It was past 5pm on February 18, 1911, when Henri Pequet’s two-seater Humber-Sommer biplane landed at a cleared-out spot near the Naini railway station. Pequet handed over the mail bag, containing 6,500 cards and letters, to the lone post office employee present there and returned to Allahabad. This nondescript transaction, sans any kind of fanfare, was a moment in history of India and the world that marked the delivery of the first official airmail, writes JIM REES
My friends often accuse me of living in the past, afraid to embrace new things. Not guilty on both counts. History fascinates me, but I have spent too many years researching the past to want to live there.
I am guilty, however, of lamenting the passing of some things that made a deep impression on me when I was growing up. One of them was the fancy envelope with the ‘fringed’ edge which proclaimed that the letter it contained had crossed great oceans to reach us.
E-mail is a wonderful invention. I use it daily. Messages can be transmitted to next door or to the most remote parts of the globe in seconds. But let’s be honest, a ‘ping’ announcing the delivery of an e-mail simply cannot instil that tingling excitement an airmail envelope sparked in us.
The idea of sending messages by air was not a twentieth century phenomenon. Airmail was born when men first discovered that the natural propensity of pigeons to return to their home place could be utilised to carry messages quickly across great distances.
Strap a little container to the pigeon’s leg with a message inside and there you go, lift-off. However, it was to take many centuries before our feathered friends were faced with redundancy. In fact, it wasn’t until 1785 that the first pigeon-free air delivery was made.
The Montgolfier brothers are credited with making hot-air ballooning a viable proposition in 1783. They were inventors rather than balloonists and they solved several technical difficulties so that others could pilot the contraptions more safely and usefully.
Just fourteen months later, on 7 January, 1785, the first manned flight across the English Channel was made from Dover to Calais, a distance of about twenty-two miles. And ballooning just took off, so to speak.