The history of telecommunication began with the use of smoke signals and drums in Africa, the Americas, and parts of Asia. In the 1790s, the first fixed semaphore systems emerged in Europe; however, it was not until the 1830s that electrical telecommunication systems started to appear. Follow this advancement from smoke signals to modern-day internet and mobile technology, understanding the events that have shaped the world of telecommunications.
The history of telecommunication began with the use of smoke signals and drums in Africa, the Americas, and parts of Asia. In the 1790s, the first fixed semaphore systems emerged in Europe; however, it was not until the 1830s that electrical telecommunication systems started to appear. This article details the history of telecommunication and the individuals who helped make telecommunication systems what they are today. The history of telecommunication is an important part of the larger history of communication.
Early telecommunications included smoke signals and drums. Talking drums were used by natives in Africa, New Guinea, and South America, and smoke signals in North America and China. Contrary to what one might think, these systems were often used to do more than merely announce the presence of a camp.
In 1792, a French engineer, Claude Chappe built the first visual telegraphy (or semaphore) system between Lille and Paris. This was followed by a line from Strasbourg to Paris. In 1794, a Swedish engineer, Abraham Edelcrantz built a quite different system from Stockholm to Drottningholm. As opposed to Chappe's system which involved pulleys rotating beams of wood, Edelcrantz's system relied only upon shutters and was therefore faster. However, semaphore as a communication system suffered from the need for skilled operators and expensive towers often at intervals of only ten to thirty kilometers (six to nineteen miles). As a result, the last commercial line was abandoned in 1880.
Telecommunications began with the successful innovation of Samuel Morse's telegraph system in 1844. For three years, the U.S. Post Office ran pioneering Washington to Baltimore line. By that time other private telegraph companies had developed (the first connected New York and Philadelphia) and were rapidly growing. Telegraph expansion paralleled and aided the growth of America’s network of railroads. The latter provided a prepared right of way, while the former offered vital communication links for the often single-track networks that moved people and goods. The first coast-to-coast telegraph line was opened in 1862 (seven years before rail links extended that far) and immediately made money, demonstrating the value of telecommunications over great distances.
Western Union, the first telecommunications monopoly, was formed as a regional alliance of several smaller firms in 1856 and rapidly expanded, often following railway lines. Just a year later the six largest telegraph companies developed a cartel, dividing up the country and business among themselves. The Civil War demonstrated the value of telegraph links (the Union was far better equipped than the Confederacy) and drove up rates and company profits. Western Union took over some 15,000 miles of government-built lines at the end of the war and became by far the largest company in the field.
Telegraph systems initially served only land routes, as it was presumed impossible to lay lines underwater. After experiments running insulated telegraph lines under lakes and across rivers, in 1858 an American-led consortium laid the first cable connecting Britain and the United States, which eventually failed in few months. After a failed attempt to lay a cable in 1865, success came in 1866; soon others were added. The Pacific was not crossed until 1902 because of the great distances involved. The availability of global telegraphy rapidly changed the face of business and government affairs. The ability to "instantly" communicate had a great positive impact on business and other human aspects of daily life.
The success of the telegraph industry and rising electrical manufacturing businesses formed the context for the telephone. The electric telephone was invented in the 1870s, based on earlier work with harmonic (multi-signal) telegraphs. The first commercial telephone services were set up in 1878 and 1879 on both sides of the Atlantic in the cities of New Haven and London. The first telephone switchboard was placed in service in New Haven, Connecticut, in early 1878, and demonstrated its greater efficiency over individual lines between each customer. The first use of telephone numbers and directories of telephone users appeared at about the same time. Telephone exchanges (using many switchboards) appeared about two decades later.
The telephone was largely the creation of Alexander Graham Bell, who received his first patent in March 1876. The early development of the telephone was fraught with technical and financial problems. Alexander Graham Bell held the master patent for the telephone that was needed for such services in both countries. The technology grew quickly from this point, with inter-city lines being built and telephone exchanges in every major city of the United States by the mid-1880s.
Restricted by crude technology to providing local service (initial iron wires rarely extended 100 miles), telephone service developed slowly before the Bell patents expired in 1893. Initial Bell business strategy focused on licensing use of its patents and selling equipment to companies building systems in cities and towns, largely to serve business and the wealthy.
A Kansas City undertaker, concerned that telephone operators were sending business to his competitors, developed the first mechanically automated telephone switch in 1891. The first automated switches began to appear around the turn of the century in major cities—and would be used in smaller communities for decades. Copper telephone lines were placed in use between Boston and New York, extending telephone service to 300 miles. Around 1893, the country leading the world in telephones per 100 persons (teledensity) was Sweden with 0.55 in the whole country but 4 in Stockholm (10,000 out of a total of 27,658 subscribers). This compares with 0.4 in the USA for that year. Telephone service in Sweden developed through a variety of institutional forms: the International Bell Telephone Company (a U.S. multinational), town and village co-operatives, the General Telephone Company of Stockholm (a Swedish private company), and the Swedish Telegraph Department (part of the Swedish government). Since Stockholm consists of islands, telephone service offered relatively large advantages but had to use submarine cables extensively. Competition between Bell Telephone and General Telephone, and later between General Telephone and the Swedish Telegraph Dept., was intense.
