THE HISTORY OF COMMUNICATION THROUGH THE AGES
By Tim Lambert
Communication in Ancient Times
The first means of communication was, of course, the human voice but in 3,300 BC in Iraq writing was invented. It was invented slightly later (about 3,100 BC) in Egypt and about 1,500 BC in China. However the only American civilisation to invent a true system of writing were the Mayans.
The next big step was the invention of the alphabet in what is now Israel and Lebanon about 1,600 BC.
In the Ancient World many civilisations including Egypt, Assyria, Persia, Rome and China had efficient postal systems to deliver messages to parts of their empires using relays of horses.
In the ancient world people wrote on papyrus or parchment. However the Chinese invented paper about 200 BC. The knowledge of how to make paper passed to the Arabs and in the Middle Ages it reached Europe.
The next major improvement in communication was the invention of printing. The Chinese invented printing with blocks in the 6th century AD but the first known printed book was the Diamond Sutra of 686. In Europe in the mid-15th century Johannes Gutenburg invented the printing press, which made books much cheaper and allowed newspapers to be invented. William Caxton introduced the printing press into England in 1476.
The first newspapers were printed in the 17th century. The first newspaper in England was printed in 1641. (However the word newspaper was not recorded until 1670). The first successful daily newspaper in Britain was printed in 1702.
Meanwhile European monarchs set up postal services to carry their messages. In France Louis XI founded one in 1477 and in England Henry VIII created the Royal Mail in 1512. In 1635 to raise money Charles I allowed private citizens to send messages by Royal Mail, for a fee.
Meanwhile the pencil was invented. It was first described in 1565.
Communication in the Modern Age
Communication became far more efficient in the 19th century. In the early 19th century the recipient of a letter had to pay the postage, not the sender. Then in 1840 Rowland Hill invented the Penny Post. From then on the sender of a letter paid. Cheap mail made it much easier for people to keep in touch with loved ones who lived a long way off.
A Victorian letter box. The VR stands for Victoria Regina.
The telegraph was invented in 1837. A cable was laid across the Channel in 1850 and after 1866 it was possible to send messages across the Atlantic.
Meanwhile the first fax machine was invented in 1843. A Scot, Alexander Graham Bell, invented the telephone in 1876. The first telephone exchange in Britain opened in 1879. The first telephone directory in London was published in 1880. The first telephone line from London to Paris opened in 1891. The first transatlantic telephone line opened in 1927.
Meanwhile the first successful typewriter went on sale in 1874 and the first successful fountain pen was made in 1884.
In 1829 Louis Braille invented an embossed typeface for the blind and in 1837 Isaac Pitman invented shorthand.
Communication continued to improve in the 20th century. In 1901 Marconi sent a radio message across the Atlantic. Radio broadcasting began in Britain in 1922 when the BBC was formed. By 1933 half the households in Britain had a radio. Following the 1972 Sound Broadcasting Act independent radio stations were formed. In the 1990s new radio stations included Radio 5 Live (1990) and Classic FM (1991).
Television was invented in 1926 by John Logie Baird and the BBC began broadcasting in 1936. TV was suspended during World War II but it began again in 1946. TV first became common in the 1950s. A lot of people bought a TV set to watch the coronation of Elizabeth II and a survey at the end of the that year showed that about one quarter of households had one. By 1959 about two thirds of homes had a TV. By 1964 the figure had reached 90% and TV had become the main form of entertainment - at the expense of cinema, which declined in popularity.
At first there was only one TV channel in Britain but between 1955 and 1957 the ITV companies began broadcasting. BBC2 began in 1964 and Channel 4 began in 1982. Channel 5 began in 1997. In Britain BBC 2 began broadcasting in colour in 1967, BBC 1 and ITV followed in 1969. Satellite television began in Britain in 1989.
Meanwhile in 1960 the first communications satellite, Echo was launched.
Meanwhile telephones became common in peoples homes in the 1970s. In 1969 only 40% of British households had a phone but by 1979 the figure had reached 69%. The first mobile phone call in Britain was made in 1985. The first commercial text was sent in 1992. In Britain smartphones were introduced in 1996.
A 20th century public telephone box
In the early 21st century the internet became an important form of communication. Today email has become one of the most popular methods of communication. In the 2010s ebook readers became common.
A timeline of communications and media
A history of education through the ages
A history of transport through the ages
A history of newspapers through the ages
Last revised 2012