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Carrier Pigeons Helped Create the World’s Most Famous Banking Fortune
Whether in matters of business, war or heart knowledge, the greater the better, the event is often the most important factor in determining the outcome. The ability to know where the competition is strategizing for business deals is a potential game changer. Learning the details of an opponent’s battle plan gives the general many advantages in plotting counter-strategies. Knowledge is often not quantifiable, but it is priceless.
One of the most famous and consequential applications of real-time knowledge occurred in Europe in 1815. In the early 19th century, information about distant events through communication channels was difficult to come by. The roads were rough, rough, really little more than cart paths. There were no telegraph transmissions or fast organized courier services to deliver messages over great distances. Word of the outcome of a war, treaty or important political affair may take weeks or months to reach where the outcome was expected.
The Battle of Waterloo is probably the most famous military engagement in history. The site of the battle, the small, remote Belgian village of Waterloo, is today synonymous with one’s “last act.” Waterloo condemned Napoleon Bonaparte. His humiliating defeat by British forces under the command of the Duke of Wellington precipitated his exile to the tiny island of Elba and France’s decline as a military power for nearly a century.
Prussian, Austrian, and Russian forces formed an alliance to fight with the British against Napoleon. All of these large armies, moving across the vast expanses of Europe, required extensive provisions, weapons and logistical support to sustain the armies they were girding for a major battle. It was an incredibly expensive venture. Large sums of money were needed to support the campaign.
The Rothschild banking family was already well-known in most parts of Europe for providing a safe source of funds for national governments. Rothschild established five branches of his enterprise. The largest, most important were based in Paris and London. The last Napoleonic Wars were largely financed by Nathan Rothschild of the London branch of the family. This house provided large sums of money to both the British and the French. The Rothschilds were famously indifferent to rulers and governments. Nathan Rothschild once famously remarked, “He who controls the British money supply controls the British, and I control the British money supply”. His goal was to take advantage of whether he was in power or won a war.
Nathan Rothschild knew that early knowledge of the winner at Waterloo, the details of the battle, the severity of the loser’s defeat would be invaluable in manipulating the market financially to profit from the outcome. The family invested heavily over the decades in field agents to deliver tips and messages, fast packet ships and trained carrier pigeons to quickly deliver notes.
The arrival of carrier pigeons in London with the results of a special battle from Waterloo provided Rothschild with the information he needed to begin planting rumours. At first he spread what the British had lost. Investors began adjusting their bond and security positions in response to this negative news. Rothschild took the opposite position, and then, he strategically released the factual truth that Wellington had defeated Napoleon. This enabled the family to profit from both sides of the business. It is estimated that the Rothschild family increased their wealth to 20 times their pre-war capital.
The foresight to train a winged air force of carrier pigeons proved fortuitous and highly profitable for the banking house of Rothschild. The edge they enjoyed in getting real-time information and making fantastic profits from knowledge became legendary and only enhanced the perception that they were a family of financial Merlins. Their power and wealth have multiplied rapidly over the past 200 years and have been maintained to this day.
In modern business and finance, the ability to gather information about competitive plans, asset valuations and information affecting marketing strategies is invaluable. Governments spend billions of dollars to steal state and trade secrets. Private investigators are used every day to uncover the infidelity and affairs of married couples. Information is power.
Entrepreneurs can learn an important lesson from this history about Rothschild’s use of carrier pigeons. If your project has true commercial value it must be protected. You have to assume that there are people working at the same time at the same time. Time is not your friend.
Whether you uncover a competitor’s plans or an adversary learns the details of your project, the first owner of knowledge stands to maximize profits. Placing second in this process is a sure way to lose an important first to market product advantage. The Rothschilds made fabulous fortunes simply by learning the outcome of battles with rivals. Entrepreneurs must harvest every bit of relevant and available knowledge as soon as possible in order to successfully benefit from their efforts.
Knowledge is priceless, but it must be used safely and diligently and with due haste.
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