reduction in the area of the microphotograph.

"Dagron photographed pages of newspapers in their entirety which he then converted into miniature photographs. He subsequently removed the collodion film from the glass base and rolled it tightly into a cylindrical shape which he then inserted into miniature tubes that were transported fastened on the wings of pigeons. Upon receipt the microphotograph was reattached to a glass frame and was then projected by magic lantern on the wall. The message contained in the microfilm could then be transcribed or copied. By 28 January 1871, when Paris and the Government of National Defense surrendered, Dagron had delivered 115,000 messages to Paris by carrier pigeon" (Wikipedia article on René Dagron, accessed 04-26-2009).

After the seige was over Dagron issued from Paris in 1871 a very small 24-page pamphlet in 12mo format describing the achievements of the Pigeon Post, La poste par pigeons voyageurs. Souvenir du Siège du Paris. Spécimen identique d'une des pellicules de dépêches portées a Paris par pigeons voyageurs. When issued the pamphlets contained actual samples of two pieces of microfilm presented in a glassine envelope inserted in a small printed folder inside the pamphlet.  Most of the surviving copies of the pamphlet no longer contain the microfilms.

J. D. Hayhurst, The Pigeon Post into Paris 1870-1871(1970) provides a comprehensive account, and reproduces a number of original documents including photomicrographs.

(This entry was last revised on 01-12-2015.)