A Brief History of Telecommunications (Abridged)

We’ve come a long way from smoke signals and drums, the earliest forms of telecommunication. Today’s telecommunication industry uses electromagnetic waves and electronic transmitters to connect people. Connections are still made by sight or hearing, but telephone, television, radio, computers and satellites now allow the message to travel around the world, even out into space, and to be received almost instantly.

Did the men who invented modern telecommunications — Alexander Graham Bell (telephone), Guglielmo Marconi (radio), John Logie Baird (television) – realize how profoundly they would change the world? Today, the telecommunication industry is a significant factor in world economy, generating 3% of the gross world product. Figures for 2006 place industry revenue at $1.2 trillion and rising.

Highlights, interesting facts and a few near misses in telecommunications history:

  • 1837 Samuel Morse develops the electrical telegraph and signaling system. Embarrassingly, he couldn’t get it to work during the unveiling demonstration!
  • 1849 Antonio Meucci invents the first device to electronically transmit the human voice (i.e., phone). It flopped because to hear, users had to put the receiver in their mouth.
  • 1866 First transatlantic telecommunication is made.
  • 1876 Alexander Bell and Elisha Gray independently invent the telephone. Although Gray filed his patent application first, bad legal advice and a clerical error led him to withdraw his application and the patent was awarded to Bell.
  • 1878 First commercial telephone service set up in New Haven, Connecticut (home of Yale University) and the following year in London.
  • 1901 Guglielmo Marconi positions himself to win the 1909 Nobel Prize in physics by inventing a working wireless radio that functions between Canada and England.
  • 1925 John Baird demonstrates the transmission of moving pictures at Selfridges, a London department store which conveniently sells couches.
  • 1929 The BBC makes the first experimental TV broadcast.
  • 1940 George Stibitz makes the first computer transmission using a mainframe system and remote terminals. Mammoth mainframes dominate the emerging industry through the next two decades.
  • 1960 Computer geeks start experimenting with packet switching, bypassing the mainframe to send large packets of data directly to different computers.
  • 1969 The first network – just 4 modes – is in operation.
  • 1970 Scientists at Corning Glass Works produce the first viable optical fiber, ushering in a new era in telecommunications and enabling the internet.
  • 1978 The first international packet switched network connects the U.S. and Europe.
  • 1989 While working for CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau invent the web.
  • 1990 Fledgling micro-networks slowly merge to become the behemoth that today we call the “net.”

No longer an infant, telecommunications has hit its teen years and like a teenager is growing by leaps and bounds. A chronology of the discoveries and achievements of the past 15 years would fill pages. Today the path from discovery to implementation and production moves literally at the speed of light.

Telecommunications have enabled companies to build global empires, just look at Amazon and Wal-Mart, two outstanding examples. It is now possible to do face-to-face business with customers all over the world while sitting at your office desk. When you must travel, telecommunications allows you to stay connected to your home office and instantly resolve customer issues. With telecommunications, employees can remain an integral part of your business team while working from home when personal or family matters demand their attention.

It’s been less than 100 years since Samuel Morse first pressed down on a telegraph key. It’s only taken 15 years for the internet to change life as we know it. Can you imagine where we’ll be 15 years from now? Buckle up! We’re in for an amazing ride!