The history of communication begins before Humans. But, let’s start with humans anyway.
Let’s just start with the concept of “Symbols.” For the purposes of this discussion, communication is defined as the movement of some intent from a sender to a receiver. Symbols, a shared representation of a thing, were the first communication invention. Once we had a “symbolic” way to represent things and ideas, we were able to stimulate other inventions and cultural improvements. Eventually we invented all sorts of new ways to communicate that allowed for an increase is the distance we could communicate, the longevity of the information being communicated, and the amount of information that could be communicated.
Cave Painting – 20,000 +/- years ago
I want to start with Cave Painting.
Cave paintings are paintings and drawings found on cave walls and ceilings.
One of the earliest is thought to be approximately 40,000 years ago, and is in the El Castillo cave in Cantabria, Spain.
The exact purpose of these paintings is clearly up for debate. But, an interesting fact is that they are often found in areas that do not have evidence of ongoing habitation. And are also often located in areas of caves that are not easily accessible.
My uneducated guess is that there are probably a lot of different reasons why people would go through the effort to do these things. Just as there are a lot of different reasons for the different paintings exhibited in the Louvre. Some paintings could have been used for training the next generation of hunters (an early whiteboard). Some paintings could have been the artist experimenting with this new art form. Some paintings could have been for the artists ego, saying look how great I am I can do this thing. And some could have been simply because an artists could and did.
One of the most important advantages of cave paintings over speech is that it allows for the sender of the communication and the receiver of the communication to be separated by time. Before cave paintings all communication existed only for the instant that the sender created the communication. But after, a teacher could teach the same lesson on how to dill a animal the next day, the next week, or the next century.
But, while, the advantage of allowing for separation of the sender and receiver by time, it had a huge disadvantage. A cave painting does not move. So, a cave painting could not separate the sender and receiver by location. The message did not move, the communicators had to move.
Another important aspect of cave paintings is that it removed memory form the communication process. Up until Cave Paintings all forms of communications relied on human memory. And as we have all personally experienced, memory is an imperfect tool: memory can become corrupted or lost over time, and there is a limit to how much one can remember. With the accidental death of a ‘wise man’ or tribal elder, a pre-literate tribe could lose many generations of knowledge.
Pictograms and Clay, Wax, and Stone Tablets – 8500 BCE to 1000 BCE
A pictogram (pictograph) is a symbol representing a concept, object, activity, place or event by illustration.
Pictography is a form of proto-writing whereby ideas are transmitted through drawing. Pictographs were the next step in the evolution of communication.
The big advance of pictography and clay, stone or wax tablets is that the sender and the receiver could be separated by distance as well as by time. Also, one could collect, store, and retrieve these tablets. Thus libraries were born.
Alphabet, Papyrus, and Paper – 2000 BCE to today
The invention of inks and papyrus and paper roughly happened around the same time. One of the oldest pieces of writing on papyrus known to us today is the Egyptian “Prisse Papyrus” which dates back to 2000 B.C. 105 BC Tsai Lun of China invents paper as we know it.
The huge advantage of using an alphabet and paper was the quantity of information a communication could contain. Pictographs and tablets were limited in how much information they could communicate. But, this new invention changed all that by orders of magnitude (or something like that.)
Though papayas and paper were not as durable as clay or stone, the net benefits far outweighed (no pun intended) the disadvantages.
One of my favorite examples of writing in this period is the Torah.
Moveable Type (The Printing Press) – 14th Century to today
The next huge leap in Communication was the use of moveable type which begat the Printing Press.
Movable type is the system of printing and typography that uses movable components to reproduce the elements of a document (usually individual letters or punctuation).
The world’s first known movable type system for printing was created in China around 1040 A.D. by Bi Sheng (990–1051) during the Song Dynasty; When this technology spread to Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty in 1234, they made the metal movable-type system for printing. This led to the printing of the Jikji in 1377, the oldest extant movable metal print book. The diffusion of both movable-type systems was, however, limited: They were expensive, and required an enormous amount of labour involved in manipulating the thousands of ceramic tablets, or in the case of Korea, metal tablets required for scripts based on the Chinese writing system, which have thousands of characters.
Around 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invented an improved movable type mechanical printing system in Europe, along with innovations in casting the type based on a matrix and hand mould. The more limited number of characters needed for European languages was an important factor. Gutenberg was the first to create his type pieces from an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony—the same components still used today.
