How We Got From
Smoke Signals to the iPhone:
A Short History of Telecommunications
By Bob Frost, 2012

Here is a summary of telecommunications history in the form of a timeline with links. This article copyright 2012 by

Prehistory: Our ancestors transmit signals over distances with a variety of tools and techniques. They beat on logs and drums. They light beacon fires on top of hills. They use smoke signals. They paddle boats and rafts. They run, shout, and whistle. They flash mirrors made of polished stone, and they blow animal horns and conches.

4,000 B.C.E.: People begin riding horses.

Antiquity: Horse, boat, and ship are the fastest means of communicating large amounts of information over distances.

Runners are widely used. The profession is prestigious but difficult - the Greek herald and messenger Pheidippides is described by historian Herodotus as a "day-long runner." Centuries hence, the memory of Pheidippides will be celebrated in the Olympics and at events such as this one. (See also "1879" below.)

Heliographs are used in antiquity. These are signaling mirrors made of glass, an evolution over the stone mirrors of previous millennia. For more information on this technique see here and here. The lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt (the "Pharos") uses large mirrors to guide ships. Built in about 280 B.C.E. by Alexander the Great, the Pharos will become one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Messenger pigeons are used by the Romans to send short notes. Pigeons will still be used in the 21st century.

The play "Agamemnon" by Aeschylus, first performed in 458 B.C.E., mentions a chain of beacon fires between Troy and Argos, suggesting that such systems are common in antiquity. Author J.R.R.Tolkien, perhaps inspired by Aeschylus, will include a chain of fires in "The Lord of the Rings" published in 1954-55. Hollywood will make Tolkien's beacons into one of the great sequences in the history of epic films in "The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" (2003). See here for a clip. See here for more on beacons.

1588: A chain of beacon fires warns Britons of the approach of the Spanish Armada. Many of the fires are lit in Devon County on England's southwest coast. Some of Devon's beacon history through the centuries can be found here. In the 21st century the same Devon hilltops will hold big antennas.

1600: William Gilbert publishes modern history's first scholarly study of electricity and magnetism, a foundation for the development of advanced technology. (For more on electricity in this article see "1700s" (next item), "1839-1855," and "1882." An article on the history of electricity can be found here.) Gilbert's work helps set the template for the "century of genius" when the Scientific Revolution is launched by Newton, Pascal, Galileo, Descartes, Van Leeuwenhoek, Von Guericke, and many others, building on the work of Copernicus and Vesalius in the 1500s.

1700s: This century will see many brave and eager scientists studying electricity including Benjamin Franklin.

1753: An anonymous letter is published in Scotts Magazine proposing the use of electricity to send messages (i.e., an electric telegraph), the first surfacing of such an idea.

1765: John Adams, future revolutionary and U.S. president, writes, "It should be easy and cheap and safe for any person to communicate his thoughts to the public." Adams is thinking of newspapers, pamphlets, and street corner speeches, which aren't generally included in the telecommunications domain. A couple of centuries hence, his quote will apply nicely to the World Wide Web and social media, technologies that will generate a lot of trouble for newspapers.

1793 and '94: The world’s first telegraph network is established in France, an "optical telegraph" (or "mechanical telegraph"). This consists of manually-operated semaphores atop 60-foot towers about seven to eight miles apart, the maximum distance over which lantern signals can be seen at night. With the system, inventor Claude Chappe (who works closely with his brothers) hopes to strengthen the French Revolution against its enemies. Napoleon orders a major expansion of the network in 1799 and uses it on several occasions to command troops from a considerable distance. Chappe's invention, and the work of Abraham N. Edelcrantz (next item), are regarded by some scholars as the beginning of the Information Revolution. In coming decades, optical/mechanical telegraphs will dot Europe and the United States - one such station will be built on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. Additional background, including a demonstration with a model, can be seen in a video here.

1794: Abraham N. Edelcrantz inaugurates an optical telegraph in Sweden.

