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The History of Telecommunication

Telecommunication is defined as the science and technology of communication over a distance. The ability to convey information quickly, accurately, and efficiently has always been one of the main focuses driving human innovation. From prehistoric man with their signal fires to the smartphone-wielding high-powered executives of today, communication still remains a key for survival and success. The history of telecommunication illustrates this never-ending push for progress as it steadily parallels human growth, becoming more widespread and efficient as the development of modern civilization unfolds.

  • Prehistoric Era: Fires, beacons, smoke signals, communication drums, horns: Man's first attempts at distance communication were extremely limited. Prehistoric man relied on fire and smoke signals as well as drum messages to encode information over a limited geographic area as they attempted to contact neighboring clans. These signals also needed to have very simple, pre-decided meanings like "safe" or "danger" or "victory" or could be used as a form of alarm system in order to alert prehistoric clans to predators or invading clans.
  • 6th century BCE: Mail: Cyrus the Great was a Persian emperor at the height of Persia's power in the 6th century BCE. The empire was so vast that Cyrus couldn't easily communicate from one end to the other: He is credited as having established the first postal system in the history of the world. Other ancient powers like Egypt, Rome, and China eventually built their own postal systems later on.
  • 5th century BCE: Pigeon post: Persia and Syria are credited with establishing the first pigeon messaging system around the 5th century BCE due to the discovery that pigeons have an uncanny ability to find their way back to their nests regardless of the distance. Travelers would bring doves and pigeons along with them, attach messages to them and release them to fly back home. Later on, pigeons would be used by Romans to report the outcomes of sporting events and by Egyptians for military communications.
  • 4th century BCE: Hydraulic semaphore: In the 4th century BCE, the hydraulic semaphore was designed in ancient Greece as a method of communication, and it was vital during the first Punic War. Very much like early smoke signals or beacons, it involved a network of identical containers on separate hills, each with a vertical rod floated in it. These rods would have predetermined codes inscribed at various intervals. Someone who wished to communicate would signal another with a torch; they would synchronize and then simultaneously open their spigots and drain the water until it was at the desired code. This system also had the same limitations as smoke signals - the messages had to be pre-determined prior to sending them.
  • Circa 490 BCE: Heliographs (shield signals): The heliograph or shield signal was first documented during the famous Greek battle of Marathon that took place in 490 BCE. A heliograph involves the shining of the sun on a polished object like a shield or mirror. Interestingly enough, in this instance, the signal given was not really understood, since its meaning had not been clearly agreed upon prior to it being used.
  • 15th century CE: Maritime flag semaphore: The ability to communicate between ships was very difficult before the 15th century. At that time, flag semaphore, a special code involving the positions of two hand-held flags, was introduced. Each position and motion represented a letter or number. This made it very easy for fleets to communicate.
  • 1672: First experimental acoustic (mechanical) telephone: Robert Hooke is first credited with creating an acoustic telephone in 1672. Hooke discovered that sound could be transmitted over wire or string into an attached earpiece or mouthpiece. At the time, it's not clear that he was aware of the implications of this discovery, as his notes point toward his desire to use this device to make music.
  • 1790: Semaphore lines (optical telegraphs): Using the maritime flag semaphore as a starting point, the Chappe brothers, two French inventors, created the first optical telegraph system in 1790. The optical telegraph was a system of pendulums set up somewhere high like on a tower or the top of a town clock. The telegraph would swing its mechanical arms around and sign messages from one tower to the next. It was the first telecommunications system in Europe.
  • 1838: Electrical telegraph: Samuel B. Morse had been working on the idea of a recording telegraph with friends Alfred Vail and Leonard Gale. They discovered that when connecting two model telegraphs together and running electricity through a wire, you could send messages by holding or releasing the buttons in a series of intervals. This became known as Morse code and lay the foundation for modern land-line phones.
  • 1858: First trans-Atlantic telegraph cable: At this point, most of Britain and the United States had telegraph stations and were able to regularly communicate within their own countries, but a man named Cyrus Field from New York wanted to lay the first transatlantic telephone cable to connect England and the United States by telegraph. This project, though it was met with many setbacks, was finally completed in August of 1858.
  • 1867: Signal lamps: In 1867, the first dots and dashes were flashed by signal lamps at sea. The idea was that of British Admiral Phillip Colomb, who took the design of signal lamp inventor Arthur C.W. Aldis and implemented this method of communication as well as his own code in order for the ships in his fleet to easily communicate. This code was similar to Morse code, but eventually, Morse code became more widely used.
  • 1876: Telephones: The year 1876 was a big one for Alexander Graham Bell. Having come to the U.S. as a teacher for the deaf, he had been trying to figure out a way to transmit speech electronically. Despite little support from his friends, he successfully invented the telephone in March of 1876.
  • 1877: Acoustic phonograph: Inventor Thomas Alva Edison made incredible strides in sound recording and transmission when he completed the first acoustic phonograph in August of 1877. He had been trying to improve and finalize the model for the telephone when he realized that by attaching a needle to the phonograph diaphragm and a tin-foil cylinder on which the needle could record spoken words, he could record and play back sounds.
  • 1880: Telephony via light-beam photophones: In 1880, Alexander Graham Bell took the money he'd received for successfully creating the telephone, set up a lab and got to work improving his invention. The fruit of his labor was the photophone, a device capable of transmitting sound in a beam of light. In essence, Bell had made the first wireless call in history!
