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Victim Of Technology

Spring 1987 | Volume 2 |  Issue 3

THE END OF THE LINE: It had always been shockingly easy to kill a passenger pigeon. The roosting birds, one witness said, “seemed to court death. Wherever there was a naked branch on a tree, [they] chose to sit upon it in such a manner that an amateur could not fail to bring down at least half a dozen at one shot.” Every year the pigeons traveled to nestings in the hardwood tracts of the Midwest in flocks nearly a billion strong; clubs thrown into the dense mass as it passed overhead would bring down hundreds. A net sprung on the feeding birds could take more than a thousand. So after half a century of wholesale slaughter—twelve million of the birds were killed between 1866 and 1876 alone—was it any wonder that by 1914 the passenger pigeon was extinct?

To some it was. For one thing, the pigeon had been the most abundant land bird in the world, numbering at its peak perhaps five billion in North America, or 40 percent of the total U.S. bird population. To anyone who had witnessed the blue-gray flocks, whose flights would blot out the sun for hours at a time, it seemed truly as if “no ordinary destruction can lessen them or be missed from the myriads that are yearly produced.”

But that was just it. The way the birds were destroyed was not at all ordinary, nor did it allow them to reproduce. Recent studies show that the agents of this phenomenon were the railroad and the telegraph.

Passenger pigeons were nomads. Skimming the countryside in intimidating hordes, they descended to feed wherever there were beechnuts, chestnuts, or acorns in good supply. Second best was freshly sown grain; farmers used to destroy the birds on sight. Pigeons were regularly caught and eaten in the areas they passed through, but these killings hardly affected the health of the enormous population.

The railroads changed all that. “In this very large country there would seem to be every chance of losing a body of birds and not finding out where they are,” noted Forest and Stream in 1894. “But a very good system has been established for keeping track of them … the local superintendents of the express companies are instructed to keep their eyes out for indications of a nesting, and the messengers … are to report on their route.”

It was no longer necessary to wait for the annual onslaught. Pigeoners would hear of a distant nesting by wire and hop the next train. Visitors to Michigan, the site of many nestings, noticed in 1874 a “fearful increase in … professional netters who follow [the pigeons] by telegraph hundreds of miles.”

The story of the decline of the passenger pigeons has been fully explained in American Birds magazine by Harrison B. Tordoff, an ecology and behavioral biology professor at the university of Minnesota, and David Blockstein, an ornithologist.

As Tordoff and Blockstein tell it, when the rails pierced the hinterlands, they brought professional pigeoners to the nesting sites, and the baby birds were inevitably abandoned by the adults or killed. Passenger pigeons became extinct, not as a result of open slaughter (there were far too many birds for that), but because “over a period of about 20 years—twice an individual’s lifetime—adults were prevented from replacing themselves.”

In 1830 there were just twenty-three miles of track in the United States. By the time of the Civil War, there were thirty thousand. The pigeon harvest swelled in direct proportion to the growth of the lines. In 1842, before there were direct routes from Chicago to the Atlantic Coast, a typical shipment of live pigeons brought east from Michigan through the Great Lakes was three thousand birds. After 1851, when the extension of the Erie Railroad made it possible to get a load of freshly killed pigeons to New York City unspoiled, a Fulton Market dealer received eighteen thousand birds in a day. The total number of pigeons sold on the New York market in 1855 was three hundred thousand. By 1869 several million birds were being sped to the cities from a nesting in Michigan.

There was some alarm at the rate of the slaughter, says Tordoff, “but the general feeling was that there were so many pigeons that nothing could harm them. No one appreciated the fact that we had turned off the pigeons’ reproduction.”

By 1882 there were no big nestings. The last breeding colony was found in 1896, and following this the pigeon was extremely scarce. There were a few unconfirmed sightings after 1900, but the last known member of the species died in a Cincinnati zoo in 1914.

