The word “communications” means any way of sending and receiving messages containing information.


There are many different ways of communicating. One of the simplest ways is by using your face: for example, smiling sends a message to other people that you are happy. Add to this some basic signs made with your hands and you can start to communicate with other people. This is probably how people first communicated when they had to carry out joint tasks such as hunting. This way of communicating is a bit limited though. You cannot convey any complicated messages. For these, you need a language.


Once you have a spoken language you can really start to communicate, but you can still only communicate with people within shouting distance. To send your message further you need to record it in some way, such as writing it down or use a different means of communication. Some early ways of sending messages over long distances were smoke signals, fire, drumbeats, and horns. The horns were first made from animals’ horns before they were replaced by metal hunting horns and bugles. All these alternative ways of communicating can contain only simple information. You need a written language for more complex communication.


As well as a written language, you need a convenient way of storing your writing. Carving letters in stone or wood might be fine for gravestones or works of art, but it is not very practical on a day-to-day basis. The Egyptians came up with papyrus, a writing material a bit like the paper we use today, made from a large type of reed that grew along the River Nile. Papyrus was used by the Ancient Romans and Ancient Greeks but was later replaced by parchment. Parchment is made from the skins of sheep, calves or goats. The process for making paper of the sort we use today, made mainly from wood pulp, was invented by the Chinese nearly 2,000 years ago, but it was not used in Europe until about 1,000 years later.


Once you have a written language and a lightweight material for storing your messages, you can start to send complicated messages over long distances. You could ask a messenger to deliver your message on foot. To take it further, the messenger could travel by horse. Of course, horses have their limits too, which is why the Persian Empire and others in the Far East came up with relay systems. A message would travel by horse to a relay station from where another horse rider would deliver it to the next relay station and so on. This meant a message could travel great distances without a delay while the horse or rider rested.

When the Romans copied the system and called it positus, the postal service was born. If your message is really urgent you need it to travel even faster. Homing pigeons have been used right up to the 21st century. They were used in both World War I and World War II to carry important messages across enemy territory.


Sending messages between ships and from ship to shore using flags or lights has long been used—by both navies and pirates alike! In the 1790s a Frenchman, Claude Chappe, decided to extend the idea to the land and built a series of towers up to 30 kilometres apart for relaying visual signals from one to the next so that messages could be sent quickly over long distances.


Electricity was the great discovery for inventors in the 18th century. Some tried to find ways of sending messages over long distances using this magic force. It was quite a while until someone came up with a really practical idea, though. In fact, a few people worked out ways of doing it and, in the 1830s, two of the best ideas emerged—one in Britain, by Charles Wheatstone and William F. Cooke, and the other, in America, by Samuel F. B. Morse. Both of these machines were types of the telegraph. The word “telegraph” is made up of two Greek words: “tele” means “far” or “at a distance” and “graph” means “writing”.

To operate the British machine, you pushed switches at one end of the wire to move needles at the other end, which pointed to letters that spelled out words. Morse’s machine had a switch to press at the sending end that made a mark on a paper tape at the receiving end. He invented a code, later called Morse code, where a number of dots and dashes stood for each letter of the alphabet. So if you are in trouble and want to send an SOS message you would send “… ––– …”. Later Morse left out the paper and used sounds, so a short beep is a dot and a longer sound is a dash.


About 40 years after the telegraph was first used the telephone was invented, so people could talk to each other over the wires instead of getting someone to tap out a message. Another 20 years after that the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi got rid of the wires and managed to send a signal from Penarth in Wales to Weston-super-Mare in England. Then in 1901, he sent a wireless signal across the Atlantic Ocean. Now Morse code could be sent by radio. This was called wireless telegraphy. Soon the two inventions of radio and the telephone were put together so that speech could be sent wirelessly too.


Mass communication is a term that describes getting the same message to lots of people. One type of mass communication is newspapers. Publishing a newspaper is a huge operation, involving thousands of people to make sure that each morning millions of copies of the newspaper arrive in the shops or drop through people’s letterboxes.

The first step towards making this possible happened in the mid-15th century. A German, Johann Gutenberg, invented the first printing press to use movable type—a system that allows the letters to be rearranged so that different things can be printed. This made it much easier to print lots of copies of books and pamphlets. Not surprisingly, the first book to benefit was the Bible, but by the 17th century the first news sheets were being printed and distributed. These eventually turned into newspapers similar to those we have today.

By the 19th century, great steam-powered presses were churning out books, magazines, and newspapers. Today, newspapers and books are created using computers, but huge noisy printing presses are still needed to print the copies, although they are now powered by electricity rather than steam.


About the same time as the telephone was being worked on, another inventor, Thomas Edison, was trying to record sounds and play them back. This led to the development of the record player. The first records were made of wax and easily broken, but they improved over the years and were eventually made of a plastic called vinyl. Thousands of copies of a record could be made very cheaply and so recordings became another type of mass communication. Although we can buy tapes and CDs today, there is still plenty of vinyl around.


Marconi’s work with radio led to another kind of mass communication. Broadcasting or broadcast radio is the proper way to describe radio transmissions that are designed to reach lots of people. That means all the shows we listen to when we want to hear music, news, sports reports and so on.


Television is another type of broadcasting. John Logie Baird, a Scottish inventor, brought together a number of devices invented by others to send pictures of moving images for the first time. The BBC used his system to start television broadcasts in 1927 and started the first high-quality public broadcasts nine years later. In those days there was only one channel and you had to be quite rich to afford a TV set.


People were watching moving pictures long before TV came along. In 1889 Edison showed people the kinetoscope, a machine for projecting moving pictures. In 1895 the French brothers, Louis Jean and Auguste Marie Lumière, brought out the cinematograph, which also projected moving pictures. Soon people were flocking to cinemas. In the late 1920s sound was added to films too. Before TV people did not go to the cinema just for fun, they went to see newsreels too. Some people thought that the cinemas would go out of business when TV came along. Even now, however, when you can watch films on TV and rent or buy videotapes and DVDs, cinemas are still very popular.


The two most important developments in communications recently have been mobile communications and computers. Mobile phones are everywhere—even the ones that can send and receive pictures are getting more popular. Computers have changed things enormously, and the arrival of the Internet and the World Wide Web have made possible email, message boards, chat rooms, websites, blogs and so on. So, what next?