The Theophrastus Message in a Bottle Myth

Message in a Bottle Myth #2

Theophrastus Sent Messages in Bottles in Ancient Greece to Study Ocean Currents

The internet loves a good story. This one about Theophrastus has gone about as viral as any “message in a bottle” story I can think of.

If you look at the Wikipedia page for “Message in a Bottle,” you’ll find Theophrastus described as the sender of “the first recorded messages in bottles”. The trouble is, he is not, in fact, “recorded” anywhere in history as having sent bottled messages.

Rather, he is alleged to have released these messages in bottles “around 310 BC,” by all kinds of sources who provide no evidence. Often, the “source” given is this New York Magazine page, which is what Wikipedia cites. The New York Magazine page simply does not give a source for the claim. Let me repeat that: No source.

Now, Theophrastus was a very smart guy–I mean, he was a student of Plato and also Aristotle, after all! And they don’t make statues of you like this unless you were pretty bright. So, I’m sure he was smart enough that he could have figured out how to use messages in bottles to track currents–but the trouble is that there’s no evidence he did. Which is a bummer, because that would be super cool.

Statue of Theophrastus with Scroll, but no bottle.

Statue of Theophrastus with scroll, but no bottle. Photo: Wikipedia.

How The Theophrastus Message in a Bottle Myth Circulates Online

The desire to believe that Theophrastus sent messages in bottles over two thousand years ago is so strong that even reputable agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Geographic Society repeat the myth as if it were true, here and here. I have explained to both NOAA and Nat Geo that there is no evidence to support the claim that Theophrastus–or any other ancient Greek–sent messages in bottles to study ocean currents. And yet, both continue to repeat the Theophrastus myth on their websites, demonstrating a commendable degree of faith in unsupported internet claims. The lesson is: If a thing gets repeated online enough times, it’s totally true! Even–or especially–if there is no hard evidence to prove it.

To their credit, NOAA at least responded to my emails, admitting that they do not have a reliable source for this myth (which is because there isn’t one). I do love NOAA. I really am a  big fan of their work. And in the scheme of that work, this is a minutely small, totally unimportant thing to be worried about. Which is why I hold onto hope that they will update pages related to messages in bottles and eliminate unsupportable claims that “ancient Greeks” sent messages in bottles 🙂 Or, even better–I hope they can dig up proof that Theophrastus actually sent bottled notes! That would be awesome!

Meanwhile, the National Geographic embellishment on this story is such a delight of inernert crockery, it deserves quoting at length here:

Around 310 B.C., the Greek philosopher Theophrastus plopped sealed bottles in the sea to prove that the Mediterranean was formed by the inflowing Atlantic. (There’s no record showing that he ever received a response.)

The deadpan delivery of the myth with no supporting links or evidence is a treat, right off the bat. But the best part is the final parenthetical sentence: “There’s no record showing he ever received a response.” Ha! NatGeo is worried about responses? There is no record showing that Theophrastus even sent messages! None! It’s just breathtaking, the way that serious publications can get away with these kinds of claims nowadays. Well, I’m telling you: National Geographic is dead wrong about Theophrastus.

No Evidence of Theophrastus Sending Messages in Bottles

For my part, I’ve spoken to oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer about this, who has studied the history of messages in bottles quite a bit himself. He told me that no one he spoke with could verify the claim that Theophrastus sent messages in bottles. I’ve spoken with NOAA about it, and they could not provide me with a source, either. National Geographic avoids the difficulty altogether by simply ignoring my requests for their sources.

Anyway, once you click through the dizzying, circular web of sites and blogs that all cite each other, most online sources eventually point back to Robert Kraske’s fanciful and fun–but deeply dubious–1978 children’s book “The Twelve Million Dollar Note” which shares several messages in bottles known to be hoaxes, but presents them as if they were real. For example, the title story of the book refers to a well-known and thoroughly debunked message in a bottle myth. The message in a bottle itself may have been real, but it was written by a prankster. The whole story is debunked by the Museum of Hoaxes, here.

All I am saying is that Robert Kraske made a fun book, but not a historically accurate one. It is impossible to know his sources for these stories, because he doesn’t provide them in the book. But if the story of the “twelve million dollar note” exemplifies his standards for journalistic rigor, well, let’s appreciate the book for what it is: A collection of legends and fables, with the occasional true story thrown in. Kraske wrote his book for kids, and it has just one or two toes dipped in fact to begin with. Naturally, he does not give a source for his claims about Theophrastus, because there isn’t a source to point to. At least, there is not a reliable source that has been brought to my attention.

Theophrastus in the Realm of Myth

Scattered newspaper articles throughout the 20th century allude dramatically to Theophrastus sending messages in bottles in ancient times, but none of them–not one–gives a source for this information.

So, what we end up with, as with so many viral articles online, is an endless series of articles, posts, and websites that take turns citing each other as proof that Theophrastus sent messages in bottles in ancient times. But the truth is, no one so far has provided any concrete evidence (or actually any kind of evidence at all) that Theophrastus sent messages in bottles. This is because he never did. Let me repeat that: Theophrastus never sent message in bottles in ancient Greece.

It’s fun to imagine Theophrastus sending messages in bottles in the Mediterranean 2,000 years ago (as I did in this blog post), but it didn’t really happen. Certainly, Theophrastus was smart enough to conduct such an experiment–I don’t doubt that. But, until there’s evidence that Theophrastus actually sent messages in bottles 2,000 years ago, I’m shelving this one in the venerable category of Greek Myth.