Mankind has always had a natural desire to communicate, but until relatively recently, all communication was either limited to very short distances or else it was painfully slow. In the 19th century, thanks to pioneering work by scientists and inventors such as Edison, Hertz and Morse, communications took a quantum leap.
Telegraphy and Morse Code
By sending bursts of electricity along wires according to an on/off code where sequences of short bursts and longer bursts could represent letters and numbers, Morse Code was invented and telegraphy was born. Cables were laid across countless miles of countryside between Post Offices in cities and towns enabling distant and instant communication. Undersea cables were also laid that enabled inter-continental communications, too. Eventually, it was discovered how to send voice messages instead of simple code and, thanks to Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone, the public telecommunications network became a reality, enabling users to hold telephone conversations worldwide.
Radio waves had been known about for years, but it wasn’t until the Italian inventor, Guglielmo Marconi, in 1896, patented the first system that could actually transmit and receive Morse Code communications wirelessly that radio communications became a viable proposition enabling communications with ships at sea. His greatest achievement in this field was the first Morse Code transatlantic radio communication. As the earth isn’t flat, however, there were limits on how far a radio wave could travel and still be received. The birth of the Space Age in the 1950’s saw the introduction of artificial satellites. These provided a means of overcoming the physical barriers that prevented reliable, inter-continental radio communications. Radio signals could be sent into space and relayed via a growing network of satellites to be sent back to any part of the world.
Early telephone calls relied on an operator putting each call through to the correct line. However, this began to change when the Post Office, whose telephony arm later became BT, opened automatic exchange. These allowed customers to be connected without the use of an operator. Human switchboard operators remained the norm in many areas for several years, both for areas that did not have automatic exchanges and for all long-distance or “trunk” calls.
The Queen made the first long distance call that did not require an operator. She called the Lord Provost of Edinburgh from Bristol. The call marked the inauguration of Subscriber Trunk Dialling, or STD for short, which allowed Bristol customers for the first time to dial other parts of the UK without the need for an operator
The Internet and The World Wide Web
Digital technology came along and enabled the transmission of so-called ‘packets’ of data. From the early 1960’s, the Internet was a growing network of connected computers designed to send encoded data, at first between military computers and later between large business computers. In 1989, Sir Tim Berners Lee invented a graphical interface for the Internet, which he called The World Wide Web. It enabled anyone with a home computer to access the Internet and send and receive all kinds of information: audio, video, text, graphics and more with companies and other connected users.
The Smartphone Era
Mobile phones became available soon after the invention of digital radio communications, but they weren’t exactly pocket-sized. In addition, like land-line telephones, they were limited to audio communications only. It wasn’t too long, however, until they could be made small enough to be not only pocket sized but also capable of accessing the Internet and sending and receiving all forms of content that digital technology enables. New services arose including video chat, email, and multimedia messaging services via social media platforms. Mobile phones or ‘smartphones’ as the more sophisticated ones are called, communicate by radio with nearby mobile phone towers, which, in turn, relay the information through the telecommunications network to landline phones or other mobile phones anywhere in the world.
The Internet of Things
The Internet of Things is at the forefront of technological developments, currently. It involves automated communication between personal devices and appliances via the Internet. For example, apart from displaying the time, there are smart-watch that constantly monitor the wearer’s heart rate. On detecting irregularities they can communicate via the Internet with the wearer’s smartphone to warn of the situation. Driverless cars of the future will also rely heavily on this technology as vehicles will need to communicate with each other in order to avoid collisions.