1800: The Royal Navy develops a sophisticated system for ship-to-ship signaling with flags. The Brits had used flags for many years but only in a rudimentary way. The revamped tool will play a major role in the Battle of Trafalgar (October 21, 1805). Admiral Horatio Nelson sends a famous signal on the day of the battle, "England expects that every man will do his duty." This message helps the English win a monumentally important encounter and ranks as one of the most significant one-sentence signals in the history of telecommunications. (Along with "What hath God wrought?" sent by Samuel Morse in 1844, "Mr. Watson, come here - I want to see you" sent by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, "Lo" sent by Charley Kline in 1969, and a very few others.) Nelson also transmits tactical messages at Trafalgar with the flag system. Nelson, writes historian John Keegan, "grasped that the signalling evolution predicated, through the proper retraining of his subordinate captains, the realisation of the intrinsic power of sailing-ship fleets to deliver decisive victory at sea." (In other words, Nelson got it.) Also this year, Alessandro Volta invents the battery; for much of the 19th century these devices will be the essential power supply for telecommunications, and in the 21st century they will continue to be key elements, in laptop computers, cell phones, etc.

1820: Hans Christian Oersted, a physicist and chemist, discovers electromagnetic equivalence.

1822: Charles Babbage, a mathematician, proposes a steam-powered machine to perform differential equations - a computer. His device won't get fully built but he is considered a father of computer science. Computers will, of course, become central to telecommunications. "Communications and computers are no longer separate subjects," British scholar Laszlo Solymar will write in 1999. Babbage's colleague starting in the 1830s will be the English writer Ada Lovelace; their remarkable story has been told in several books including this one and this one. Additional information on Babbage is here. A concise outline of many aspects of computer history, with useful links, can be found here.

1827: The physicist Georg Ohm publishes the first version of what will become known as Ohm's Law, a major building block for electronics. His concept is received with chilliness by many of his peers.

1837: Queen Victoria takes the throne of Great Britain. "She had no swifter means of sending messages to the far parts of her empire than had Julius Caesar," writes author Arthur C. Clarke. This will change by the end of her reign in 1901.

Late 1830s and early '40s: The electric telegraph begins to emerge from various laboratories. For more information see here and here. The great scholar Marshall McLuhan (see "1962" and "1964") believes the electric telegraph is one of three inventions that transformed the world, along with the phonetic alphabet and the printing press.

1839-1855: Michael Faraday, publishes the three volumes of "Experimental Researches in Electricity," a core enabling book of the modern world. Among the readers: Thomas Edison.

1841: Two scientists, Jean-Daniel Colladon and Jacques Babinet, publish "Guiding of Light by Refraction," a foundational work for fiber optics.

1843: Alexander Bain patents the first facsimile machine, a device for sending text and pictures by electrical means. The fax concept will first be commercialized in 1865 in France. (That's right, 1865, not 1965!)

1844: Perfection of the Morse Code.

1858: A transatlantic telegraph cable is laid across the Atlantic after immense effort and numerous setbacks. It fails after a few weeks. (See "1866.")

1860 and '61: The Pony Express connects Missouri and California.

1861: Johann Philipp Reis essentially invents the telephone, but his device has flaws, and he lacks the entrepreneurial zeal to develop it (and/or the savvy, and/or the greed, and/or the sense of timing).

1864 and '65: James Clerk Maxwell formulates electromagnetic theory and predicts the existence of radio waves. This theory and prediction form one of the most elegant and powerful conceptions in the history of science. See "1887" below.

1866: Completion of the first transatlantic telegraph cable that keeps working. The development of submarine telegraphy during this period receives major contributions from physicist and engineer William Thomson; this work is seen by scholar Laszlo Solymar as seminal - he calls it "the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution" because it's the first time higher mathematics is applied to engineering: "(With the work of William Thomson)," Solymar writes, "for the first time in history pure science intervened in matters industrial....The take-off into the modern world started with the interaction between physics and engineering using the language of mathematics....This interaction has formed the modern world....(Thomson's work) was the beginning of a trend that said that engineering intuition was fine but that it cannot always be relied on."

1870s to '90s: Introduction and improvement of multiplexing in telegraphy, dramatically improving the technology. Among the pioneers is Emile Baudot. See here for additional background on multiplexing, which continues to have relevance in the 21st century.

1876: Alexander Graham Bell is granted the most valuable patent in the history of the United States. Some observers are surprised at how quickly telephones become essential to business.

1879: Robert Browning publishes the poem "Pheidippides" about the Greek runner and herald of that name (see "Antiquity" above). The work becomes popular and is a source of inspiration for the marathon race in the revived Olympic Games, which begin in 1896. The modern length of a marathon event, 26 miles and 385 yards, is the distance from Windsor Castle in England to a London stadium; this course wll be codified at the 1908 Olympics. The distance is also inspired to some degree by the distance from Athens to Marathon.

1880s: Development of alternating current. Among the progenitors is Nikola Tesla. In the early 1890s Tesla will demonstrate the feasibility of radio communications.

