A Short History of Communication Part 1

With all the exciting developments in the realm of communications technology over the last few years it would be easy to think that we are living in times of the most astounding transformations. However, the technologies that so many of us are addicted to today – mobile phones, the internet, satellite TV – are built on the achievements of our ancestors. The history of communication goes back thousands of years. Each new development has transformed the world we live in. An understanding of the journey we have taken to get where we are now shows that today’s techniques are refinements of what came before. Really big revolutions may be still to come.

Early technologies

Communication begins with the first conversations between people – it is believed that language developed through gestures using the hands and body, and had evolved into spoken tongues by the time of the great migration of humans
from Africa some 100,000 years ago. The first long distance communication must have arisen shortly after conversation, with the discovery that it was possible to make oneself heard from a distance by shouting, or banging objects together
to make a sound that travels far. Fire and the smoke it produces may also have been used for simple communication between separated groups.

Writing and the storage of information

Communication techniques such as shouting and smoke signals allow people to make their mark over a wider area. The recording of information allowed human beings to communicate over great expanses of time. Cave paintings up to 36,500
years old have been found – people from that far back are communicating with us today (although it is hard to know what they were saying). 5,500 years ago, more systematised alphabets were developed by the Phoenicians, Sumerians and Egyptians. They also developed new ways of storing their information, some of which have survived till today. Scholars have had some success in translating these alphabets and the languages they convey, giving us insight into societies
long dead.

The realisations that it is possible to communicate through space and time are the two most important communication leaps in history. Everything that has come since has merely improved the efficiency of these two tasks.

Early postal services

The next leap was the combination of writing and transmitting information. This began with people or animals acting as couriers, delivering written messages. The first postal services were in China around 900BC. Human runners and birds were used to transport messages starting in at least 776BC, when the winner of the Olympic games was reported to the Athenians via homing pigeons – possible the first journalist reporting back to base from a remote location!

Long distance instant transmission

Getting messages over long distances took time, and it wasn’t long before people were discovering new ways of reducing this time. The first communication at the speed of light was as far back as 37BC, when the Romans used large mirrors to flash messages from Emperor Tiberius over long distances – a method known as the Heliograph.

Printing – mass reproduction -> mass distribution

The invention of the printing press in China some time after 300AD meant that the same message could be delivered to many people cheaply and more quickly than copying out the message many times by hand. This led to the first distribution
systems, a development which has allowed the flourishing of newspapers such as the one you now hold in your hands.

At the speed of electricity

With the discovery of electricity the speed and range of communication once again began to increase. In 1793 Claude Chappe invented the Semaphore telegraph line, which allowed reliable and fast communication over wires between distant
locations. Methods such as the Heliograph which require two locations being able to see each other limited the possible distance of rapid communications. The semaphore broke through this barrier, opening the way for even more radical
developments.

The invention of techniques such as Morse code allowed complex messages to be transferred at very high speeds over this new medium. This had huge repercussions for many aspects of human life – transport could be better coordinated, government could transmit decisions to distant offices almost instantaneously, businesses could work with more businesses over larger distances.

These first implementations of electronic communication opened the door for many of the technologies we take for granted – television, radio, telephones and the internet. Next week I will continue this short journey through or communications history, and look into my crystal ball at some possible future developments.

Interesting Sites


Local IT News

A&A Computers have announced improvements to their online catalogue. Prices are now automatically kept up to date, and it is possible to tell if they have what you need in stock directly from the web site.

Originally published in Arusha Times 324

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