History of Telecommunication – Smoke & Drums to the Digital Age

By Vidya Bhojaraju

February 10, 2024
Tall cell towers

Have you ever imagined a life without today’s telecommunication? 

Long ago when even electricity was unknown, forget about telephones and mobiles, this is a time when civilizations communicated through birds, letters, or human messengers.

For instance, the Inca Empire, flourishing in South America from the 15th to the 16th century, utilized a sophisticated network of runners known as ‘chasquis.'1

These messengers ran across the vast stretches of the Inca road system, carrying quipus – a system of knotted cords used to encode information – and verbal messages.

This relay system allowed for swift communication across the empire, which spanned modern-day Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, and parts of Argentina.

Without electricity, telephones, or mobiles, the chasquis’ endurance and the ingenuity of the quipu system were vital for governing such a large territory, coordinating military campaigns, and managing trade.

Today we have Twitter in place of birds, telegram apps in place of letters, and the messenger we know now is Facebook Messenger

Modern telecommunication systems have now highly evolved and sophisticated and its impact has not only been related to enabling voice and data connectivity but has also tremendously improved the quality of life.

They have also been helping us as a means of handling disasters, an exceptional example is the 12 January 2010 Haiti Earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 Mw which took place in the poorest country of the western hemisphere Haiti affecting about an estimated three million people, with a Death Toll estimate ranging from 100,000 to 300,000.

An early response to the disaster was the OpenStreetMap community–a free, open geographic database updated and maintained by a community of volunteers via open collaboration–improving the level of mapping available for the area using post-earthquake satellite photography provided by GeoEye and crowd mapping website Ushahidi.

They coordinated messages from multiple sites to assist Haitians still trapped and to keep families of survivors informed, this was merely a fraction of the relief that was made possible by the use of modern telecommunications systems in the aftermath of the earthquake.

Today, Japan which is prone to Earthquakes uses smartphone alert systems to notify the residents of Earthquakes.

Imagine these situations without telecommunications systems, and that would be hell on Earth.

So how did we get this far?

Evolution of Telecommunication

The word tele has its origins in Greek, meaning ‘far off’, and is commonly used as a prefix in long-distance communication. It was first coined in 1904 by the French engineer and novelist Édouard Estaunié.

1700–1800s: Dancing Smoke & Talking Drums

The history of telecommunication dates back to times when smoke and drums were used like today’s smartphones to communicate to far-off distances.

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Most parts of Africa used talking drums to hint to travelers about their camping. In North America and China, people used to smoke as a hint of a settlement.

In 1793 Frenchman Claude Chappe invented the semaphore, the visual telegraphy sent messages using moving arms on towers.

By holding the flags in both arms in different patterns, alphabets and numbers were communicated from the tall towers, it has been described as Optical Telegraphy.

Semaphore of the Batavian Republic. Credits: Rijksmuseum

The communication was made using black and white flags, clocks, codebooks, and telescopes, with this communication being successful the semaphore was popularized across England, Sweden, and Germany.

It is believed that the first-ever message was sent a distance of 10 miles on March 2, 1791. The message read: “If you succeed, you will soon bask in glory.” (Si vous réussissez, vous serez bientôt couvert de gloire.)

Eventually, the usage of flags became a convenient mode to communicate in the maritime industry between ships.

Even today the semaphore is used to communicate during emergencies, the flags are used in the daytime while torches are preferred at night.2

1800–1900s: Telegraph and Telephone Communication

In the 1830’s the advent of electrical technology led to the surge of a whole new telecommunication system.

Some of the milestone inventions that made an incredible transition in the history of human communication are the telegraph and telephone.

Telegraph

The first working electrical telegraph was built by Francis Ronalds, an English Scientist in 1816, it used static electricity to send messages. 

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Meanwhile, another version of the telegraph system that was developed in America during the same period used a type of modulation called Morse code devised by Samuel Morse, an American inventor. 

The first telegraph message sent by Samuel Morse in 1844 was “What hath God wrought,” from the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to Alfred Vail at a railroad station in Baltimore, Maryland.

The first word from the Telegraph Message Sent by Samuel Morse. Credits: Engineering and Technology History

The Morse code used dots and dashes to denote letters and numbers and was sent along wires as long and short pulses of electricity, this led to the first successful transatlantic telegraphic cables.3

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the telegraph proved to be a strategic tool for communication between the front lines and command centers, altering the course of military engagements and the war itself.

