Milestones in Communications
The capabilities of modern communications would utterly astound our ancestors. Did you ever stop to think that it took five months for Queen Isabella to hear of Columbus’ discovery, or that it took two weeks for Europe to learn of Lincoln’s assassination?
We take for granted immediate news of everything that is going on in the world, but it was not always so. Modern technology and future predictions are easier to comprehend when we view them in terms of our past. What follows next is a list of what we consider some of the more significant events in the annals of communication. Our list is arbitrary and includes items chosen not only for technological innovation, but for creativity and human interest as well.
The Battle of Marathon Pheidippides’ Run
For centuries, the speed of communication was, in essence, the speed of transportation. Perhaps no event so dramatizes this limitation as Pheidippides’ run following the battle of Marathon in 490 BC.
As told in the history books, a badly outnumbered Greek force defeated an invading Persian army on the plains of Marathon, 20 miles from Athens. Fearing that the defeated Persians would regroup and attack Athens and that the city would surrender without knowing of the victory, the Greek general dispatched his swiftest runner, Pheidippides. As he reached the city, Pheidippides stumbled, delivered his message, and fell dead of exhaustion.
Paul Reveres Ride
“One if by land and two if by sea” refers to lanterns hung from the North Church in Boston in 1775 to indicate the route the British were taking. The lanterns were the signal for Paul Revere to begin his famous midnight ride, perhaps the most famous communication in American history, immortalized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem.
In actuality, Revere made two rides, on April 16 (to warn the patriots to move their military supplies) and again on April 18 (to tell the people to take up arms.) Few people know that Revere was accompanied on the second ride by two other patriots, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, and that he was captured by a British patrol and subsequently released. Dawes and Prescott escaped.
Reuters News Service
Reuters today is a worldwide newsgathering agency, owned by the British Press Association. It was founded in 1849 by Paul Julius Von Reuter, and the creativity of its founder merits Reuters’ inclusion in our list of communication milestones. The original service used carrier pigeons to bring closing market prices from the stock exchange in Brussels, Belgium, to Aix-la-Chapelle (now Aachen), Germany.
The Pony Express
Would you spend $5 to send a half-ounce letter that will take 10 days to get to California? That was the rate charged by the Pony Express, which in its day provided the fastest possible delivery to the West Coast.
The route of the Pony Express stretched 1966 miles from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. Relay stations were set up every 10 to 15 miles along the way, where lonely keepers took care of the horses. Young riders rode at top speed from one station to the next for wages for $100 to $150 per month. In all, there were about 190 stations, 400 station keepers and assistants, 400 horses, and 80 riders. Despite the hardships of riding in all kinds of weather and the constant attacks by Indians and outlaws, the mail was lost only once in the more than 650,000 miles logged by the riders.
The Pony Express had existed for barely a year and a half (from April 3, 1860 to October 24, 1861) when telegraph connections were completed between the east and west coasts. Unable to compete, the promoters of the Pony Express were ruined financially.
Samuel F.B. Morse, an artist turned inventor, is credited with building the first commercially practical telegraph. Morse’s first line opened in 1844; it stretched from Washington to Baltimore and was soon extended to New Jersey. Some enterprising individuals used the telegraph to communicate lottery results to New York, where hefty sums were won before people caught on to this new form of “instantaneous” communication. Less than 10 years later, the entire country east of the Mississippi was connected by over 18,000 miles of telegraph wire.
Western Union was formed in 1856 and completed the first transcontinental telegraph line in 1861 (causing the demise of the Pony Express). It made a fortune for its backers, who built the line in less than three months for $500,000, then sold $6 million worth of public stock. Profits continued to pour in. The going rate was about $1 per word.
During the Civil War, Lincoln was informed that a telegraph had been installed for communicating information to and from the battlefield and that he would be “able to make decisions at the speed of light!” Lincoln is said to have thought for a moment before responding, “Yes, that is true, but we’ll also be able to make the wrong decisions with the speed of light.”
The Transatlantic Cable
The first transatlantic message was sent in 1858 via an undersea cable stretching from Newfoundland to Ireland. Unfortunately, the cable functioned for only four weeks. Cyrus Field, the businessman behind the project, saw his firm go bankrupt, causing the cable to be temporarily abandoned
Eight years later, on July 27, 1866, a new and successful cable was completed, also under the auspices of Field. He was awarded a gold medal by Congress and eventually helped to promote the New York City elevated railroad.
Although Alexander Graham Bell receives universal credit for the telephone, he narrowly beat his rival, Elisha Gray, to the patent office in 1876. Bell eventually withstood over 100 legal challenges brought by Gray and his supporters concerning Bell’s right to the key patents.
Interestingly enough, Bell’s financial backer and father-in-law, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, initially dismissed the telephone as a curiosity, offering to sell the rights to the telephone to Western Union for $100,000. (Western Union wasn’t interested either.) Perhaps Hubbard was influenced by a quotation attributed to Rutherford B. Hayes, nineteenth president of the United States, who said of the telephone, “That’s an amazing invention, but why would anyone ever want to use one?”
Anecdotes abound on the early days of the telephone. For example, Mark Twain, after unsuccessfully investing in failing ventures with a publishing firm and a typesetting device, vowed never to invest again; the next person to approach him was a young Scot named Alexander Graham Bell.
The development of radio is attributable to many individuals of different nationalities. It begins with the research of James Clark Maxwell, a British physicist of the 1800s who showed that electricity and light both travel in the form of waves. Maxwell also predicted that it would be possible to send electromagnetic waves through space from electric discharges.
In 1888, Heinrich Hertz, a German scientist, became the first person to actually create these waves. Hertz also showed that waves could be measured as to length and frequency. Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian, was the first to send and receive wireless signals over a distance. Marconi was able to transmit wireless communications across the English Channel in 1898 and across the Atlantic in 1901.
Marconi’s success gave rise to many other developments, culminating in President Wilson’s radio address on July 4, 1919. In 1920, Pittsburgh’s station KDKA launched a new era in popular communications by broadcasting the Harding-Cox presidential election.
In 1957, the Soviet Union shocked the world (and jolted the United States into accelerating its own space program) when it launched Sputnik, the first manufactured object to orbit the earth. From this dramatic beginning, modern satellite communications have evolved to enable us to know all that is going on in the world almost at the instant it happens. Indeed, satellites transmit the human voice around the world faster than it can be shouted from one end of a football field to the other.
Quotations in the History of Communication
490 BC: “Rejoice, we conquer.”
– Pheidippides, bringing the word of the Greek victory at Marathon
May 24, 1844: “What hath God wrought!”
– Samuel F. B. Morse on the telegraph
August 16, 1858: “Europe and America are united by telegraphy.”
– Queen Victoria to President James Buchanan, as she sent the first transatlantic telegram
Summer, 1876: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.”
– Alexander Graham Bells first words on the telephone
December 12, 1901: “S S S S …”
– Guglielmo Marconi, sending the letter S, in the first wireless signal across the Atlantic
July 20, 1969: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
– Neil Armstrong, landing on the moon