It’s remarkable how far we’ve come with respect to communication; from cave paintings and ancient text, to using electricity to convey a message – we’ve all witnessed a mercurial change in the dissemination of information. The advent of communication, along with its many advances and inventions in later years, is a fascinating journey.
If we stepped into a time machine and traveled back to a moment in history that gave us a glimpse of our ancestors – as they struggled but somehow managed to communicate – we’d be baffled yet marveled at how far we’ve come. Who knows what the next 10 years will bring, right? It’s a thought that we’ve put out there, with the possibilities unfurling as we go on with our respective lives. Every day, we hear or read about something new in the market that will make communicating with one another faster, better, more efficient, and above all, an experience to remember.
We’ve upgraded our systems, changed our technological preferences, and convinced others in our lives to do the same, knowingly or unknowingly. The power of technology is a mammoth subject to review, but we’ve all seen it evolve and change over the years, making us appreciate the genius that man is. Back in the day, when man was busy carving and painting walls, he would have never imagined his world evolving to such levels of complexity in communication. It’s amazing and a true marvel to see how communication methods have changed (including those that have turned obsolete) over the years.
Brief History of Communication
The history of communication began with man communicating with others like him, using oral communication that was understandable to the listener. Hand signs and body language played important roles while our ancestors communicated with one another. Man then developed a sense of what surrounded him, by trying to depict all that he saw and experienced, using mud and sharpened tools, to draw and carve on walls. Let’s take a look at how communication progressed over the years.
Pictograms are forms of imagery that depict a single object, situations, or other forms of image depiction. The Chinese are well-known for relying on pictograms, which are a core part of their language and style of communication. A single Chinese pictogram can translate into many kinds of things; the image given above means ‘good fortune’ in Chinese. Words don’t have to be spelled out, but denoted by certain symbolic representations that give us the meaning all at once. Pictograms were usually decipherable in a glance, depending on who was looking at it.
The image with the Sumerian king Dumuzid, would be recognizable by someone who’s familiar with what it portrays. It symbolizes what he was called at the time – The Shepherd. Pictograms were common during the stone ages, where cavemen used two kinds of imagery to communicate with one another, namely – petroglyphs and petrographs.
A petroglyph is a method that involves carving/incising/picking rocks, using a sharp instrument to produce works of art. A petrograph on the other hand, is when one paints imagery on rocks, without the use of carving instruments. Both are forms of pictograms that depict certain objects or situations that tell a story, or are random interpretations of what man wanted to put down on rock, of what he saw around him.
From being hunters, man evolved into an agricultural being that later grew crops and harvested them to others, including livestock and the like, that he took care of and also distributed, as part of his livelihood. Because there was no way to keep a tab on transactions made, they (Sumerians) came up with a system that involved the use of clay tokens, which were placed in containers (bullae), and then sealed. How many tokens each container held, was made known by impressing the outside with the picture that each token represented.
Later, these were drawn on clay tablets (Uruk period – named after the Sumerian city, Uruk) when writing took form as an evolved form of communication. This was performed by using a reed stylus that was sharpened for the purpose of engraving stone tablets. The Sumerians themselves are believed to be the first to bring about this form of writing, popularly known as, cuneiform.
Engraving tablets with logographic representations (images of objects), was heavily practiced by the Sumerians. The stylus saw an upgrade to a more sharpened object, namely the wedge-tipped stylus – it made the act of writing, quick and simple. Cuneiform was later modified and still heavily relied on by the Akkadians and throughout most of the Assyrian and Babylonian era. The Persians used a simplified method of cuneiform. When the Phoenician alphabet took over, there were no records made of cuneiform still being a practiced system of communication.
This form of communication was also known as the Phoenician alphabet, that used a non-pictographic consonantal alphabet, that was popularized in Phoenicia. Many were known to rely on this writing system. While the Egyptians and those that adopted tablet-written forms of communication used a logo-consonantal system, the Phoenicians developed 22 letters that were subsequently made whole by vowels, that were introduced by the Greeks.