In 1893, the U.S. was considerably behind Sweden, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Norway in teledensity. The U.S. rose to world leadership in teledensity with the rise of many independent telephone companies after the Bell patents expired in 1893 and 1894.
By 1904 there were over three million phones in the US, still connected by manual switchboard exchanges. By 1914, the U.S. was the world leader in teledensity and had more than twice the teledensity of Sweden, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Norway. The relatively good performance of the U.S. occurred despite competing telephone networks not interconnecting.
For the next half-century, the network behind the telephone grew progressively larger and much more efficient, and after the rotary dial was added the instrument itself changed little until touch-tone signaling started replacing the rotary dial in the 1960s.
Despite all these developments, transatlantic voice communication remained impossible for customers until January 7, 1927, when a connection was established using radio. However, no cable connection existed until TAT-1 was inaugurated on September 25, 1956, providing 36 telephone circuits. Transcontinental telephone service became possible only around 1915 by the use of amplifiers based on Lee De Forest's "Audion" vacuum tube.
Improved technology would begin to change the face of telecommunications after 1945. Paced by wartime needs and spending, Bell Labs and other researchers produced coaxial cable and microwave links that were first used commercially in the years after the war. No longer was it necessary to build an expensive telecommunication network using copper wires. Microwave links required the use of many antenna towers— and a license to use the high-frequency spectrum—but this was less expensive than a traditional wired network. Coaxial cable offered the broadband capacity needed to transmit thousands of telephone calls or full-motion video.
Development of satellite communication was first hinted at in a 1945 article by Arthur C. Clarke in which he postulated a geostationary orbit 22,300 miles high that would keep a satellite above the same part of Earth. Pushed by the cold war missile race, the world's first artificial satellite came just 12 years later as the Soviet Union launched Sputnik into a low Earth orbit in October 1957. Early military satellite communications followed the same low-orbit path until the first commercial geostationary satellites appeared in the 1970s.
The history of mobile phones can be traced back to two-way radios permanently installed in vehicles such as taxicabs, police cruisers, railroad trains, and the like. Later versions such as the so-called transportable or "bag phones" were equipped with a cigarette lighter plug so that they could also be carried, and thus could be used as either mobile two-way radios or as portable phones by being patched into the telephone network.
Bell Labs developed the notion of "cellular" systems allowing for frequency reuse (and thus far greater capacity) and developed it through the 1970s. On April 3, 1973, Motorola manager Martin Cooper placed a cellular phone call (in front of reporters) to Dr. Joel S. Engel, head of research at AT&T's Bell Labs. This began the era of the handheld cellular mobile phone. Meanwhile, the 1956 inauguration of the TAT-1 cable and later international direct dialing were important steps in knitting together the various continental telephone networks into a global network. The FCC approved the operation of an analog cellular mobile telephone system in 1982, sparking a new growth sector.
Cable television companies began to use their fast-developing cable networks, with ducting under the streets of the United Kingdom, in the late 1980s, to provide telephony services in association with major telephone companies. One of the early cable operators in the UK, Cable London, connected its first cable telephone customer in about 1990.
Digital technology first appeared in American telecommunications with AT&T's introduction of its T1 Carrier System in 1962. A T1 line offered far more capacity and a cleaner (less noisy) signal. Soon digital telephone switches appeared, allowing for more flexible network design and operation. But the most sweeping change came with the installation of fiber-optic cables to carry voice, data, and video signals. The huge carrying capacity of fiber—constantly rose with further technical improvements— finally placed telecommunication networks well ahead of projected growth (and planted the seeds for disaster in the early 2000s).
On September 11, 1940, George Stibitz was able to transmit problems using teletype to his Complex Number Calculator in New York and receive the computed results back at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. This configuration of a centralized computer or mainframe with remote dumb terminals remained popular throughout the 1950s. However, it was not until the 1960s that researchers started to investigate packet switching — a technology that would allow chunks of data to be sent to different computers without first passing through a centralized mainframe. A four-node network emerged on December 5, 1969, between the University of California, Los Angeles, the Stanford Research Institute, the University of Utah, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. This network would become ARPANET, which by 1981 would consist of 213 nodes. In June 1973, the first non-US node was added to the network belonging to Norway's NORSAR project. This was shortly followed by a node in London.
Two popular link protocols for local area networks (LANs) also appeared in the 1970s. Internet access became widespread late in the century, using the old telephone and television networks. The Internet, based on government networks dating back to 1969, became a widely used public network in 1995. Development of the World Wide Web and the graphic user interface making it possible opened up a wealth of expanding information resources and growing public acceptance. By the early 2000s, more than half of American households were connected to the Internet, a slowly growing number of them linked by broadband connections. Projections of Internet growth sparked bullish plans for the underlying telecommunication services and manufacturing that made the Web possible. Many of those projections were wide of reality.
Internet Protocol (IP) telephony (also known as 'Internet telephony') is a service based on the Voice over IP communication protocol (VoIP), a disruptive technology that is rapidly gaining ground against traditional telephone network technologies. In Japan and South Korea, up to 10% of subscribers switched to this type of telephone service as of January 2005.
IP telephony uses a broadband Internet connection to transmit conversations as data packets. In addition to replacing the traditional Plain Old Telephone Service POTS system, IP telephony is also competing with mobile phone networks by offering free or lower-cost connections via WiFi hotspots. VoIP is also used on private wireless networks which may or may not have a connection to the outside telephone network.