The Story Behind the World’s Oldest Message in a Bottle

September 30, 2021

A message in a bottle washed up on the shore of Wedge Island on the western coast of Australia and was found on January 21, 2018. While a message in a bottle with an actual note inside would be a unique find, what made this one special was how old the message, and the bottle, were.

A Perth, Australia, resident named Tonya Illman found the bottle while walking on a sand dune. The bottle wasn’t closed and was filled partially with sand, but she saw that there was a rolled piece of paper inside wrapped with string. She retrieved the note with the help of her son’s girlfriend and waited for it to dry. When she was able to unroll it, she discovered that the note was printed in German and had the year 18 written on it, followed by a blank that would have been used to print which 1800s year it was. The writing was all but gone, but she could make out a month and a day of June 12th. It appeared that the note was indeed from sometime during the 1800s.

Illman, along with her husband, contacted the Western Australia Museum, who then contacted experts in the Netherlands and Germany to assist with learning more about where the bottle and message came from. They discovered that the message wasn’t from a marooned sailor or a message that someone had put in a bottle for fun, but was, in fact, part of a German naval experiment dating from between 1864 to 1933.

The experiment had been conducted by the German Naval Observatory, and it went on for 69 years. During that time, ships tossed thousands of bottles into the ocean to study the global currents. The captain of the ship would write the date, the coordinates where the bottle was dropped, the name of the ship, its route of travel, and the home port on the message before tossing it into the ocean. On the back of the message were instructions for anyone finding the bottle. They instructed the finder to record where and when they had found the bottle and to return it to the nearest German consulate or the German Naval Observatory.

The path the world's oldest message in a bottle took to get to the coast of Australia.
The bottle didn’t travel that far but took a long time to be found.

Experts in Germany finally discovered that the particular bottle found on Wedge Island had come from a German ship called Paula. They were even able to find the logbooks for the Paula. One entry was dated June 12, 1886, by Captain O. Dickerman, and it indicated that a bottle had been thrown overboard. The ship, at the time, had been located about 590 miles off the coast of Australia. This matched the coordinates found on the message in the bottle.

The message in the bottle was dated at 131 years, 223 days old, the oldest on record. It was also given the record of “Oldest Message in a Bottle” by the Guinness Book of World Records. It beat out the previous record-holder by 23 years, which was a bottle that was 108 years old found in Germany in 2015.

The bottle the note rode in was a Dutch gin brand called Daniel Visser & Zonen. It was confirmed to be from the time period of the late 1800s. The research report said that the bottle didn’t spend the entire 131 years in the ocean and probably washed up on the Australian beach within a year and was buried in the sand until Illman found it uncovered.

Interestingly, out of the thousands of bottles that were thrown overboard for the German experiment, 662 had been found prior to the bottle from Wedge Island. The previous bottle found from the experiment had taken place almost 84 years before when a bottle was retrieved on January 7, 1934, in Denmark.

Sources: kymillman.com, Western Australia Museum, NPR, Smithsonian, NY Times

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of great trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium. I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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