This was often not written in the usual right-to-left format, but in what was known as boustrophedon (mostly seen in age-old scripts and other textual forms), where lines of text switched sides once the reader reach the end of every line, that is, from right to left and vice versa, with the letters in reverse, once the next line came into view. This was supposed to make writing and reading easier.
Egyptian hieroglyphs heavily relied on a logographic system that represented a grapheme (the translation of a grapheme is called a morpheme). The term ‘morpheme’ is the smallest unit of language that holds meaning – they stand for words that represent symbols, rather than the sounds that make up the core of that particular word. Phonemes (sounds), were harder to decipher than what one saw through a logogram. Africa, Central America, and China, were some of the civilizations that relied on a logographic system.
Egyptian hieroglyphs used determinative components, that is, symbols that stood for plants, body parts, gods, goddesses, animals, and the like, but with a pronunciation key absent. A phonetic sign usually preceded the determinative, to offer a clue of what it meant to the reader. It could specify either a sound or an alphabetical sign. Common words didn’t contain a determinative, with others showcasing both a phonetic sign and determinative. Even if vowels were present in Egyptian text, they were treated as consonants.
Greek and Roman Alphabets
The Greeks adopted their alphabetical system from the Phoenician alphabet, which later served as the basis for scripts in the Middle East and Europe. It contains 24 letters in both modern and classical scripts, out of which 22 were taken from the Phoenician script, with five letters changed to represent vowels. The Latin/Roman alphabet took shape, post the popularity of the westernized script of the Greek alphabet – called the Cumaean alphabet – which was taken and modified by the Etruscans; rulers of early Rome. The Romans then tweaked the Etruscan alphabet, further modifying it and turning it into Latin script.
The Romans used a total of 21 letters from the Etruscan letters (26), where the classical Latin period contained 23 letters in later years (alphabets Y and Z were adopted from the Greek script). Later, during the Middle Ages, another 3 alphabets were added to the Latin script (J, U, W), to stand for certain sounds that were non-existent in medieval Latin.
Who developed the act of delivering posts first, is still a vague, debatable historical matter, with many claiming that it may have been Cyrus the Great, the Persian king. Others claim that it may have been Hammurabi and Sargon II, because of their ingenious postal service that gathered information related to tax called the angaria system. Crucial information was taken back and forth using this system, where a carrier would ride to his destination but halt at various posts, swapping horses and resuming travel – it made delivery swift and highly effective.
Places like South India used a mailing system that allowed them to get hold of information, of matters that happened far away. Credit is duly attributed to the Mauryans who developed a mailing system that involved chariots going off into the distance, to exchange and deliver important mail. The Romans had their own system called cursus, where carriages were fastened to speedy horses to send mail across vast distances.
China is known for once developing a monolith postal service, the first of its kind, by Ögedei Khan, successor of Genghis Khan. It was later developed into a much larger system called Örtöö. It worked out a system that provided food, shelter, and extra horses for messengers, to quicken the delivery service; it consisted of more than one messenger placed at different relay stations, to avoid delays in the process.
Smoke signals were an important form of communication between parties, of impending danger or important messages that needed to be encoded via the signal. The Chinese used smoke signals before enemies attacked, where two towers across from each other could view the smoke and accordingly act on what was interpreted. Native tribes like the North American Indians, used smoke signals to alert others across a certain stretch of land, of whether things were good or bad.
The highlight of using pigeon post is recorded during 1870-71, when Paris used pigeons to send messages to neighboring areas. The Germans would train hawks to attack these pigeons, being a common means of communication during wartime (siege in Paris). A lot of important messages were sent via pigeon post for military purposes, proving to be a highly sought-after method of communication.
Before the advent of the telegraph, financiers and the like, would send stock prices between London and Paris via the Calais to Dover cable, a feat tried and tested (quite outstandingly) by Paul-Julius Reuter. The Greeks, Persians, and even Romans, made use of this age-old means, which at the height of its popularity, survived a good many years before the telegram revolutionized communication.
