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In this chapter:

  • People needed to invent ways to send messages to each other
  • Some early societies used drum beats and smoke signals to send messages
  • Phidippides ran 40 kilometres to deliver a message in the Battle of Marathon
  • The Ancient Romans and Chinese communicated their messages through relays
  • Pigeons have been used for thousands of years to carry messages


When people started to talk to each other and write things down, they wanted to share their ideas with others. It was easy to communicate with people who were close, but it was difficult to communicate with people over long distances. People had to invent ways to send their messages to people who were sometimes hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. Imagine how hard this would have been without telephones, postal trucks, or email.

The first message delivery systems

In the first human societies, before written language evolved, people developed ways to send their messages over long distances. Some tribes used special drum beats to send warnings or important information. Other people used smoke signals to send messages over long distances. Messages were also sent by relaying information by beacons and torches on hilltops. See image 1

The first marathon

The Ancient Greeks used a person to deliver a message during the Battle of Marathon. The Greeks had defeated the Persian army but they were worried that the Persians, who retreated to the sea, would head to Athens to launch a new attack.

The Greek army needed to send a message to Athens to tell them that Greece had won the battle but to warn them that Persia may try to attack again. Phidippides was given the job to run 26 miles (40 kilometres) to Athens to give the news. Phidippides ran to Athens in about three hours and delivered his message. He was so exhausted, however, that he died. See image 2

Running such long distances was not the best way to communicate messages.

Chinese messages

When Marco Polo visited China in the 13th century, he noticed two relay systems that were used to communicate messages. A relay is when you receive a message and then pass it on to someone else. The first method used a relay of messengers who rode horses. They could carry news up to a distance of 400 km a day. Chinese relay-runners also carried messages five kilometres at a time. The runners had small bells on their clothes, which would warn the next runner to get ready. The first runner would pass the letter onto the next runner and they would run to the next person in the chain.

Roman messages

Ancient Rome was a huge empire that spread across a large area. The rulers of Ancient Rome needed an efficient and fast way of communicating their messages. They used a system that was similar to the one that was popular in China. They had cursus publicus, which means 'state runners service', to deliver messages in a relay system. Rest houses were placed twelve kilometres apart from each other. This is where messengers swapped their tired horses for new ones. The horses were always fresh so messages were delivered quickly. The cursus publicus was used until about the 5th century AD. See image 3

Flying messages

Pigeons have carried messages for thousands of years and can deliver messages much more quickly than people. They were even used by pharaohs to deliver messages in Ancient Egypt. Pigeons were reliable for delivering messages because they always found their way home.

In World War II, troops used pigeons to send messages to each other. Troops who were in battle could tie a message to a pigeon and be confident that it would fly to its home at the army base. Pigeons were very useful in times of war because they could fly above the battlefield and through smoke. See image 4

Chapters: Early methods Signals Codes The telegraph Postal service

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Question 1/5

1. Relay runners could carry messages:

5 kilometres at a time

50 kilometres a day

400 kilometres a day

500 kilometres at a time


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