In a world of next-day deliveries, precise to-the-hour delivery slots and live parcel tracking, it’s hard to imagine courier workin some of its more rustic forms. But before we had the help of modern technology and transport, humans had many ingenious means of getting a package from A to B. Here, we take a look back at the roots of courier workas we know it: four historical parcel carriers that will make you grateful for our modern-day delivery driver fleets.
An age-old method of message delivery, people have been delivering on foot since 2,400 BC, when human go-betweens were used in Ancient Egypt to take messages to neighbouring rulers. The word “courier” comes from the Latin “curre”, meaning “to run”. Even our modern marathon was based on the legendary 26-mile delivery job Philippides ran back in 490 BC, when he delivered a message to Athens about the Greeks’ victory over the Persians. It’s no surprise then, that customers still enjoy the personal touch of a hand delivery, even if nowadays the courier has had some help of the four-wheeled variety.
These days, we expect to make international deliveries in a matter of days or hours. However, there was once a simpler time when these journeys had to be carried out on horseback. Although now a seemingly arduous means of transport, the advent of horseback deliveries was an exciting time for the early logistics business, as it opened up the unlikely possibility of long-distance deliveries.
In 1860s America, equine courier worktook the form of the famous Pony Express, a 2000-mile relay running almost the entire width of the country. Journeys were completed in an impressive ten days: a snail’s pace by modern standards, but revolutionary at the time. So the next time your package is stuck at customs, just be thankful that you’re not relying on a pony to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
We are lucky to live in a world where we can rely on delivery services to get goods to us on time and in great condition. Aside from the odd package left under a hedge in the rain, most deliveries get to where they need to be in pretty good shape. The same cannot be said when your package is arriving on the back of a camel. These tenacious animals were to the Australian outback as the Pony Express was to the American West: a vital means of carrying out early courier work before the beginnings of modern infrastructure.
Of course, this list would not be complete without mentioning the humble homing pigeon: arguably the longest serving animal in the business, having gained awards for their services to message-sending as recently as World War II. Although incapable of some of the more heavy-duty courier work, they cannot be overlooked, with 32 pigeons awarded the Dickin Medal for animals showing devotion to duty in the war.
Although many of these means of transport seem decidedly passé from a modern-day perspective, don’t be too quick to dismiss the impact that they had on present-day logistics. That GPS system that you use to keep track of your couriers’ whereabouts is only a sophisticated impersonation of a homing pigeon’s natural instinct, and a camel might seem like a smart option when the delivery truck breaks down in the desert.
Norman Dulwich is a correspondent for Courier Exchange, the world's largest neutral trading hub for same day courier work in the express freight exchange industry. Over 5,000 member companies are networked together through the Exchange to fill empty capacity, get new clients and form long-lasting business relationships.