The Theophrastus Message in a Bottle Myth

The Myth:

Greek Philosopher 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. But, sadly, it simply isn’t true. Theophrastus never sent a message in a bottle, and the story is a myth.

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.

It is a wonder to me that so many websites claim Theophrastus sent messages in bottles “around 310 BC,” and none of them ever offer any sort of evidence or proof. Wikipedia repeats the unfounded claim about Theophrastus sending messages in bottles, citing this National Geographic article, which, in turn, gives no source for the claim. Let me repeat that: No source.

Often, the “source” given is this New York Magazine page, which, again, provides no source for the claim.

Perhaps the best example of getting this story wrong comes from Wikipedia itself, which states:  “It is reputed that about 310 BC, Aristotle’s protégé, Greek philosopher Theophrastus used bottled messages to determine if the Mediterranean Sea was formed by the inflowing Atlantic Ocean.” Incredibly, Wikipedia cites Curt Ebbesmeyer’s and Eric Scigliano’s book, Flotsametrics, as a source supporting the idea that Theophrastus did this, but the truth is just the opposite. In fact, Ebbesmeyer comes to the conclusion that it is impossible to prove that Theophrastus did send bottled notes. Let me repeat that: It is not “reputed” by Ebbesmeyer and Scigliano, or anyone in their book, that Theophrastus sent bottled messages. Ebbesmeyer actually disputes the story, and only included the story of Theophrastus in a section on “Urban Legends of the Sea”. 

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 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 (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 internet 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 he 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 with oceanographer Curt Ebbesmeyer about this, who has studied the history of messages in bottles in depth himself. He told me that in his years of research, including speaking with the world’s foremost experts on Theophrastus, he has never found evidence that supports the claim that Theophrastus sent bottled messages.

This is why in his book, Flotsametrics, Ebbesmeyer examines the Theophrastus story in a section tellingly titled “Urban Legends of the Sea,” as I’ve mentioned. He writes “I’ve tried to track down the actual facts of each case, weigh them against what I know about oceanic phenomena, and rate them from one to ten on a scale of probability”.

Ebbesmeyer continues:

Theophrastus’s Bottles. For years, I cherished Gardner Soule’s Men Who Dared the Sea, which recounted how Aristotle’s protege Theophrastus released bottles in the Strait of Gibraltar to see if a current flowed from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. Soule included footnotes for many parts of his book, but none for his chapter on Theophrastus. Still I kept investigating; this experiment–which would have made Theophrastus the first by about two millennia to make scientific use of drifters–seemed in line with the way he conducted research. And the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica gave the same account. To confirm it, I contacted a group of scholars at Rutgers University, who were assembling all of Theophrastus’s known writings. They graciously investigated, but could not verify that he released drifters.

Well, friends, I happen to have a copy of Gardner Soule’s Men Who Dared the Sea open before me on my lap. Here is the full extent of what Soule’s book says about Theophrastus:

Plato had taught Aristotle. At his school in Athens, the Lyceum, Aristotle taught a student named Theophrastus. Sometime before 300 B.C., Theophrastus began tossing bottles and marked seaweed into the sea to see where they would drift. Theophrastus showed that the Mediterranean receives most of its water from the Atlantic.

That is all. There is nothing more. Bottles? Yes. Messages? No.

First, let it be known that Soule’s work is generally regarded as a bit…fanciful. He liked to write about things like monsters and UFOs, etc. I’m not saying that these are not worthy fields of study, or that he was a bad writer, or that he was not bright. I am only saying that he took some liberties with his presentation of reality from time to time.

Note that the book only claims Theophrastus tossed “bottles” into the sea. It does not claim he stuffed them with notes, or with anything.

More importantly, the paragraph on Theophrastus (it is not a “chapter”) has no footnotes, as Ebbesmeyer points out. Soule makes no attempt to support his claim, because it would be impossible to do so, as there is no hard evidence that Theophrastus ever tossed bottles in the sea–and even Soule’s book doesn’t pretend that he stuffed them with messages.

It is impossible to know where Soule got the idea that Theophrastus tossed bottles (without messages) into the sea–but it was not, apparently, from a source he was willing or able to cite.

Let’s go back to Ebbesemeyer’s passage above, and let this sink in: A team of scholars at Rutgers University who assembled ALL of Theophrastus’s known writings could not verify that he ever tossed bottles of any kind into the sea to measure currents.

And one more thing, to address the final source Ebbesmeyer mentions: The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica? Yeah–you can search that online. I have tried for hours, and have found nothing that says Theophrastus sent bottled messages to study ocean currents. It’s certainly not in the entry for Theophrastus himself, or the entry on Oceanography, or any of the other places you might expect to find it. So, where is this mysterious entry stating that Theophrastus sent messages in bottles 2,000 ago?

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.

Kraske’s book, which gives no source for the Theophrastus myth, came out two years after Soule’s.

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. 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.

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 he 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, he 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.