  • 1893: Wireless telegraphy: Nikolai Tesla was the first to successfully transmit radio waves wirelessly through a transmitter in 1893. He patented his work, which was lucky because shortly after that, Guglielmo Marconi, another inventor, alleged that Tesla had copied his work. During the legal battle that ensued, this was found to be untrue. Tesla continued to experiment with wireless transmission and attempted to create a more efficient light bulb.
  • 1896: Radio: Undaunted by his defeat in the U.S. courts, Marconi kept working on his own versions of wireless transmission of sound. In 1896, he sent his first long-distance wireless transmission. The signal was sent over a distance of 2 kilometers. The recipient of this signal waved a white kerchief to show that it had been received. This earned Marconi a place in the history books as the man who gave us the first radio.
  • 1915: First North American transcontinental telephone calling: Alexander Graham Bell is back in the history books again after he made the first coast-to-coast call by phone in January of 1915 to his assistant. It was the first long-distance call made in history from a land-line. It has significance because it made long-distance communication all over the country a reality.
  • 1927: Television: Phillip T. Farnsworth made media history on September 7, 1927, when he demonstrated the first working television set. He had been working on a method to transmit images: What he discovered was that you could encode radio waves with an image and then project them back onto the screen. This gave us the first television prototype.
  • 1927: First U.K.-U.S. radio-telephone service: The first radio-telephone service from the U.K. to the U.S. was established in January of 1927. The phones were initially radio phones, so there were some issues with fading and interference. Initially, it was only one circuit and received about 2,000 calls a year, and the cost for three minutes of conversation time was nearly $10.
  • 1930: First experimental videophones: In 1930, AT&T had decided to create a two-way experimental videophone they called the Iconophone. This allowed people to see, hear, and respond to those they were speaking to in real time. The idea, although different, did not meet with much commercial success.
  • 1934: First commercial radio-telephone service, U.S.-Japan: The first radio telephone calls from the U.S. to Japan were first made in 1934. This enabled people to speak across the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Unfortunately, due to the distance, the quality of the calls was not great. There tended to be a lot of fading and interference.
  • 1936: World's first public videophone network: The world, now in the throes of World War II, sees the first public videophone network installed in Nazi Germany in March of 1936 during a trade fair. It was for use by "Aryans only" for a limited time each day from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. It was left installed there even after the trade show was over.
  • 1946: Limited-capacity mobile telephone service for automobiles: In June of 1946, the first telephone call was made from an automobile phone. The design had been put together by Southwestern Bell. Due to the cost of installation and the small volume of calls, it wasn't a very extensive mobile network.
  • 1956: Transatlantic telephone cable: The first 36-circuit transatlantic telephone cable was installed in 1956. The cable stretched from Newfoundland to Scotland. This now made phone calls much less expensive than the older radio telephone system.
  • 1962: Commercial telecommunications satellite: The Communications Satellite Act was officially passed in 1962, allowing telecommunications to finally go into space. AT&T was in the process of constructing their satellites, and two short years later, they would have put six telecommunications satellites into orbit.
  • 1964: Fiber-optic telecommunications: In 1964, Charles Kao and George Hockham published a paper that proved that fiber-optic communication could be possible as long as the fibers used to transmit the information were free of impurities. This discovery reopened the door Alexander Graham Bell had first created with his photophone, allowing sound to be transmitted over beams of light.
  • 1965: First North American public videophone network: In 1965, the first picturephone service began in trials. These phones were called "Mod I" picturephone sets, and in July of that year, Union Carbide Corporation began trials for the first picturephone network. In December of the same year, AT&T also began similar trials in some of their networks.
  • 1969: Computer networking: In October of 1969, the first data traveled between nodes of the ARPANET, a predecessor of the Internet. This was the first computer network and was invented by Charley Kline and Bill Duvall.
  • 1973: First modern-era mobile phone: Inventor Martin Cooper placed the first cellular mobile call in 1973 to his rival at Bell Labs, Joel Engel. The first mobile phone had a maximum talk time of 30 minutes, and it took a year for the battery to recharge. The phone would eventually be a prototype for Motorola's first mobile phones.
  • 1979: INMARSAT ship-to-shore satellite communications: The year 1979 was a big leap forward for maritime communications. The International Maritime Satellite Organization (INMARSAT) was established to provide marine vessels with reliable communication for increased safety and communication for sailors and passengers who needed to speak to someone on shore.
  • 1981: First mobile phone network: The first commercially automated cellular network was launched in Japan in 1981. The network was originally launched only in Tokyo in 1979 and then was expanded. Simultaneously, the Nordic Mobile Telephone system was also established in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
  • 1982: SMTP email: Prior to 1982, the Internet was highly secure and comprised of limited network clusters between military, corporate, and some university research facilities. In 1982, Jonathan Postel wrote the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol and shifted the focus of the Internet from security to reliability using the networks as relay stations to send electronic mail to the recipient through cooperative hosts.
  • 1983: Internet: On January 1, 1983, the Internet was officially born. ARPANET officially switched its old network control protocols (NCP) and Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) became standard.
  • 1998: Mobile satellite hand-held phones: The first canopy of 64 satellites was put into place by a company called Iridium in 1998. They also produced the first hand-held satellite phones, which were smaller and less cumbersome than the earlier "bag" phones. This revolutionized mobile telecommunications and would lead to the modern smartphone.
  • 2003: VoIP Internet telephony: In 2003, phone calls were now capable of being transmitted over a computer through Internet protocols. This meant that long-distance charges were not applicable, as callers would use already-established computer networks.