Telephone

In 1876 Scottish – born Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone based on the works of harmonic telegraphs.

The apparatus demonstrated the transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically, causing electrical undulations.4

Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call on March 10, 1876, where he transmitted the call to his assitant, the first words being, “Mr Watson – Come here – I want to see you.”5.

The First Bell Telephone. Credits: Library of Congress

This design was patented by Mr Bell which eventually paved the way for the first telephone exchange that opened in New Haven, USA in 1878.

Consequently emerged the first telephone company, Bell Telephone Company created by Graham Bell and Gardiner Greene Hubbard in the United States.

1900–2000s: Era of Radio Communication (Wireless Telegraphy)

Italian Inventor Guglielmo Marconi worked on Radio Waves and built a wireless telegraph system using radio waves.

Guglielmo Marconi. Credits: By Pach Brothers – Public Domain

In 1901 he astounded the world by transmitting the first-ever radio signal across the Atlantic Ocean, from England to Canada. 

When Mr Marconi visited a seaside resort in Somerset to carry out the experiments he successfully sent the message “CAN YOU HEAR ME”, on May 13.

Little had he known that this message would be the harbinger of today’s radio communication.

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Then two months later he set up “Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Ltd.” which later in 1922 became one of the six founding members of the British Broadcasting Company.6

Meanwhile, Jagdish Chandra Bose, an Indian Physicist worked on the radio crystal detector and introduced the usage of semiconductor junctions to detect radio waves.

This patented work marked the beginning of millimeter-wave communication.7

Bose successfully demonstrated the transmission of electromagnetic waves at 60 GHz over a distance of 23 m across two intervening walls. This was the first milestone in the history of millimeter-wave communication.8

Telephone Cables

By the 1900s telephone cables were built using thin copper wires.

The experiment of the French Phone made it possible for both the receiver and transmitter to be in the same handset, in 1956 the first transatlantic undersea telephone cables were built.

This was just 6 years before the launch of the first commercial telecommunication satellite, Telstar.

A young trainee on the telephone switchboard which connects circuits of telephone to establish a phone call. Credits: Utility Industry.info

Later, with the discovery of optical fibers in the 1960s by Charles Kuen Kao the first optical fiber telephone cables were built in 1977. 

The advantages of using optic fibers in telecommunication are that they:

  • are less expensive; economical
  • have higher carrier capacity
  • incur less signal break-up
  • have lower power requirements
  • they can carry digital signals
  • are non-flammable and flexible

Radio

In 1888, German physicist Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the first radio waves. Later in 1896, Guglielmo Marconi received his patent for the first practical wireless telegraphy.

In 1901 Marconi succeeded in sending the first transatlantic radio signal. In 1906, the world’s first public radio broadcast was made in the US.

By the 1920s radio became a popular device among people, and businesses and social structures adapted to the new medium.

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Radio-based courses were offered by universities. And, churches too began broadcasting their services through radio. There were collaborations of newspapers with radio broadcasts.

By 1922 there were 576 licensed radio broadcasters, the publication Radio Broadcast that was launched proclaimed “government will be a living thing to its citizens instead of an abstract and unseen force”.

Eventually, in 1954, the transistor radio was developed and it replaced the valves and thus boomed the compact radio receivers. The first stereophonic broadcasts were made in 1960.

In 1995, Clockwork Radio began broadcasting to places without electricity and batteries. With the advent of the internet in the late 1990s digital and internet radio was introduced.7

Television

Television was first developed in the 1920s and by the 1980s almost every American home had a TV set. 

In 1926 Scottish inventor John Logie Baird demonstrated his mechanical television system which led to experimental television transmissions in England, in 1929.

Radio Corporation of America (RCA) which was founded in 1919 had created two National Broadcasting Companies (NBC).

These were the first of the radio networks in America, it was only in 1936 did the world’s first regular TV broadcasting began in England.

In 1939 RCA broadcasted the New York World’s Fair that included the speech by the then U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt making him the first president to appear on television.

The company broadcasted the first baseball game on May 17, 1939, between Princeton and Columbia Universities.

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The early television was primitive and broadcasts were monochrome, all the action at the first televised baseball game had to be captured by a single camera.

The limitations of early cameras also forced actors in dramas to work under impossibly hot lights, wearing black lipstick and green makeup so the cameras could capture the color white better.

