The History of Telecommunication – From Smoke Signals to High Speed Broadband

Communication RADARsThe means by which humans can telecommunicate over long distances has with time progressed in regards to both speed and space, and continues to increasingly rapidly. The development of technology in the modern world are so astonishing that were you to showcase such tools to people from even just 500 years ago, they’d perhaps liken it to black magic and think you a sorcerer.

In fact, our methods of communication are so advanced that someone just 200 years ago wouldn’t even be able to illustrate much of it in words. For example, how would a man living in 1843 describe the workings of broadband? It’s even a struggle to explain Near Field Communication Technology for people today, and yet the development of such telecommunication forms the very cornerstone of our lives. Therefore, as a treat to those blessed with a love for all things old and new here’s a brief history of telecommunication – from the very beginning to now.

The Prehistoric Era

Enter, the prehistoric age. By its very definition this is an era before conventional historical documentation, which means that any information gathered from it is largely inconclusive. However, based on archaeological findings it is widely believed that smoke signals, fires, drums and beacons were used to send messages between long distances; codes that were then deciphered on the other end.

Many of these forms of communication continued well after this time; a good two thousand years after the prehistoric period in 1200 BC, the Greek poet Homer spoke of the use of fire signals in the Iliad.

Carrier Pigeons

The use of carrier pigeons to transmit messages was also in practice during Homer’s time and records show such means of telecommunication existed throughout the years 700BC to 300AD during the birth of the Olympics.

Later on down the years, carrier pigeons played a significant role as the most advanced means of telecommunication being used by the ancient Persians, Genghis Khan and Charlemagne.

Semaphore System

By the 18th century, optical telegraph communication methods were taken up a notch by the genius of the French Chappe Brothers. Going to different schools which were distant but still visible to each other meant the two of them obtained permission to set up a new signalling system called semaphore. Their system used towers with pivoting shutters demonstrating different letters of the alphabet.

Soon enough semaphore signalling systems were existent all around the main cities of France and not before long all over the world, reaching as wide as America and Algeria. Thousands of men would work behind semaphore towers where 15 characters could be displayed per minute. Code books were also written in order to abbreviate the words used for communication.

The semaphore system only enjoyed a brief existence however, and by 1860 there were no longer any such towers in use.

The Electric Telegraph & FAX

The semaphore system’s demise was in large part due to progress in the development of the FAX and electric telegraph. In 1843 a Scottish Physicist by the name of Alexander Bain invented the FAX; whilst a year later Samuel Morse showcased the first electric telegraph. These advancements changed the face of telecommunications and were the first methods of which to be electronically driven.  By 1861 there were 2250 telegraph offices worldwide, and from this arose multiplex telegraphy.

The Telephone

If the people of the time were stunned by the advancements of the telegraph, it must have been nothing like the sheer bemusement when in 1876 Alexander Bell invented the telephone. But not everyone was taken aback by the innovation. In fact Elisha Gray, the founder of the Western Electric Manufacturing Company, rejected Bell’s offer of $100,000 for the rights to the invention, going as far as to ridicule Bell and his telephone in a letter. Fortunately this didn’t deter Bell and by 1880 there were 30,000 phones in use, which was the same year its originator founded American Bell. Two years later Bell actually took control of Western Electrics and its sister company Western Union. In 1884 the first long distance call was made, from Boston to NYC, and in the same year an even greater innovation made a significant progression.

The Television

In 1884, using a selenium cell and mechanical scanning disk Paul Nipkov gained a patent in Germany for television. Nipkov would have to wait a number of years for this to develop into anything substantial when in 1926 the Scottish John Baird demonstrated television via neon bulbs and mechanical scanning disks.

Such technology was not quite enough though, and Zworykin developed the concept further through the use of an iconoscope instead of neon bulbs. This was by far a more effective means and soon the iconoscope televisions were the only ones in widespread use.

The Radio

Perhaps surprisingly, around the same period of the development of the television came the radio. A German physicist by the name of Heinrich Hertz discovered that it was possible to produce and detect radio waves otherwise known as electromagnetic radiation. Despite dying in 1888, his theories lived on through the innovations of Guglielmo Marconi who demonstrated that radio could be used in commercial, military and marine communications. From then onwards a list of figures from Julio Baviera in Spain to the American Edwin Armstrong, advanced Marconi’s demonstrations into what became the radio. From the 1920s onwards, the use of the radio spread and it soon became commonplace.

The Satellite

The most positive feature of the Cold War – other than the fact that physical war didn’t actually break out – was the Space Race. This led to humans landing on the moon and arguably more significantly for our time, the first satellite.

Launched by Russia, the first satellite was named Sputnik and orbited the Earth for 22 days at 18,000mph. The genius device supplied information for radio –signal distribution in the ionosphere. The satellite would be the basis for a series of telecommunication inventions to come after.

The Mobile Phone

The invention of mobile phones actually go back as far as the 1940s, but the development of what we would regard as one today came some twenty years after. It began with Reginald Fessenden’s invention of a radiophone which allowed shore-to-ship telephony during the Second World War. Bell System then developed the automatic car phone in 1946 America.

It was Martin Cooper who in 1973 first invented what we would describe as a mobile phone. Cooper was a Motorola Executive and Researcher who had an ongoing battle with the Bell Labs company to create the first portable phone. It would take another ten years before Cooper’s innovation would hit the market. When it did, despite being at a price of $3,995, weighing a ton and taking ten hours to charge for only thirty minutes of talk time, it drew waiting lists in the thousands.

 The Worldwide Internet

Whilst not quite the worldwide web we know today, the history of the internet draws its origins alongside the emergence of computers in the 1950s. Mainframe computers and terminals practiced point-to-point connections and this soon enough progressed into packet switching, which in turn grew into protocols for internetworking: a network of a network of computers.

In 1982, the idea of a worldwide network emerged through the standardisation of the Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP). This remained non-commercialised until 1995, from which point onwards the worldwide web as we know it today materialised and very rapidly expanded.

It was estimated in March 2011 that the total number of internet users was 2.095bn (just over 30 per cent of the world’s population).

Broadband Internet

Today just having an internet connection is not quite enough and broadband internet is considered a must for many households worldwide. Broadband is simply a connection that carries a greater bandwidth and wider range of frequencies. Such is its speed – and indeed is our arrogance towards science and technology – that the slow internet connections of just ten years ago are no longer bearable for humans across the globe. In fact complaints were recently expressed in some parts of the UK after broadband speed tests indicated our average velocity fell behind that a number of other European countries.

Perhaps then the history of telecommunication teaches us that the inner nature of human beings is one rooted by impatience, which has furnished a need for speed in all aspects of our lives. As soon as we realise there is a faster method of doing something we are no longer satisfied with the current means. Furthermore, a drive to reach perfection is prevalent in mankind. This results in the genius that develops inventions such as the Chappe Brothers’ semaphore system or Samuel Morse’s telegraph. Imperfection is thus the root of all advances. The question of how substantial our lives have actually become with development in telecommunications does beg to be asked however. In this sense the next time you find yourself sighing in despair at your internet connection faltering, contemplate a world with carrier pigeons as the latest technological advance before you lament too much.

Tahar Rajab is a freelance writer who loves all matters of technology.

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