"...an hour and 42 minutes to transfer a 64-byte packet of
"A typical MTU is 256 milligrams."
"There is ongoing litigation about which is the prior art: carrier or
Pigeon-powered Internet takes flight
By Stephen Shankland
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
May 4, 2001, 12:15 p.m. PT
One of the Internet's most obscure technologies came to life last
weekend: transmitting network information by carrier pigeon.
In 1990, David Waitzman wrote RFC 1149, a tongue-in-cheek standard for
using pigeons to transfer information using the Internet Protocol (IP).
On Saturday, a group of Linux enthusiasts in Bergen, Norway, succeeded
in exchanging some data using the Carrier Pigeon Internet Protocol
The group transmitted a "ping" command, among the most basic operations
of the Internet, in which one computer sends a signal to another, which
in turn signals that it is attached to the network. In the experiment,
packets of network data were printed on paper then attached to pigeons'
legs. Upon their arrival at the destination, the data was transferred to
the computer using optical character recognition software.
The Bergen Linux Users Group had some assistance from the Vesta
Brevdueforening carrier pigeon club and Alan Cox, a programmer at Linux
leader Red Hat and top deputy of Linux founder Linus Torvalds.
The pigeon protocol didn't mean the fastest of networks, though. Taking
an hour and 42 minutes to transfer a 64-byte packet of information makes
the pigeon network about 5 trillion times slower than today's
cutting-edge 40 gigabit-per-second optical fiber networks.
With a bit more luck than the Bergen group experienced, a basic Web page
probably could be loaded in a couple of hours, participant Vegard Engen
said in an e-mail interview.
Why bother with such a pokey protocol? "Because it could be done, and
because no one had done it before," Engen said.
Indeed, Waitzman said the only other attempt he knew of faltered for
lack of avian carriers.
"In February 1996, I got an e-mail from Sprint Communications South
Africa asking if anyone has implemented it, and that they are thinking
of doing it as a publicity stunt," Waitzman said in an e-mail interview.
"I replied 'No, and good luck,' and they responded that they were having
trouble finding a carrier pigeon owner. I never heard anything more."
Carrier pigeons, with their navigational abilities, have been used for
communication in numerous forms. A black check cock carrier pigeon named
Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal for delivering 12
messages in World War I. His valorous duty included a message that
helped the U.S. Army locate its "Lost Battalion," a message delivered
despite the bird's being shot by enemy fire, according to the
There were some hitches with the Internet experiment as well. "The main
reason for the long ping times was the neighbors' pigeons," Engen said.
"They were out flying in the valley. When our pigeons were released,
they did not want to go home. They would rather fly with the other
And the flocking tendency caused another problem: The arrival en masse
of a bunch of pigeons that had been released at 7.5-minute intervals
caused a lot of confusion among the pigeon handlers, who left some cages
open. As a result, some pigeons returned back to the starting point
before they could be fitted with a datagram. But the packet loss wasn't
bad enough to sink the experiment, Engen said.
And, as usual among Linux groupies, Microsoft took some of the heat. One
pigeon bonked into a nearby window, spurring Cox to quip, "Oh, no!
Windows causing problems again," Engen said.
Waitzen's avian carrier protocol is one of a number of "April Fool's
Day" standards at the Internet Engineering Task Force. Waitzen puts the
total count of joke standards at 29, including a sequel he wrote in
1999, RFC 2549, for ensuring quality of service on carrier pigeon
Waitzen, an employee of Internet pioneer BBN Technologies, seasons his
standards descriptions with networking jargon adapted to feathered
For example, "the carriers have an intrinsic collision avoidance
system," a problem that afflicts the transfer of data on crowded
networks. And regarding patent considerations, "There is ongoing
litigation about which is the prior art: carrier or egg."
The pigeon experiment may have been just a lark, but it actually served
a serious function in setting an example of how helpful good
documentation can be.
"If all protocol tests included such good documentation,
interoperability in the Internet would be even better," Waitzen said.
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