Soon RCA had competition from Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) which began two 15-minute newscasts daily to a tiny audience on its New York television station.

These CBS newscasts were “chalk talks,” the newsman moved a pointer across a map of Europe that was consumed by war then.

The quality of the picture was so poor that it was difficult to make out the newsman, let alone the map.

First mass-produced TV set, sold 1946-1947, RCA television. Credits: By Fletcher – Public Domain

World War II slowed the development of television, and companies like RCA turned their attention to military production.

Further, the television’s progress slowed due to the struggle over wavelength allocations with the new FM radio and a battle over government regulation.9

However full-scale commercial television broadcasting did not begin in the United States until 1947, it was only in 1951 did the first color broadcast began in the US.

Japanese firm Sony introduced all-transistor TV receivers in 1960 and with the launch of the satellite Telstar, in 1962 television signals were relayed across the Atlantic.

Vladimir Zworykin, a Russian scientist patented the iconoscope television camera tube that made electronic television possible. 

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In 1979, the flat-screen pocket television was introduced, and in the 90s emerged digital and broadband Televisions.

Today, with an evolved wireless technology, the era belongs to smart televisions!

Mobile Communication and Wireless Technology

After television and computers, mobile devices were the next revolutionary innovation.

They proved to be more economical and powerful with their continual technological advancements. 

Today there are more than 5 billion subscribers in the world and mobile has become a necessity in every household.

In Mobile communication cellular telephony is enabled through a combination of cellular networks where the mobile devices communicate with each other wirelessly.

The communication in the cellular network is using the radio frequency spectrum.10

Early Cellular Phone and Smartphones

The first portable cell phone was invented by John F. Mitchell and Martin Cooper of Motorola.

When cellular evolution started post-90s cell phones became more popular, the question: “Do you use a smartphone?” no longer holds relevance today, we just assume it now!

In 1990 the number of mobile users was just around 11 million and today we have billions of mobile users.

Evolution of Cellular Phones

Two decades of Evolution of Mobile Phones from Motorola 8900X-2 in 1992 to iPhone 6 Plus in 2014. Credits: Jojhnjoy – Public Domain

From the first ever phone in a suitcase to modern smartphones, it is a leap in the evolution of telecommunication.

Today telecommunication is one of the fastest growing markets with gadgets, new features added on, and smartphones and smart technology only upgrading!

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The Nokia phones that were the peak of invention in our childhood, today in the world of artificial intelligence are mere nostalgia! ain’t it?

The timeline of key smartphone inventions that revolutionized the market and user experience is listed chronologically below:

YearSmartphones
1985The first Siemens phone Mobiltelefon C1, introduced in a suitcase.
1987Launch of the first Nokia Phone, Mobira Cityman 900.
1988Samsung developed the handphone SH-100.
1989Motorola launched the first flip phone, the Motorola MicroTAC model.
1992Nokia 1011, the first GSM Phone, was mass-produced. Introduction of text messaging.
1994IBM’s Simon, the first touchscreen smartphone, featured apps.
1996Motorola StarTAC introduced vibration mode. Nokia Communicator 9000, the first cell phone with a QWERTY keyboard.
1997Hagenuk GlobalHandy, the first phone with no external antenna.
1998Siemens launched the S10, the first cell phone with a color screen.

Emergence of 2G & 3G Networks

2G networks, introduced in the 1990s, were the first to offer digital encryption of conversations and data services, including SMS texts.

The advancements mentioned, like text messaging and WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) for internet browsing, were pivotal in 2G’s development.

It was with 2G that mobile phones transformed from mere communication devices into multimedia tools, setting the stage for the more data-intensive services 3G would provide.

YearMobile and Network Technologies
1999A slew of firsts: Motorola Timeport (tri-band GSM), Nokia 7110 (WAP browser), Samsung SPH-M100 Uproar (phone and MP3 player), Nokia 5210 (splash-proof), Benefon Esc (GPS), Sharp J-SH04 and Kyocera VP-210 VisualPhone (camera features).
2000Nokia 3310 became the biggest-selling cell phone.
2001Firsts in technology: Nokia 8310 (IR, radio, calendar), Ericsson T39 (Bluetooth), Nokia 7650 (Symbian OS, in-built camera).
2002-2008The Nokia 3310 became the biggest-selling cell phone.