Books and libraries existed before Moveable Type. But, it was quantity and quality of the books and libraries after movable type that is notable.
I believe the Reformation and Age of Enlightenment are directly tied to the Printing Press.
Before the Printing Press, worshipers had to rely on the Church to tell them what is in the bible. After the Printing Press people could go to the Bible themselves. And scientists could study the work of other scientists directly from the original.
The Printing Press was the Internet of its day in terms of opening up publishing to the masses.
1450 Newspapers appear in Europe.
1455 Johannes Gutenberg invents a printing press with metal movable type.
1560 Camera Obscura invented – primitive image making.
1814 Joseph Nicéphore Niépce achieves the first photographic image.
1877 Eadweard Muybridge invents high speed photography – creating first moving pictures that captured motion.
1888 George Eastman patents Kodak roll film camera.
1821 Charles Wheatstone reproduces sound in a primitive sound box – the first microphone.
1831 Joseph Henry invents the first electric telegraph.
1835 Samuel Morse invents Morse code.
1843 Samuel Morse invents the first long distance electric telegraph line.
Alexander Bain patents the first fax machine.
Alexander Graham Bell patents the electric telephone.
1889 Almon Strowger patents the direct dial telephone or automatic telephone exchange.
1894 Guglielmo Marconi improves wireless telegraphy.
1898 First telephone answering machines.
1899 Valdemar Poulsen invents the first magnetic recordings – using magnetized steel tape as recording medium – the foundation for both mass data storage on disk and tape and the music recording industry.
1902 Guglielmo Marconi transmits radio signals from Cornwall to Newfoundland – the first radio signal across the Atlantic Ocean.
1906 Lee Deforest invents the electronic amplifying tube or triode – this allowed all electronic signals to be amplified improving all electronic communications i.e. telephones and radios.
1914 First cross continental telephone call made.
1916 First radios with tuners – different stations.
1923 The television or iconoscope (cathode-ray tube) invented by Vladimir Kosma Zworykin – first television camera.
1925 John Logie Baird transmits the first experimental television signal.
1926 Warner Brothers Studios invented a way to record sound separately from the film on large disks and synchronized the sound and motion picture tracks upon playback – an improvement on Thomas Edison’s work.
1927 NBC starts two radio networks.
First television broadcasts in England.
Warner Brothers releases “The Jazz Singer” the first successful talking motion picture.
1930 Radio popularity spreads with the “Golden Age” of radio.
First television broadcasts in the United States.
Movietone system of recording film sound on an audio track right on the film invented.
1934 Joseph Begun invents the first tape recorder for broadcasting – first magnetic recording.
1938 Television broadcasts able to be taped and edited – rather than only live.
1939 Scheduled television broadcasts begin.
1944 Computers like Harvard’s Mark I put into public service – government owned – the age of Information Science begins.
1948 Long playing record invented – vinyl and played at 33 rpm.
Transistor invented – enabling the miniaturization of electronic devices.
1949 Network television starts in U.S.
45 rpm record invented.
1951 Computers are first sold commercially.
1958 Chester Carlson invents the photocopier or Xerox machine.
Integrated Circuit invented – enabling the further miniaturization of electronic devices and computers.
1963 Zip codes invented in the United States.
1966 Xerox invents the Telecopier – the first successful fax machine.
1969 ARPANET – the first Internet started.
1971 The computer floppy disc invented.
The microprocessor invented – considered a computer on a chip.
1972 HBO invents pay-TV service for cable.
1976 Apple I home computer invented.
First nationwide programming – via satellite and implemented by Ted Turner.
1979 First cellular phone communication network started in Japan..
1980 Sony Walkman invented.
1981 IBM PC first sold.
First laptop computers sold to public.
Computer mouse becomes regular part of computer.
1983 Time magazines names the computer as “Man of the Year.”
First cellular phone network started in the United States.
1984 Apple Macintosh released.
IBM PC AT released.
1985 Cellular telephones in cars become wide-spread.
CD-ROMs in computers.
1994 American government releases control of internet and WWW is born – making communication at lightspeed.
History of Communication – Related Timelines
Timeline of Computers
Timeline of Photography
Timeline of Significant Dates in Post Office History
Timeline of Telecommunications
Dates in the History of Cultural Technologies
Timeline of Communication History
History of Communications Infrastructures
The Future of Media