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Century-old message found in a bottle set afloat for science

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Message in abottleGeorge Parker Bidder may not be a household name, but he’s getting some modern-day recognition for a series of experiments performed between 1904 and 1906 in the UK.

[Photo: One of Bidder’s original bottles, along with his notes]

He set 1,020 bottles stuffed with postcards out into the North Sea between the UK and Norway and tracked the responses to learn more about ocean patterns.

All these years later, one of Bidder’s bottles rolled onto shore at the island of Amrum in Germany. The couple that discovered it, Marianne and Horst Winkler, had to break the bottle to get at the message inside. It instructed them to to send the postcard back to the Marine Biological Association of the UK in exchange for a shilling reward.

The Marine Biological Association — Bidder was its president from 1939-1945 — is still around and was thrilled to receive the postcard. The organization kept its end of the bargain and sent the couple an old English shilling in return. Shillings are no longer in circulation as currency in the UK, so the Winklers now have a coin worthy of being in a collection.

Guinness World Records has been asked to confirm the note as the oldest message in a bottle ever found, according to The Independent. The current record holder was found in 2013 and spent over 99 years in the water. That bottle, too, was used as part of an experiment to chart water currents.

The Marine Biological Association shared the history of Bidders’s bottles and how he used them to track bottom water movement. The bottles were designed to be caught in trawling fishing nets. His reports show that the sealed glass capsules “were trawled up by the fishermen at the rate of 55% per annum.” That means quite a few bottles slipped through the nets. The postcards inside asked the finders to report the location of where they were found.

“Bidder’s experiment revealed a number of interesting results, one being that it confirmed the view of naturalists who supposed that bottom feeders tend to move against the current,” the association notes.

The most popular image of a message in a bottle is as a romantic notion, a note about love or connection tucked inside (see, for instance, “Bottle,” near the bottom here). Bidder’s bottles-for-science show another side to the phenomenon, one of discovery and ingenuity and how an experiment from the past can still resonate today.


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