3G technology, which began rolling out globally in the early 2000s, significantly improved data transmission rates, enabling services such as mobile internet access, video calls, and TV streaming in higher quality than 2G could support.

The introduction of smartphones, notably the iPhone in 2007 and the first Android phone in 2008 were landmark events in the 3G era, taking full advantage of 3G’s capabilities.

Transition to 4G Network and Beyond

The advent of 4G technology further accelerated mobile internet capabilities, leading to the introduction of devices with even better speed and connectivity.

In 2009, the first ever Galaxy Phone, the Samsung GTI700 was launched by Samsung, in the same year we had the Motorola Droid which was the first phone with Google Maps Navigator, and iPhone 4 with Retina Display and FaceTime was released.

In 2010, Samsung Galaxy S was launched with a thickness of 9.9 mm, Samsung also launched SCH – R900, the first 4G smartphone.

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From 2011 till the launch of the 5G network in 2019, numerous smartphones have been released in the market with features getting upgraded with every launch.

The releases of smartphones post-2019 have no doubt sophisticated features and user-friendly navigation modules with improved battery life.11

21st Century Telecommunications: The Internet Era

Today the Internet revolutionizing the concept of communication like never before, the global ISPs (Internet service providers) have grown in both numbers and sophistication of services.

They provide live communication across the globe, uniting the human race with the internet.

Popular uses of the internet for home users are:

  • Access to remote information
  • Person-to-person communication
  • Interactive Entertainment
  • Electronic Commerce

Some of the modern communication that has been possible because of the internet are:

  1. Instant Messaging
  2. Voice-Over Internet
  3. Video Conferencing
  4. Social Networking
  5. Blog
  6. Chat Room

The latest telecom industrial trend is Artificial intelligence (AI), AI is a type of computer science that deals with creating intelligent machines.

AI can detect network issues, perform self-repairs, or safeguard networks from fraudulent activity.

Artificial Intelligence technology can also automate tasks, improve decision-making, and provide personalized services. 

In 2023, we will see more AI applications in the telecom industry, in the form of chatbots and virtual customer assistants.

Final Thoughts on Telecommunication

With such revolutionary evolution in the way of communicating long distances, humankind has come a long way, the future promises advanced technology that can get only better than this. 

AI and Cloud are going to take the forefront as 5G and IoT are becoming mainstream. 

Machines replacing most human activities, and the manufacturing industries benefit the most as AI transforms the manual operation of machinery into highly automated robotic machinery.

Thereby ensuring faster production with more precision and quality. 

Today we have automobiles with GPS and sensors that encourage automated driving, and with advancement in technology comes the luxury and ease of communication.

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The only note that we need to consider right away is our environment and ecosystem, not forgetting that the highly evolving human intelligence is a consequence of coexistence and symbiosis, with nature.

Recommendations

Andrew S Tanenbaum, ‘Computer Networks,’ (2003)

References

  1. Discover Peru, ‘Inca Roads and Chasquis‘, “They set up a network of messengers by which important messages would be conveyed. These messengers were known as Chasquis“, http://www.discover-peru.org/inca-roads-chasqui/[]
  2. Piggotts, ‘The history of semaphore,’ 2018, https://piggotts.co.uk/updates/the-history-of-semaphore/[]
  3. The Dorling Kindersley, ‘Illustrated Family Encyclopedia,’ 1997, https://www.dk.com/uk/category/encyclopedias/[]
  4. Library of Congress, ‘Who is credited with inventing the telephone‘, 2022[]
  5. American Treasures of the Library of Congress, ‘Alexander Graham Bell – Lab notebook[]
  6. Jonathan Holmes, BBC – Marconi’s first radio Broadcast made 125 years ago, 2022, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-somerset-61327062[]
  7. The Dorling Kindersley, ‘Illustrated Family Encyclopedia’, 1997, https://www.dk.com/uk/category/encyclopedias/[][]
  8. ETHW, ‘Milestones: First Millimeter – wave communication Experiments by J.C Bose,’ 2022[]
  9. Mitchell Stephens, History of Television – Grolier Encyclopedia[]
  10. Saad Z Asif, ‘5G Mobile Communication, Concepts and Technologies’, 2019, https://amzn.to/4b6KPxU[]
  11. Ivan Krizanovic, ‘Cell Phone History: From the first phone to today’s smartphone wonders,’ Versus, 4 August 2020, https://versus.com/en/news/cell-phone-history[]
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