News canisters

Once upon a time, news was delivered by ship. It was a piece of cargo like any other. It took up space. It weighed something.

Cape Race was a landfall beacon for ships from Europe travelling to US and Canadian ports. The AP paid shipping companies to bring the latest news from Europe in watertight canisters and drop them over the side as they steamed past Cape Race. The company kept a steam launch, a boat crew and lookouts at the Cape. When a ship had news to transfer she would signal with flags or flares and the lookout would alert the boat crew. The news canisters were brought ashore to a telegraph operator who would put the news “on the wire” to New York—four days before the ship arrived in port! It was a great business for Associated Press, and the “Via Cape Race” byline soon became well-known all over North America, including St. John’s. (

News canisters were the main method of transporting news between Europe and North America in the middle part of the 19th century. News agencies furiously competed with one another to find the fastest means of shipping breaking news across the ocean, as exemplified by the dramatic story of the record-fast delivery of the news of Lincoln’s assassination. In July of 1866, after much difficulty (including several instances of sabotage), a transatlantic telegraph cable connected Newfoundland to Ireland, affording the transfer of news and other data at a rate of 8 words/minute (approximately .25 bytes/second). An additional cable was laid in August of 1866, effectively putting an end to the news canister business.

More info here.

Contemporary equivalent: sneakernet, e.g. pigeon-based file transfer.