A Short History of Communications Part 2

Last week we took a brief journey through over 100,000 years of communication history – we travelled from the development of languages to their projection over long distances via shouting, writing, postal services and telegraph wires.

From beeps to print to voice

With Joseph Henry’s invention of the telegraph in 1831 developments took on a cheetah like speed – within thirty years wires were strung around and between many countries in the world. At first these were used to transmit simple signals in the form of short and long beeps – Morse code. Shortly after this, in 1843, Alexander Bain developed the chemical telegraph – a machine that enabled messages written on paper to be copied onto another machine a long distance away – the first Fax machine! Nearly twenty years later Alexander Graham Bell patented the electric telephone. This enabled people with no training to communicate in the most natural form – speaking – even when separated by hundreds of miles. The first telephone conversation was between Bell and his assistant, Watson – Mr Watson, come here, I want you! These words changed the world forever.

Over 45 years the limit of how fast people could communicate had gone from the speed of the fastest form of transport, to the speed that signals could travel down an electric wire – the speed of light! These developments made it possible to communicate efficiently over much larger distances, changing social lives, government, military operations, investments, agriculture, almost everything.

Time travel through storage

We saw how the storage of communication in the form of writing was a leap that permitted people to communicate through time as well as space. Shortly after the invention of the telephone, the storage of sound became possible. In 1877 Thomas Edison patented the phonograph, which used wax cylinders to record sound. Ten years later the invention of gramophone made it possible for sound recordings to last much longer – early recordings made over 100 years ago can still be listened to today.

Seeing as well as hearing

At the same time as these developments in sound, people were working hard on capturing images. For hundreds of years artists and scientists had known that a small hole in the wall of a darkened room would project an image of the outside world on the opposite wall. In 1814 Joseph Nic�phore Ni�pce used this principle to project an image of the world onto chemically treated paper in a box – the first photograph had been taken. Images from one part of the world could be brought to another. This allowed people in Tanzania to see what a London street looked like, and people in London to marvel at Maasai warriors dressed in their finery. In 1877, Eadweard Muybridge developed a camera which could take a series of photographs in rapid succession. He did this in order to win a bet on whether all a horses hooves left the ground when it ran. He lost the bet, but had invented the movie camera. By 1927 this had been combined with recorded sound, allowing people to share realistic (and not so realistic) experiences around the world.

Wireless communication

Communication was still physically shackled to the earth. Films and photographs had to be transported from place to place, and telephone calls could only be made between terminals joined by telegraph wires. In 1895 Guglielmo Marconi sent and received the first radio signals. By 1899 he had sent signals across the English Channel, and in 1902 sent the first radio signal across the Atlantic. The practical and economic limitations of audio communication were set to fall, along with the telegraph wires.

Images were shortly to follow, with the invention of television by John Logie Baird in 1925.

Moving into the hands of individuals

As these technologies have improved over time they have gradually worked their way into the lives of ordinary people the world over. Radios can be bought in markets in the most remote parts of the planet. Mobile phones are spreading throughout the world’s poorest countries. In the 20th century we went from being a world of strangers who couldn’t talk, to a world of people divided only by the cost of a phone call. In the coming century that cost is likely to fall.


The technologies that I have discussed in these articles have all helped us store and transmit communication. All these technologies are joining together in the form of computers and the internet. A cheap computer connected to the internet gives a person access to storage and transmission of written words, sounds, and images both still and moving. The future will see this convergence grow, with mobile computers allowing us to take photographs and send them to our friends instantly, wherever they are. Eventually we may even combine ourselves with our mobile computers, and transmit our thoughts and experiences directly into the heads of other people.

Communication is after all about sharing experience.

Originally published in Arusha Times 326


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