Flag Signals (Flag Semaphore)
During the 1850s, US Army Major, Albert J. Myer, developed a communication system that used the movements of a single flag, using a binary code that helped onlookers decipher the message being conveyed. During nightfall, lanterns or torches were used instead. Flag semaphores are still used to denote certain letters using two flags. The US Navy, uses 68 flags including others that signify all the letters of the alphabet (even numerals). Signal lamps and maritime flags are still very much in use.
This method of communication changed the way people communicated – those who were trained to understand what the code signaled. This code uses a set of lights, on-off tones, and clicks, that encodes ISO basic Latin alphabet, Arabic numerals, and other Latin letters. These are produced using a series of ‘dits’ and ‘dahs’, as part of a sequence. During emergencies, this form of communication is the quickest means of sending a message across, that is clear and non-cryptic in nature.
Samuel Finley Breese Morse co-invented the Morse code system, whilst helping develop a telegraph system that could be commercially available to the general public. He is as proven through a lawsuit, the ‘inventor of the telegraph’, because of his breakthrough invention that was given the green signal as a worthy introduction in communication. In 1845, he opened the Magnetic Telegraph Company that supplied telegraph lines that ran through cities like Buffalo, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.
The French engineer Claude Chappe, is said to be possibly the first man – along with his brothers – to put together a successfully constructed optical telegraph. It was used for military purposes along with other forms of national communication, spanning the country with a strong network of 556 stations. The Swedish and English devised a different way of communicating with others, with the help of shuttered panels that were engineered to work out the same function, but as an advanced and more reliable invention.
The heliotrope, invented by the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, was used to reflect the light of the sun to pinpoint a target over a large distance. The heliograph was then developed – a wireless solar telegraph that signaled the other party, by using the sun’s reflection to produce flashes of light that were encoded. The only drawback was that the heliograph could only be made full use of on sunny mornings, and when the temperature was right.
Sir Henry Christopher Mance was the first to put together a widely accepted version of the heliograph, which was used in Karachi during the British rule in India. It was in use for over 60 years, for military purposes. Another notable mention includes Colonel Nelson A. Miles, who developed an in-depth understanding of heliographs that he set up between Fort Keogh and Fort Custer, Montana in 1878, as part of military communications.
Wireless Telegraph (Transmitter)
While the telegraph was a significant discovery of its time, wireless telegraphy was slowly emerging as the ‘it’ invention, because of its extremely shrewd construct of not having to use wires between two connecting points. Before it became known as the ‘radio’, it was frequently used to convey Morse code messages for decades, before it was popularized as a commercial product. Public broadcasting found its roots in radiotelephony, which was a successor of radio telegraphy as we know it today. Heinrich Hertz was the first to prove that electric waves could be wirelessly transmitted, but abandoned the idea because he thought it lacked practicality.
German inventor/physicist Carl August von Steinheil of Munich, discovered that the use of a single wire for telegraphic communications, as opposed to two, could provide the same function but with less wire involvement. This would be possible by burying a single wire in the ground – used as an alternative return path for currents – without the need of a return wire.
But because of harsh weather conditions, foreign wires, electrical railways, and other problems, the idea was abandoned down the line and the two-wire system was reintroduced. Those who are famously attributed to the invention of the wireless telegraph, include the works of John Ambrose Fleming, Nikola Tesla, Marconi, and Lee de Forest , to name a few.
While many believe that William Austin Burt was the first to invent the typewriter (called the typographer), it was Italian inventor Pellegrino Turri who invented the first of its kind – including carbon paper as ink for the typewriter – for the blind. William was the first to patent the invention, in spite of Turri’s earlier make. Nonetheless, the typographer didn’t have a chance to make an appearance commercially, because no one was willing to patent it.
Commercially, the first of its kind to hit the market was the Hansen writing ball, invented by Rev. Rasmus Malling-Hansen. It was sold to the public and used extensively in offices, well into 1909. A successful invention that followed in close pursuit was the typewriter, invented by Carlos Glidden, Christopher Latham Sholes, and Samuel W. Soule, from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Once the patent was secured (by E. Remington and Sons), the typewriter underwent a serious upgrade, using a QWERTY keyboard layout that made typing easier and faster. The first typewriter to become such a hit, was commercialized as the Sholes and Glidden Typewriter aka, Remington No. 1.
