Floating Safe Stamps

Before long-distance flight became a feasible alternative, ships were used to transport mail to oversea destinations. These days we may have forgotten what it used to be like, but shipping mail and valuables wasn’t without risk. When the Titanic sunk in 1912, not only were a lot of lives lost, but it also took with it all the jewelry, the gold, and the mail that was onboard. The Titanic wasn’t an exception. During those days, about 1,000 ships would sink every year. All this led Dutch inventor and entrepreneur Cornelis van Blaaderen to come up with an idea for a floating safe, something that would keep its contents secure and dry at all times.

A scale model of the floating safe. There was room for tons of valuables inside its thick walls. The arms would let go of the capsule when submerged in 10 meters (30 feet) of water.

The safe he created was a marvel of technology at the time. Not only would it float, but it could also withstand temperatures up to 1,700 degrees Celsius (3,000 Fahrenheit). When the ship sunk, special holding arms would let go of the safe at a depth of 10 meters (30 feet), so that it could pop back to the surface. There, a sophisticated clockwork mechanism would be activated to get the attention of anyone passing by. First, a large radio antenna with a flag would pop out and a bright red light on top of the safe would be turned on. Inside the safe, a radio receiver would listen for radio signals from nearby ships. If it detected a signal within 30 nautical miles, it would start firing an emergency flare every hour for a period of 24 hours. If the signal came within 10 nautical miles, it would sound a loud foghorn every 10 minutes. The onboard battery would be able to sustain the mechanism for a three-month period, more than enough time to mount a rescue mission. This invention was a full-fledged precursor to the modern black box.

One of 1,351 possible complete sets of floating safe stamps issued by the Netherlands in 1921.

In 1913, Van Blaaderen incorporated a company to exploit his invention. He quickly convinced the postal authorities of the usefulness of the concept, but he had a hard time getting the required permissions from the Dutch government. They had a monopoly on mail transport, and the negotiations stalled on how the profits would be divided. Only in 1920, after a change of government leadership, was a contract with all relevant parties signed. Customers would pay 15 cents for every 20 grams of mail by buying special stamps. Van Blaaderen would get 62.5% of the sales, the rest was for the postal authorities.

It was agreed upon that Van Blaaderen would pay for the stamp design and production. This he did very well. Already in 1919, Van Blaaderen had several designs made for the stamps, of which three were selected and printed at the Dutch securities printer Joh. Enschedé. The seven stamps in the set ran from 15 cents all the way up to 7.50 guilders.

The safe was mounted at the front of the ship, where it could be seen from the bridge, so that it couldn’t be broken into without anyone noticing it.

In the spring of 1921 the service finally becomes available to the public. From then on, the stamps could be bought at most post offices, and every two weeks a ship with a floating safe onboard would sail for the Dutch Indies. From the start, it was clear that the enterprise was a dramatic failure.

Floating safe stamps for Curaçao and Surinam were prepared, but never issued. Later the postal authorities had them overprinted and issued them as regular postage stamps. Ironically, the sale of these stamps to (mostly) collectors is the only thing in this operation that made a profit.

The general public didn’t see a need for the additional security offered. The Great War just ended, and the risk of running into a submarine or a sea mine was greatly diminished. All the ships made it to the Dutch Indies and back without any issues, so why pay extra? It is estimated that in total only 1,000 letters were sent using the service, most of them by philatelists that were trying to get used copies of the stamps for their collections.

In August of 1923, the plug was pulled by the government. Van Blaaderen was left with 8 floating safes, a pile of unused stamps, and a lot of debt. He tried to sell the stamps to the Dutch stamp dealers, but they thought his asking price too high, and were willing to wait on a better deal. He died in 1933, at the age of 57 years from a heart attack. I wish he would have done better, he had great courage to try something like this. He also had a good taste for stamp design, that would later influence the way other Dutch stamps were designed.

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