A Brief History
On January 25, 1881, 2 of the great names in the annals of inventions teamed up to form the Oriental Telephone Company. Harnessing the invention of Alexander Graham Bell for commercial purposes, Bell teamed with Thomas Edison, the Anglo-Indian Telephone Company and the Oriental Telephone Company of New York to form the new enterprise to sell telephones and related equipment in the Mediterranean and Near East areas as well as India and the Far East. Bell became the first to patent the telephone in 1876, providing the first method of long-distance voice transmission. Prior to his invention, if people wanted their voices to be heard, they yelled! (Fundamental involuntary forms of natural communication such as blushing, the raising of hackles, pheromones and the like are not addressed in this article.)
Simple grunts and gestures evolved into words that became mutually understandable. Folks with particularly loud voices were valuable as town criers and making public announcements and could use the simple megaphone to project their voice a bit further. Distances greater than what could clearly be heard by voice were addressed by communication methods such as smoke signals, signal flags, signal lights, mirrors reflecting sunlight and mechanical noise makers such as drums and trumpets. The invention of gunpowder allowed fireworks to be used as a signaling device as well, with different colors and patterns to indicate different messages. Visual forms of communication can also include the clothes we wear, or the badges of office related to one’s position, etc. (As a police officer, I was told of a gang related technique to advertise the desire to get into a fight by rolling up a single pant leg. Other gang related clothing symbols include club jackets and certain colored bandanas.) Even “team” colors, clan affiliation tartans, and other items of clothing and accoutrements can indicate a nationality, family, city or other association or social status. Royalty reserving the color purple for themselves exclusively is such an example of clothing as communication, as are the blue or white collars worn by workers. (Of course, good guys wear white hats and bad guys wear black hats, if movies are to be trusted!) Even “body art” such as tattoos provide clear non-verbal communication about a person’s affiliations or predilections.)
Getting beyond the scope of line of sight vision or the limits of hearing, truly long-distance communication could take place by the delivery of written messages, either by true written languages or by symbols with commonly understood meaning. Messengers, carrier pigeons, or launching the message by arrow (or later by rocket) could deliver a message a long distance. The postal system allowed common people the ability to communicate virtually anywhere in the world, although the delivery of such letters/messages could be unreliable and take many days or even months. (Not unlike what we are experiencing in 2020!)
A couple of nifty sound delivered communication devices you may or may not be familiar with include the old children’s toy, a pair of tin cans or paper cups connected by a taut string, making a pretty serviceable short range telephone. The other is a system once common on ships, the voice tube. If you have never used a voice tube, trust me, they are effective and provide clear communication from the bridge to the engine room without wires or electric power. Voice tubes are amazing!
The level of technology of communications remained stagnant for some time, until Morse invented his code to go along with the telegraph. Now people could instantly communicate many miles beyond line of sight, even across oceans thanks to underwater cables. While a rudimentary form of electro-magnetic telegraph had been invented in England, the weak batteries of the time precluded long distance telegraphy. Morse solved the problem in 1838, and the electric telegraph became a commercial success. His Morse Code is still the standard used today, and can be used by several means, including telegraph, wireless telegraph/radio, and blinking lights or flags. Morse or other codes can also be used by novel means such as blinking one’s eyes or knocking on a wall. When the telephone came along a few decades later, the idea of stringing wires between sites to allow for communication was already in common use, and people quickly adapted to the wonderful innovation of being able to merely talk without laborious use of codes. Telephones did not change much for many years, and they were hard-wired into your house, no quick release clips and the like. Plus, most homes had only a single telephone, and often they were on a “party line” where multiple houses were on the same line. Neighbors could listen in on “private” conversations! And you had to wait until the other person or persons on your party line were done with their calls for you to make a call. Hard feelings arose when some talkative type would not yield the line! Also, long distance calls were quite expensive, making such calls prohibitive for those on a budget. (If you doubt any of the preceding lines, look it up! I knew many people in the 1960’s that had party lines.)
Using the hands and other body parts to form “signs” created a non-verbal sign language that is handy for more than just hearing-impaired people. Informal and formal sign languages enable people to communicate silently in a stealth situation, or can bridge the gap between speakers of different languages, a technique used by many Native American tribes if television and movies are to be believed! Tactile forms of “writing” such as Braille can also be used for both vision impaired people as well as normally sighted people in the absence of light (such as emergency equipment) or to avoid the need to look away from a more important task, such as driving a car.