For a world that would never see another passenger pigeon, a Wisconsin writer left a curiously apt record of his impressions in 1871. To him the migrating flock was like “a thousand threshing machines running under full headway, accompanied by as many steamboats groaning off steam, with an equal quota of R.R. trains passing through covered bridges—imagine these massed into a single flock, and you possibly have a faint conception of the terrific roar following the monstrous black cloud of pigeons as they passed in rapid flight.”

POSTMARK STAMFORD: The first U.S. postage stamps went on sale in 1847, but by 1920 a lot of people wanted to get rid of them. The stolen-stamp racket was flourishing, the chore of putting stamps on envelopes took up valuable office time, and a university study had shown that the gummed part crawled with germs. “If there is any individual … who has any better method of collecting the postal revenues,” the Chicago Daily News remarked, “that person would be received with open arms by the Post Office Department.” This news must have given Arthur Pitney a laugh, because he had been trying since 1902 to get his postage meter approved by Congress for first-class mail. Although people had started toying in the 1880s with the idea of a machine that would automatically stamp postage, Pitney was the first to push for it. But it took a slow-moving bureaucracy nearly twenty years to absorb the novelty.

In 1901 Pitney was a clerk in a Chicago wallpaper store. Noticing how laborious the office’s mailing methods were, he designed an automatic stamp-sticking machine. When that failed, he decided to dispense with the stamps altogether, and the result was a device he patented on October 14, 1902.

Pigeoners would hear of a distant nesting by wire and hop the next train.

The first postage meter was a metal box about half a foot high equipped with a chain action and a hand crank. The works consisted of a vertical plunger, printing die, counter, and locking mechanism. The machine could be set to print only a designated amount of postage; then the meter would lock itself.

In later patents Pitney added electric power, gears in place of chains, and a device for sealing and stacking the envelopes. In 1903 he won an audience with the assistant postmaster general. The meter worked like a charm, but the vote in the end was against it. For the next fifteen years Pitney was obsessed with his machine, abandoning the wallpaper business in 1910 to set up the American Postage Meter Company. But Washington would not be budged.

In 1919 Pitney’s efforts came to the attention of Walter H. Bowes, head of a company that made stamp-canceling and check-endorsing machines. Bowes had himself designed a postage-permit printing device that had failed to impress the post office. Seeing a future in Pitney’s machine, the entrepreneur agreed to back him, and in April 1920 the Pitney-Bowes Postage Meter Company was born.

At this point Congress passed legislation allowing first-class mail to be carried without stamps. That September an improved version of Pitney’s meter was authorized for commercial use, and the Model M went into service for the first time on November 16, 1920, at the Pitney-Bowes headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut.

The U.S. Postal Service estimates that by eliminating the job of culling, facing, and canceling forty-seven billion pieces of stamped mail—not to mention the cost of printing and selling those stamps—postage meters saved the agency $466 million in 1985 alone. In recognition of the achievement that made that possible, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers last year named the Model M the twentieth international historic engineering landmark.

GET IT ON PAPER: Recent anxiety over the fate of the government’s machine-readable records (“Notes from the Field,” Fall 1986) prompted the National Archives and Records Administration to commission another study from the National Academy of Sciences. The academy’s report, Preservation of Historical Records , issued last summer, deals with the question of how to preserve information on deteriorating paper records whose originals may not be intrinsically valuable. Should such documents be transferred to magnetic tape, optical disk, or microchip?

None of these. The microchip was rejected out of hand—“no one would want to commit archival records to a memory that would be erased if power were interrupted.” Magnetic tapes and disks deteriorate over time and can be erased or altered. And optical-disk technology is not sufficiently developed or well enough understood. All are “vulnerable to … problems of hardware obsolescence.”

Paper, on the other hand, if produced with near-neutral pH, has demonstrated “centuries-long permanence”; inks made from permanent materials such as carbon black pigment “will remain legible for hundreds or thousands of years if protected by suitable storage conditions.” Best of all, if properly stored, paper’s rate of aging decreases with time.

The report, after naming paper and microfilm (which lasts just as long) as the storage media of choice, advises the federal government to improve the quality of its paper effluvia. The government can take example from the report itself, which is scrupulously printed on acid-free pages.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

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