International Communication Cycle Times in the 18th Century

The pace of life was so much slower in the 18th Century than it is today. There’s no better example than in the time it took to go from Philadelphia to Paris, France. Assuming there was a direct flight, an airliner could cover the 4,000 nautical miles between Philadelphia and Paris in ten hours going eastbound. With strong headwinds the westbound trip could take an hour longer.

In the late 18th Century, a fast ship carrying just mail could sustain 10 – 12 knots with a clean bottom and favorable winds. Assuming they could sail straight without tacking, Philadelphia to Brest is about 3,500 miles because the ship has to sail down the Delaware River and out Delaware Bay to get to the Atlantic. At 10 knots, Brest is 15 days of sailing to the east. At 12 knots, the voyage takes 12 days to reach to Brest. There, the documents would be given to a courier who would cover the 360 miles to Paris in four days on a horse.

Seasons and weather played a major role in travel times. During the winter, no sane captain ventured out into the stormy North Atlantic. Instead, he would sail south of Bermuda and work his way across the Atlantic to the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa before heading north.

Because square rig ships cannot sail directly into the wind, they must tack back and forth roughly 60 degrees off the wind line. This zig-zagging, called “beating into the wind,” adds time and distance. Without beating, the southern route is close to 5,000 miles or 21 days at 10 knots. Beating into the wind increases the distance traveled to approximately 7,000 miles or 29 days at 10 knots. Sailing at 12 knots cuts about five days off the trip. Once the ship reached Brest, a courier would take the documents to Paris.

None of these times take into account the need to shorten sail in “heavy weather,” i.e. storms. When this happens, average speed drops because the ship slows.

Communication between Benjamin Franklin’s mission in France and the Continental Congress could take months for a letter to be sent from Philadelphia to Paris and an answer received. A two-month cycle time between Congress posting a letter and getting an answer from Franklin was considered “fast.”

Imagine sending a letter to a friend or loved one and not receiving a response for a month or two! Or ordering something from Amazon and it not arriving on your doorstep for two months! For many reading this blog, a world without email and texts is difficult to comprehend.

Back in the 1970s, while I was in Vietnam, letters took a week (if one was lucky) from the U.S. to the ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. We numbered letters and cassette tapes so the recipient could keep them in sequence. It was a taste of what our Forefathers went through during the American Revolution. At the time, we thought a one-week transit time was fast. We, just like our Forefathers, didn’t know any better.

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