The next big step in communications took place when Heinrich Hertz discovered electro-magnetic waves in 1886. A decade later, the Italian Guglielmo Marconi (who set up his business in England) invented a means to send and receive such radio waves, creating the radio. By 1900 the commercial use of radio was available, providing the first ever capability to instantly communicate with ships at sea without having to be within line of sight. Those early radios were only capable of communicating sounds and not clear enough for voice transmissions, necessitating the use of Morse Code as a form of wireless telegraphy. Of course, scientists and inventors were hard at work to develop the ability to transmit music and voices instead of just tones, with the first bits of success around 1900. In 1906, a Canadian inventor, Reginald Fessenden, made the first ever such broadcast from Massachusetts, and in keeping with the Christmas Eve timing of the event (December 24, 1906), Fessenden chose “O Holy Night” as the first song publicly broadcast. Improvements with radio included the ability to send extremely long range messages over hundreds or thousands of miles, and the innovation of using Frequency Modulation (FM radio) made voice transmissions much clearer. Transistors allowed for the miniaturization of radio gear and increased reliability as well. Other innovations such as encrypted systems, burst transmissions and satellite relays all made radio what it is today. Pagers, were known originally as “beepers” because all they did was alert you to having a call, and you would have to call the pager center for the message, were the next stage in electronic communications, and were especially nifty once you could receive actual text on your pager. Pagers went the way of the dinosaurs when cell phones showed up…
Radio teamed up with telephone technology to create both portable phones for use within your house or a building, freeing us from the tyranny of the wire cord! Cell phones became the next big thing in the middle of the 1980’s, at least for wealthy people. By the 1990’s, cell phones were seemingly everywhere as cell towers dotted the landscape (and still do). Prior to cell phones, satellite phones (usually big bulky things with a unit in a briefcase sized container) were the latest word in mobile technology. In places where cell towers are absent, satellite phones can still be used to communicate with anyone in the world (more or less). (See our previous articles about cell phone history.)
During the 1960’s the first links between remotely sited computers were installed, the precursors to the internet. By the 1990’s the internet became available for the general public and communications have not been the same since. People could instantly communicate with other people all over the world, and by the early 1990’s the forerunners of what would become smart phones appeared, originally in the form of the PDA. By the 2000’s it seemed everybody had a smart phone! (Oddly enough, this author does not have a smart phone!) Text messages and emails have largely made “snail mail” obsolete, with email making its debut as early as 1971, but to a limited number of users. By the mid-1990’s, email became a common form of communication. Continued advances cellular technology combined with computers have us now at the so called 5G (circa 2016) level, whatever that means! (It means the 5th generation of cellular technology.) As of the writing of this article in 2020, China has already launched a 6G satellite as that new technology is being developed. In the 1950’s and 1960’s science fiction, people used picture phones that the people involved in the conversation could see each other on a screen. Today, such video conferences are a reality.
The Global Positioning System, or GPS, is another form of communication that has become commonplace in today’s world. Many cars have built in GPS systems that not only show the most advantageous route to a destination, but also communicate traffic advisories and weather alerts to the driver. Many cell phones have GPS capability built in as well. A slightly nefarious form of communication is also found on some automotive systems, with your own car delivering information about your driving habits, your whereabouts and your speed to some faceless information center. Such nosy spying on you is good if you become involved in an accident and the service can direct police and ambulance crews to your location, but we are a bit leery about such automatic information broadcast about us. (They can even listen in on you without you knowing it!)
Television is another form of communication, and this form of media has grown enormously since World War II, to the point that most homes have multiple televisions. Not only used for entertainment and broadcasting emergency information, televisions can also be used in surveillance for safety/security, law enforcement, military and other reasons. (Domestic relation spying?) The extensive cable network buttressed by a massive satellite network has made television a far cry from the miserable, grainy black and white images available in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Television got its earliest start in the 1920’s, delivering little more than a line on a screen. By the late 1930’s, actual pictures could be broadcast, though few people had seen the technology in person until after World War II. (See our previous articles about television.)
Today a wide array of communication ideas are giving us ear buds, hands free phones, internet connected eyeglasses and who knows what else the secret spy agencies are fielding without our knowledge? Other forms of communication and the tools invented to facilitate communication are numerous, from pencils and pens (and other writing implements) to fax machines, photocopiers, word processors, and various recording devices (such as video and audio tape, digital recording, etc). We seriously wonder at what marvels of communication await us in the future, including the near future. Will electronic devices be embedded in our brains? Will we develop the ability to communicate telepathically? You younger readers will probably find out, possibly to be as amazed by the future technology as us old folks are amazed by what we have today!
Communication timeline: (Note: Sources vary widely on dates)
First Human Speech, 27 million years ago (Recent scientific study refutes the previous idea that human speech was limited to when humans first developed the modern voice box anatomy. As most higher animals have forms of communication with each other, such as the intricate dances of honey bees, courtship rituals of birds and vocalizations and body language displayed by apes and dogs, Human communication can be expected to have started whenever Humans themselves started. Actual spoken language may have come as much as 50,000 years ago, or longer.)