The telephone was a radical invention of its time, with many inventors contributing to the efforts behind the acoustic telegraph. It was an invention that replaced its electric counterpart, making communication easier, because of the exchange of messages by speech. The story has controversial variations that are until today, a fuzzy interpretation of what may or may not have happened. Some say that Alexander Graham Bell stole the idea from Elisha Gray, another inventor in the race. All we do know today, is that Bell received his patient first an hour or two before Gray.
Bell called the invention a harmonic telegraph because he was certain that multiple messages could be sent over the same wire, simultaneously. He needed to develop a device that transmitted signals through a membrane that could vary electronic currents, along with a receiver, to convert the currents into audible results. It was a successful demonstration of the invention on March 10, 1876, when he spoke to his assistant Thomas A. Watson through the liquid transmitter, uttering the famous line, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” While Elisha Gray is given credit as the first to reinvent the variable resistance telephone, it was Bell who first put it into action by writing the idea down and then testing it in a telephone.
There were many inventors that contributed to the making of the television, with the most prolific inventors being, Willoughby Smith (for discovering the element selenium, as part of photoconductivity), Paul Gottlieb Nipkow (for inventing the scanning disk), and John Logie Baird (for demonstrating moving images on a screen). The two inventors that turned the television into a working mechanism, were Arthur Korn and Lee De Forest, as part of the development in amplification tube technology. It was Baird that improved on the design, developing the scanner to showcase 12.5 images/sec, from a mere 5 images per second.
Télévision-Baird-Natan was the first television company in France, headed by Baird and collaborator Bernard Natan, where BBC began transmitting the first television service publicly on November 2, 1936, from the Victorian Alexandra Palace, North London. Later, it was developed to showcase a 405-line all-electronic system – compared to the 240-lines of resolution of Baird’s – by Marconi-EMI.
Modern TV sets have cathode ray tubes which were modified over the years, with Karl Braun inventing the cathode ray tube oscilloscope, in 1897, with an upgrade invented by Vladimir Zworykin, called the kinescope; the closest invention that mimicked the features of a modern television. Others who invented commendable versions of the television, with features that surpassed older makes, were Marvin P. Middlemark, Philo T. Farnsworth, and Louis Parker, among others.
The first model that may have possibly led to the birth of the computer, was the Complex Number Calculator (CNC), created in 1939 by Bell Telephone Laboratories under the leadership of designer George Stibitz. It could make mathematical calculations using a Teletype, that was connected using specially designed telephone lines. The first known computer was the Z3, built by German engineer Konrad Zuse. It ran on point binary arithmetic and a 22-bit word length, coupled with 2,300 relays.
The purpose behind creating the ENIAC computer (the first general-purpose computer built by John William Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert), was to calculate artillery firing tables for the United States Army’s Ballistic Research Laboratory. That’s when MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) put together a prototype called ‘Whirlwind’ (after viewing the ENIAC computer demonstration), ultimately leading them to the SAGE program (first colossal computer communications network in the US and Canada – powered by central computer, Whirlwind II).
Later, we see how computers evolved through leaps and bounds, with multiple inventions taking a spot in the limelight, like the BINAC, AVIDAC, Manchester Mark I , EDSAC, ERA 1101, SEAC, UNIVAC I, TX-0, NEAC 1101, Tandem-16, and Apple-1, to name a few. In 1973, we see the advent of the portable laptop, with IBM’s SCAMP, complete with a PALM processor and a compact cassette drive from Philips. It was called the world’s first portable computer, with the commercial portable microcomputer launched in 1975, called the IBM 5100. The rest that followed, is history.
From then on we’ve seen a multitude of inventions materialize in the technology niche, with email, word processing, software programming, social networking, and other just as impressive entries, creating a change that was once thought impossible, even alien. We’ve come a long way from cave painting and tablet-writing, where we have evidently, a lot more to still bear witness to.