These days, we have various methods for communicating. The internet, our cellphones, traditional pen and paper, television, radio and the list goes on. This wasn’t always the case. Early humans had their voice, even before the invention of “language” which is said to comprise of three parts: phonetics, grammar and semantics.
While today we can call up a friend as if we were a guest on the gameshow “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” back then communicating over long distances might’ve taken place in the form of smoke signals, drums, or fires as in the case of Gerolamo Cardano — who suggested that five torches on five towers could be used to spell out letters, with all five beacons figuring in the code as “light” or “dark.” A precursor to binary code.
In today’s post, we’ll explore some of the innovations that came with the evolution of communication.
Communication is mankind’s most important single act. When improperly performed it turns friends into enemies and plunges nations into wars.
What we can identify as writing, seems to have evolved around 3000 BC with pictograms in Egypt and Mesopotamia, spoken human language… some 30,000 to 50,000 years prior. The earliest alphabet, credited to Egypt, evolved to contain 22 hieroglyphs by 2700 BC. Through colonization, its use spread the across the Mediterranean. The Greeks contributed vowels, creating the Greek alphabet from which Latin is derived.
It’s believed that writing may have independently developed in several ancient civilizations: Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, along with lowland Mesoamerica.
Without writing, we’d never have printing. Without mediums such as paper, cloth, vellum, or even papyrus, we’d never have printing. Johannes Gutenberg is credited with the invention printing press, a hand press, in which ink was rolled over the raised surfaces of hand-set letters held within a wooden form and the form was then pressed against a sheet of paper.
Centuries before Gutenberg, Chinese monks had become adept at woodblock printing and credited with the first dated printed book, the Diamond Sutra. The printing press revolutionized printing by making it faster, more affordable and as a result printed materials became widely accessible.
Historians of technology are cautious about naming the first person to invent anything, because someone else has always thought up at least a part of it first. Great ideas always flow from more than one inventive mind, and the telegraph is no exception.
Thomas Edison began his career as a telegraph operator… but who is credited with inventing the electric telegraph? Samuel F.B. Morse in 1832. Add to that an additional six years to standardize a code for communicating over telegraph wires. Morse employed a short signal (the dot) and a long one (the dash) in combinations to spell out messages.
In 1843, Congress gave him $30,000 to string wires between the nation’s capital and nearby Baltimore. Though Morse’s name ended up on all the patents, assisting him in the development of the apparatus were two men, Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail. The telegraph connected the country, aiding westward expansion.
The early history of the telephone became and still remains a chaotic confusion of claims and counterclaims in the 1870s and ’80s culminating in the 1888 decision of the United States Supreme Court upholding the priority of the patents belonging to Alexander Graham Bell. The modern telephone is the result of work of many people.
On March 10, 1876 Bell made the very first telephone call to his assistant, saying “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.” Within 10 years, the telephone was in the homes of more than 100,000 people in the U.S.
The first cellphone call took place in 1973, beginning our move away from wires. This was followed by the first text message in 1992, reportedly wishing the receiver a “Merry Christmas.”
Bell died on August 2, 1922. On the day of his burial, all telephone service in the US was stopped for one minute in his honor.
The radio. Originally referred to as “wireless telegraphy,” James Clerk Maxwell identified the existence of radio waves during the 1860s. Some two decades later, German physicist Heinrich Hertz demonstrated that variations of electric current could be projected into space in the form of radio waves similar to those of light and heat. In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi, proved the feasibility of radio communication, having sent and received his first radio signal.
Unlike the telephone, which was quickly adopted for business and home use, it took many years before radio’s financial returns would match its potential. By the 1920s, a few decades after Marconi’s first broadcast, half of urban families owned a radio. Radio quickly became a way for American families to stay connected and receive news and signaled a major shift in how Americans communicated. Its popularity continued into the late 1940s with the introduction of television.
The television — specifically Philo Taylor Farnsworth’s electronic television — was introduced at the 1939 World Fair in New York City to lackluster sales. By 1968, there were 200 million television sets in operation in the United States.
The four major US broadcast networks were: NBC (founded in 1926), CBS (1929), ABC (1943) and DuMont (1946). Most Americans still got their news from newspapers in the 1950s.
You can read a more thorough overview in A History of Television & Future: Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality.
The internet started in the 1960s as a way for government researchers to share information. Its official birthday is considered to be January 1, 1983 — the date that Transfer Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) was established, allowing different computers to “talk” to one another. While computers speak binary, according to How We Communicate: The Most Vital Skill, English is the medium for 80% of the information stored in the world’s computers.
No mention of the internet would be complete without naming Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web in 1989.
If you enjoyed this post, feel free to also read “Wonkskolaser: The Family Who Built Warner Bros.”
- History of Communication
- A Brief History of Communication
- The Evolution of Writing
- A History of Writing
- History of Printing Timeline
- The Invention of Woodblock Printing in the Tang (618–906) and Song (960–1279) Dynasties
- United States Early Radio History
- Early Television Museum
- A history of the telephone