First Written/Pictograph, 50,000 BC(?) (Early humans may have drawn images on the ground with a stick to communicate information and certainly made cave paintings that survive to this day. These early Humans also used sticks and bones to keep numerical tally of things by carving slashes on the item. Symbols with meanings known to those intimate to the group probably originated almost immediately after the first images were drawn. The oldest known “cave” paintings are not the 32,000+ year old ones in Europe, but somewhat older images found in Indonesia, perhaps by a few to several thousand years older, estimated by some researchers as at least 39,900 years old. Just because we have found and dated certain images does not mean early Humans did not create earlier images, as they most probably did, even if only in the form of primitive scribbles.)
First Actual Written Accounts, 3200 BC (Sumerians are generally given credit for creating the first known written texts, though of course earlier versions may have either not survived to this day or not yet been discovered. Earliest writing is often found inscribed on clay tablets, etched into metal or stone, or otherwise inscribed on various materials. Cuneiform may be the oldest known pre-alphabet type of writing, with systems such as the modern alphabet showing up as the Phoenician alphabet around 1050 BC.)
Paper Invented, 105 AD (Believed to be a Chinese invention, various sources give dates as early as 25 AD and as late as 220 AD for invention of paper. Prior to paper, writers had to use clay, stone, metal, tree bark, papyrus and later parchment as a writing surface for more or less permanent records, while temporary written communication could be made on slates with chalk or other material. Various forms of ink or paint could be used to leave the letters or symbols needed to create the desired message. Paper is certainly one of the most under rated of important inventions in human history and has many uses other than a surface to write, draw or paint on.)
The Pencil, 1662 (The graphite core wooden pencil we are familiar with made its appearance in Germany in the 17th Century, although graphite had been used as a writing medium for a century prior to the advent of the modern pencil. Graphite is too soft to use by itself, thus needing a holder, such as the hollow wooden core of the pencil, to contain the material. Mixing the graphite with clay enabled pencil “lead” to be harder and longer lasting. Previous writing implements similar to pencils included metal rods known as a stylus for scratching onto metal or leaving marks on parchment. The heavy though soft metal, Lead, was used and gives us the legacy name for the graphite and clay mixture found in the core of modern pencils. Another such material for leaving marks on paper or parchment was charcoal. Pencils made the need for wet ink or paint unnecessary and were much handier for written messages away from the home base, an excellent alternative to pen and ink.)
Printing Press, 1440 (Various methods of printing without having to hand draw each letter had existed for many centuries, such as block lettering, before the invention of a German goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg, which combined a screw type of press with moveable metal type set pages which allowed the mass production of books, papers and pamphlets for the first time. This technique of printing caused an explosion in the availability of written works to the public at large and greatly reduced the price of printed works.)
Fountain Pen, 1809 (While crude forms of fountain pens, that is pens that contained their own ink supply instead of quills dipped into an inkwell, existed from as long ago as the 10th Century AD and inventors such as Leonardo da Vinci created their own versions, the fountain pen was not patented until 1809, and not really perfected until some decades later. Having an ink reservoir in the pen made writing a much more time efficient task without the constant dipping of the point of the pen in the ink well or ink bottle. Unlike ball point pens, modern fountain pens allow the writer a far greater degree of expression in his or her penmanship.)
Telegraph, 1838 (The invention of the telegraph only came into its own with the related invention of a universal code, in this case Morse Code, as well as the invention of signal boosting relays to allow long distance transmissions.)
Typewriter, 1868 (While numerous claims are made to the invention of the typewriter, we have chosen to acknowledge the first successful commercial version patented by Sholes and Glidden, et al, of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1868 and marketed in 1873. Another contender for the first successful typewriter is the Hansen Writing Ball version, produced in 1870 in Denmark. With effective typewriters, typists could produce legible written text far more quickly and consistently than pen and ink writing. Throw in the invention of carbon paper and you have instant copies, too!)
Fax Machine, 1843-1948 (Incredible as it seems, the use of electric powered “written” transmission goes back to the first half of the 19th Century. Improvements along the way included the ability to send photographic and other images via fax by 1924 and portable, practical desk top units became largely available by 1948. Wireless fax transmitters of both printed text and images such as photographs also came about starting in the 1920’s.)
Telephone, 1876 (Many inventors were working on creating a successful telephone at the same time, resulting in much argument about the “true” inventor of the telephone. Bell is given credit due to his being the first to legally patent a successful telephone. The invention of the crank call came soon afterwards!)
