When the news came on wings

Back in the day, Boston readers wanted their yacht news now -- and newspapers figured out an inventive way to get it to them

By Chris Marstall
August 21, 2011

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THIS MONTH, AS the runup to the 2013 America’s Cup gets underway, television viewers of the 160-year-old yacht race will see something new: high-tech graphic overlays for the ocean course, inspired by technologies like the NFL’s digital first-down marker. Larry Ellison, the Cup’s billionaire impresario, hopes the explanatory graphics will help capture the attention of mainstream viewers who know a lot less about sailboat racing than, say, baseball.

In the regatta’s early days, the waning popularity of yacht racing was one problem the organizers and press didn’t have - spectators were fascinated by the sport, and in particular by a fierce rivalry between, of all cities, Boston and New York. But they shared one concern with Ellison, which was the question of how to clearly and speedily broadcast the events of a confusing race at sea to those on land. Without digital overlays, never mind television cameras, the press was still able to cover those electrifying early years of the Cup, and newspaper accounts of the time show that they did it using similarly innovative and up-to-the-minute technology. But their tools were simple: telegraphs, chalk - and pigeons.

By 1885, the Cup’s creator, the New York Yacht Club, had successfully defended it from a string of foreign challengers. In the process, the club’s members built a reputation as the bad boys of yachting. They would stack the deck against challengers by fielding a different boat every day to match conditions, while opponents were restricted to just one. They were criticized by the New York press for changing the rules to their own favor mid-regatta. When they could get away with it, they held the contest in local waters that were familiar to them but treacherous for outsiders.

At the time, Boston considered itself an important yachting center and chafed at New York’s dominance in the sport. So in 1884, a group of well-born Boston yachtsmen pooled their funds and commissioned a ship that could compete for the Cup. They were a band of amateurs, with a Civil War general, Charles Paine, for a leader; the ship’s designer, Edward Burgess, had been an entomologist at Harvard. The boat, called the Puritan, was built in Lawley shipyard in City Point in South Boston. With The Boston Globe and other newspapers reporting heavily on the Puritan team, local audiences grew intensely focused on the ‘85 Cup trials, which were set to take place off Sandy Hook, N.J. To advance, the Puritan would have to beat the New York favorite, the Priscilla.

The trials were a best-of-three contest. In the first two races, the two boats traded victories. Then, in the decisive third race, the Puritan crossed the line just ahead of the Priscilla, scoring a dramatic win. Bostonians were euphoric. The Globe wrote, “To say that New England people here are crazy over the success of the...Puritan today would be very much like calling a tornado a zephyr.” Then, having conquered New York, the Puritan went on to win the America’s Cup.

This marked the beginning of a passionate sports rivalry. In 1886, and again in 1887, Boston fielded a new entry and beat a New York boat to advance. And in both years, as in 1885, Boston’s boat went on to win the Cup in the final regatta.

The Boston Globe had covered all these races closely, and the paper’s young and pioneering publisher, Charles Taylor, saw an opportunity. In 1887, determined to be the first in town to have the day’s racing finals in his evening edition, he bought a steam yacht, the Ocean Gem, and equipped it with a pigeon coop. The Globe’s yachting reporters would observe race action from the deck. Then, at key points, they would release homing pigeons, carrying reports of the leaders’ speed, the time at which buoys and lightships were passed, changes in weather, and so on. Once the birds reached their coop on shore, the news flashes would be telegraphed over land to the Globe.

But many Bostonians couldn’t wait for the evening paper. Enormous crowds would throng Newspaper Row (today, the area around Washington Street between Water and State) to get the updates as they came in. On the sidewalk in front of its office, the Globe set up a scaffold on which a wide blackboard was mounted. For at least one big race, the ‘87 final, telegrams were routed directly to the scaffold, where an assistant editor wore a telegraph terminal harnessed to his body. He wrote a play-by-play account on the blackboard as quickly as he could translate the Morse code. Standing next to him, a Globe artist drew a “real-time” map of the race, showing the positions of the boats relative to one another. Records are hazy, but his diagrams were probably similar to those that appeared in the evening paper, zig-zagging as the boats went upwind. The crowd stared raptly at the action, like any group of fans in a sports bar. Finally, Boston’s Volunteer won the race, to the joy of the crowd. An elaborate scene soon covered the blackboard: Before a lavish sunset, the Volunteer sailed a victory lap, towing a tugboat bearing the Cup.

In enlisting pigeons to cover this newly popular sport, Taylor was adapting a technology that had been used to transmit information for years, often under even more urgent conditions. Pigeons carried messages into Paris during a siege by the Germans in the 1870s. At one point, an entire newspaper was even sent via a single pigeon, shrunk down onto a scrap of film; a microscope and “magic lantern” had to be used to decode the information. And homing pigeons flew surveillance missions during the First and Second World Wars, when soldiers sent them flying over enemy lines with miniature cameras lashed around their necks.

Looking back at the pigeon-fueled front-page yachting stories of the 1880s, it’s easy to marvel at how much has changed. But perhaps even more striking is how much is the same. Jostling crowds of sports fans, an obsessive Boston-New York rivalry, an endless quest for wireless technology to quickly bring news of the competition: Sounds like modern life, even if our interest in yachting has largely faded, and even if the news no longer arrives on wings.

Chris Marstall is the creative technologist at The Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @marstall.