Throughout early history, communication advances took on a wide variety of forms – running the gamut from practical to farcical. For example, one of the first methods of long distance communication was the smoke signal, first used around 200 B.C. to pass messages along the length of the Great Wall of China.
In the 12th century, carrier pigeons became a reliable means of sending messages from top-level figures in Egypt to locations hundreds of miles away. These early ideas are remarkable, of course, but modern communication methods have been shaped by electrical engineering more than any other discipline.
Thanks to electrical engineering and its allied fields, it is now possible to instantly send and receive large, complex messages across thousands of miles in an instant. Of course, all forms of technological progress are iterative: They take lessons from what came before. Thus, it’s a good idea to remember and recognize even the important technologies that are now obsolete.
Let’s look at six big ways electrical engineering has advanced communication:
The Electric Telegraph – 1831One of the first electric telegraphs was proposed and built by Joseph Henry in 1831, though Russian diplomat Pavel Schilling developed an electromagnetic model in 1832, and the German engineers Carl Friedrich Gauss and Wilhelm Weber produced one in 1833. Gauss and Weber’s device was used for regular communication covering a distance of about one kilometer.
Samuel Morse’s development of Morse code in 1835 helped make longer telegraph messages possible, and the first commercial electrical telegraph appeared in 1837 – the Cooke and Wheatstone System, which used needles on a board to point at alphanumeric characters. By the 1840s, telegraphs were extensively used throughout London-area railways.
The Telephone – 1876Scottish-born U.S. engineer Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first electric telephone with his assistant Thomas Watson in 1876 in Boston. He received the patent for his device that year. Though he would later be embroiled in one of the longest intellectual property disputes in history, his innovation led to the launch of Bell Telephone Company.
Bell’s early experiments in what he called the “acoustic telegraph” included transmitting sound through the movement of a needle in water, which produced a change in electrical current. It was a device of this type that allowed him to transmit his famous first message: “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you.” His first major public demonstration connected two offices five miles apart.
The Radio – 1901Italian Guglielmo Marconi had already successfully designed, developed, and marketed the first long-distance wireless telegraph when he broadcast the first transatlantic radio signal in history. Marconi radios were quickly adopted for ocean travel, significantly improving safety and making a direct contribution to the lives saved during the Titanic disaster.
In 1909, Marconi was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physics, which he shared with German Karl F. Braun, inventor of the cathode ray tube. Although other inventors had worked on similar concepts around the same time, including noted Serbian polymath Nikola Tesla, it was Marconi’s radios that were the most successful commercially.
Geosynchronous Communication Satellite – 1963Today, many different communication, transportation, and logistics services rely on satellites. They help provide access to global positioning systems used widely throughout the private and public sector, for example. It all began with Syncom 2, launched from NASA’s Cape Canaveral facilities in July of 1963.
Syncom 2 was the very first geosynchronous satellite, and it demonstrated such devices could support voice, teletype, fax, and data services. Tests were conducted between a ground station located in Lakehurst, New Jersey, and the USNS Kingsport, then in service off the coast of Africa.
The “Smart” Modem – 1981Today’s broadband technologies allow the transmission of an immense amount of digital data at tremendous speeds. Early online technology used the same cabling and infrastructure as the phone system, however, and the modem (modulator-demodulator) was the crucial component that translated analog signals into digital ones and vice versa.
Although the modem had been commercially available since the 1960s, early AT&T modems were enormous and costly. The much smaller Hayes Smartmodem, introduced to the consumer in 1981, significantly simplified the use of the device and made it available to hobbyists. Initially priced at $299, it quickly became the industry standard, launching the online era.
SMS Texting – 1992Cellular phones were beginning to see some acceptance by the mid-1990s, but there was still an untapped potential for technology that would allow the exchange of short messages without the time investment of a complete phone call. The first text message, sent in 1992, was simply “Merry Christmas.” Of course, the recipient couldn’t reply!
In 1993, Nokia released the first SMS-compatible phone. It wasn’t until 1997 that it introduced a phone with a QWERTY keyboard. After 2000, as restrictions on sending text messages across different phone networks disappeared, texting started to grow in popularity among college students. By 2002, over 250 billion SMS texts were being sent worldwide.
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