Radio, 1900 (Radio in both voice and telemetry forms is still one of the most ubiquitous forms of modern communication. Not only the basis for listening to tunes while driving, radio powers our cell phones and police walkie-talkies and even messages to and from space-ships! Radio waves in the form of radar also enable the tracking of airplanes, storms and other airborne objects, as well as checking the speed of objects such as cars on the road and the altitude of airplanes above the ground. Many cars are now equipped with their own radar sensors to facilitate parking and warning drivers of looming obstacles such as oncoming, passing or crossing traffic. Burst transmissions, frequency hopping and other forms of encryption have made radio much more secure than in the past.)
Television, 1927-1928 (Yet another invention being worked on by scientists and inventors around the world simultaneously, we choose to credit American Philo Farnsworth with the first somewhat practical version of television which he demonstrated in 1928. While others had transmitted simple lines or even silhouette images, Farnsworth was the first to successfully transmit human images in 1929. Color television had its groundwork laid by Polish inventor Jan Szczepanik as early as 1897, and various systems were tried over the next several decades until the first practical color television system was developed in 1944 in the US. While the first public broadcast of a color television show came in 1954, color TV was a rarity at the time and something of a novelty. Not until the mid-1960’s did consumers start buying color televisions in appreciable numbers and broadcasters began switching most of their programming to a color format. Satellite relayed television signals and cable TV have made television a form of communication of nearly instant production not only across continents, but even from space ships!)
Wide Band FM Radio, 1933 (American engineer and inventor Edwin Armstrong perfected the idea of Frequency Modulation in radio transmission versus the widely used Amplitude Modulation system in practice. AM radio was great for long distance transmissions but suffered from static and poor sound quality. Other inventors had worked with FM systems but had not come up with a practical solution until Armstrong patented his version. FM radio is immensely more pleasant to listen to than AM radio and when stereo was added to FM radio transmissions in the late 1960’s the driving experience of Americans became sooo much more pleasant! Music fans no longer had an excuse for mishearing lyrics of popular songs…)
Satellite Relays, 1962 (Beginning with the Telstar satellites launched from the United States in 1962, satellites have been used to relay television, radio, telegraph and other electronic signals around the world, providing live television and radio when such transcontinental instant transmissions had previously been impossible. Although taken for granted by modern people, this innovation was a classic “Big Deal” at the time.)
Internet Precursor/ARPANET, 1970’s (A system of allowing computer to computer communication available to the United States Military and then academic institutions, though not available to the general public. At its inception in 1969, ARPANET had only 4 computers linked! Various such networks started to be consolidated by 1990, evolving into the Internet as we know it.)
Cell Phones, 1983 (Although not widely used until the 1990’s, the first commercially available cell phones were introduced in 1983, with limited service areas. As cell transmission towers sprung up around the US and the World like weeds in a poorly maintained lawn, cell phones became not only widespread, but so common as to be considered a necessity. The proliferation of cellular phones has largely spelled the end of pay phones/phone booths, as well as the death knell for pagers.)
Internet, 1991-1992 (By the early 1990’s innovations such as the World Wide Web and web browsers created the computer network we recognize as “the internet.” Once horribly slow and unreliable to access via telephone modems, we now expect instant access and user friendly systems to the bajillions of sites and their information/data across the world and the ability to communicate with people around the globe. Videos, instruction manuals, music, manifestos, encyclopedic facts, images… the list of available information is virtually limitless.)
Email, 1995 (Although computer to computer text and data sharing prior to 1995 can be called “Email,” the system as we know it today began in 1995 when the public at large gained access to the ability to electronically write “letters” and messages for work, business, or pleasure. The end of commercial restrictions in 1995 marked the beginning of the open Email era, and the coining of a new term, “Snail Mail,” to refer to the old-fashioned letter in an envelope sort of mail. The savings on postage stamps alone must be in the mega-billions!)
Smart Phones, 1994 (Although the technology was developed a bit earlier, the first commercially available device that could be considered a “Smart Phone” was the IBM Simon Personal Communicator, a PDA type of gizmo. Other PDA’s followed, such as the BlackBerry, and by 2001 the first internet access smart phones went on sale, using the 3G technology. Smart Phones are so smart now, that they function as Email devices, text senders/receivers, video cameras that can send and receive video, still cameras, internet access, flashlights, and handheld computers. Some can even start your car or turn your home lights on and off, as well as other tasks. Most have a GPS capability as well. Many people I know do not even bother to own a laptop anymore, relying on the Smart Phone for all their computer needs.)
Question for students (and subscribers): What do you believe will be the next great step in the evolution of human communications? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Adler, Ronald, Athena du Pre, George Rodman. Understanding Human Communication. Oxford University Press, 2019
Shrader, Robert. Electronic Communication. McGraw-Hill Companies, 1990.
The featured image in this article, a flashlight photograph of welcome to Dr. Graham Bell by the Postal Electrical Society of Victoria (forerunner of the Telecommunications Society of Australia) , at the Central Exchange, Melbourne, Australia, 17 August 1910, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.