The story of communication starts long before there was a human mind to compartmentalize the process into a source, message, and receiver. It started with ‘the need to convey a message’ from one to another whether between earlier animal species or later among humans wandering as hunters and gatherers. With the advancement of human thought, this ‘need to convey the message’ caught the attention of human scientific temper and we traveled more than 4000 years of journey to reach the screen where you might be reading this. The process of scientific development of communication technology was slow at the beginning but each step added to the ultimate avalanche of inventions that happened in 19th and 20th Centuries. In this essay, I am going to take you to this journey of inventions which individually happened at different times and places and collectively added up to everything we see in the world of communication today.
The journey starts with the story-telling of pre-historic man through drawings and paintings in caves and shelters. The oldest paintings date back to whooping 40,000 years ago. Earliest Assyrians produced the oldest pictographs in 3500 BC which set in process the evolution of writing systems in various civilizations across the globe. From the rudimentary method of pictography, writing took the ideographic and hieroglyphic forms. The use of characters in the form of cuneiform script began in 3150 BC. Scripts varied from place to place, creating different families of language – a mode of communication of knowledge. In 1500-1000 BC first alphabets took form in Assyrian lands. The process of progressing from verbal to written communication took several thousand years but what happened after that was the chain reaction depicting all that could be done with written knowledge.
In 59 BC Romans used hand-written News Sheets. In the first-century paper was invented in China which became a new widely used medium for written communication. Between 1041 AD and 1048 AD Chinese artisan Bi Sheng invented the world’s first moveable type technology made of Chinese porcelain. Several improvements were attempted in China by replacing porcelain with wood and later bronze to increase the typesetting speeding. It took 400 years to reach mechanical movable type printing, which was invented by Johannes Gutenberg in Europe. This printing revolution played a key role in the development of the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. From here on communication media and scientific development went hand in hand, each fueling the advancement of the other.
With the invention of a graphite pencil in 1500 AD written communication came in hands of a large number of people which was earlier limited to printers. Newspaper writing started in Germany in the 16th Century and the first newspaper was printed in 1609 published weekly. By this time newspapers were highly censored by the government and reported only foreign news and current prices. After more than 1000 years of developments in written communication, it took a new form, in 1793, the form of visual telegraph where written messages were transported without physical transport of letters. The first visual telegraph, invented by Claude Chappe, used visual signaling systems installed on towers. On one hand, telegraphy was gaining recognition and started improving as technology, on the other hand, the invention of the steam printing press in 1811 AD by Fredrick Koing flooded the market with knowledge sources in forms of books and newspapers. The world was becoming closer with technological breakthroughs and new communication methods were ensuring that this effect was far-reaching.
In 1826 AD French physicist Joseph Nippon Nipse created the first permanent photograph and shortly after an advanced photographic procedure was developed by Louis J.M. Degurre. Now real-life movement could be captured and shared to make words even more powerful. In 1840 the ongoing tale of telegraphy fit another acme with the patent of Electric Telegraph by F.B. Morse, which superseded optical semaphone telegraph systems becoming a standard way to send urgent messages. By the later half of the century, most developed nations established commercial telegraph networks. In 1854 submarine telegraph cables made first rapid communication between continents and later in 1866 first transatlantic communication was established between Europe and America. At the same time, James Clark Maxwell gave the basis for Wireless Communication by the discovery of electromagnetism. In 1876, the first bell rang with Graham Bell on the other side.
Telegraphy saw another breakthrough in 1895 AD with the invention of radiotelegraphy by Guglino Marconi. On the same principle later in the 1920s, the radio was invented which not only brought the world closer but also created a new way for people to communicate. Meanwhile, in 1906 AD another communication method successfully came into the picture with the first transmission of voice on wireless by Reginald A. Fasiden. The early 20th century was a period of breakthroughs in physical and chemical science and this also became the basis for the development of advanced communication methods that we still use today. The improvisation of the vacuum tube by L.D. Forest became the foundation of first CRT TV System in 1929 AD. The first TV program broadcast was ‘Opening of the BBC Television Service’ on 2nd November 1936. The development of Transistor by Bell Telephone laboratories in 1947 AD. Transistors revolutionized the field of electronics and paved the way for smaller and cheaper radios and computers. In 1947 Dennis Gabor invented 3D photography and added to the visualizations of recorded memories.
Next big hit to the relationship of science and communication was the development of satellite communication technology in 1960 AD when Eco-I became the first satellite to transmit back to earth the radio message received from earth. This technology helped the transmission of telegrams in 1974 AD. Moving towards the end 20th century brought an avalanche which gave a communication method in every hand. The advancement in electronics and physical sciences made technology accessible to common public. They could now own the things which were distant marvels of early years of the century. Imagine the cost drop with the price comparison of Television sets which were sold as high as 4500$ in today’s terms in 1930s, but the price drop was very much visible coming down to a few hundreds. The same electronic revolution made personal computers a household name by the last decade. Not only did the devices became more accessible in terms of finances, they became an attraction because of the increasingly compact nature of new technologies. Holding a cell phone of 1.1 kg in 1973, Martin Cooper would not have imagined just the post 40 year outcome of mobile phone industry making iPhone 5S as light as 112 grams. Thus, towards the end of 20th century everything we have discussed so far came together to give us the privileges of mobile phones, fax machines, and later internet facilities, all speeding up the process of sharing of information and reducing the uncertainty factors in the same.
The co-dependent relationship of science and communication have brought us a long way from storytelling by addition of compact and fast gadgets in the way, but in the end, it is all still about story-telling, ‘the need to convey the message’ as I said.
Sukhraj Kaur is a trainee in Science Journalism at ISCOS, Lucknow. Student of PGD- Geoinformatics at IIRS, Dehradun, and Masters of Physics from IISER Mohali.