A German science experiment that began 132 years ago has gotten an update. A woman in Australia that began its voyage in the 19th century as German scientists were studying shipping routes.
While Tonya Illman and a friend were waiting for her son's car to be dug out from soft sand, she noticed something on the beach.
“It just looked like a lovely old bottle so I picked it up thinking it might look good in my bookcase," she says in a Western Australia Museum . "My son’s girlfriend was the one who discovered the note when she went to tip the sand out. The note was damp, rolled tightly and wrapped with string. We took it home and dried it out, and when we opened it we saw it was a printed form, in German, with very faint German handwriting on it.”
The bottle became a family affair. Illman's husband began researching online and discovered that it was part of an experiment run by an organization then known as as Deutsche Seewarte, or the German Naval Observatory in Hamburg.
At the time, Deutsche Seewarte was attempting to better understand the ocean's currents with the goal of more creating more effective trade routes. Ocean currents still . Oil tankers ride the Gulf Stream on northbound runs and avoid it on the return, to name one example.
Between 1864 and 1933, German ships dropped thousands of bottles into the ocean in the hopes that when found and returned, they would provide a better understanding of how the ocean worked. The messages within the bottles contained the date and coordinates of the message, along with the ship’s name, its home port, and the route it had been sailing at the time.
“This bottle was thrown overboard on 12th June 1886, in 32 degrees, 49 minutes latitude South and 105 degrees, 25 minutes longitude from Greenwich East,” the letter inside the Illmans' bottle reads. “From: Barque ship Paula. Home (port): Elsfleth.” While the captain's name had been smudged over time, there was still enough information to attempt to verify the letter.
Eventually, researchers at the museum were able to verify the bottle, ship, the handwriting, and the stationary. They show their work in a . Given the letter's terrific condition, researchers believe that it hit the Australian coast within a year of being dropped in the water but got buried in sand after that.
From the thousands of bottles thrown overboard in the 69-year experiment, only 662 had ever been reported to be found. Before the Illman bottle, the last one found was discovered a few months after the experiment ended. The Illman bottle brings the count up to 663.
The Illmans have agreed to display the bottle for two years at the Western Australia Museum, so if you're in the area you can see a piece of scientific history firsthand.