1882: Thomas Edison unveils the first commercial electrical grid and power plant, the most important and far-reaching technical achievement of the 19th century.

1887: Heinrich Hertz generates radio waves in his laboratory in Germany, history's first successful effort to do so, confirmation of James Clerk Maxwell's prediction of 1864-65.

1890: An inventor named Herman Hollerith tabulates figures for this year's U.S. Census in a stunning six weeks rather than the several years required for previous counts. His tool: a computer of his invention based on punch cards. His machine will be a vital element in the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company, formed in 1911, later re-named the International Business Machines Corporation (IBM).

1892: Introduction of the world's first public automatic telephone exchange, in La Porte, Indiana.

1894: Heinrich Hertz dies. Guglielmo Marconi of Italy reads Hertz's obituary and is inspired to begin his great lifelong work with radio waves. See "1901."

1895: Russian scientist Alexander Popov is the first person to demonstrate the practical application of radio waves.

1901: Guglielmo Marconi establishes radio communications between England and Canada. Marconi is sometimes called the "father of radio"; this title is fairly accurate - he is certainly the key figure in early development of the technology, combining as he does an excellent engineering mind with a gift for entrepreneurship, marketing, and public relations - an extremely rare combination of talents. Marconi is the Steve Jobs of his day. See this article for explication of who did what in radio development; also see this piece.

1903: The idea of astronautical use of rockets is put forth by Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, an early step toward space exploration and communications satellites.

1904: John Ambrose Fleming, a British scientist, invents the vacuum tube, also known as the thermionic valve - an amplification device key to modern electronics.

1906 and '07: Invention and development of the audion and its descendant the triode - immensely important advances in thermionics. See here and here for additional information.

1909: In San Jose, California (pop. 29,000), in the Santa Clara Valley about 45 miles south of San Francisco, Charles Herrold starts the first U.S. radio station with regularly scheduled programming. He also opens a school for radio engineers. Herrold, says a 1994 PBS documentary, is "broadcasting's forgotten father." Also this year, in nearby Palo Alto, Cyril Elwell founds the Federal Telegraph Corp. These developments contribute to the region's emergence as a world center for technology, including telecommunications. In the fullness of time the area will be christened Silicon Valley, named for a metalloid material used in integrated circuits and other electronics.

Among the elements that will help the valley thrive: inexpensive land (in 1909 the region is largely agricultural), a pleasant Mediterranean climate (the average high temperature in January is 60 degrees; the average high annually is 73 degrees), access to good schools (Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, Santa Clara University, etc.), a distinctive, casual management culture (spawned in part by Hewlett-Packard and Robert Noyce), easy proximity to great restaurants (in San Francisco), and the innovative vibe of California (which can be traced back at least to the Gold Rush).

Today, Silicon Valley comprises San Jose (pop. 946,000; home of the Tech Museum of Innovation), Palo Alto, Mountain View (home of the Computer History Museum), Sunnyvale, Fremont, and several other cities. See here for a convincing reinterpretation of who named Silicon Valley - Don Hoefler and Ralph Vaerst, long credited as coiners of the term, apparently weren't the first to use it. See here for a basic map of the valley and here for photos.

See here for more on Charles Herrold. Much of the core culture of Silicon Valley, journalist Tom Abate will write in 2007, formed around Herrold and radio starting in 1909: "....engineers who hung out in hobby clubs, brainstormed and borrowed equipment, spun new companies out of old ones, and established a meritocracy ruled by those who made electronic products cheaper, faster and better."

Among the hundreds of companies headquartered in Silicon Valley in the 21st century are Google, Apple, Facebook, YouTube, eBay, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Netflix, Oracle, Electronic Arts, Adobe Systems, Cisco Systems, PayPal, Intuitive Surgical, Quora, Flipboard, and Tesla Motors.

1912: Telegraphist Jack Phillips of HMS Titanic dies in the chilly North Atlantic.

1912-14: Robert H. Goddard develops a general theory of rocket action. The Smithsonian Institution supports Goddard's work with cash during this decade and will publish his article "A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes" in 1919.

1914-18: The First World War (called the Great War during these years) accelerates the spread of radio. Among the recipients of government contracts: Federal Telegraph Corp. (see "1909").

1915: It becomes possible this year to phone from New York City to San Francisco.

1920: In an editorial, the New York Times scoffs at Robert H. Goddard's rocket ideas, declaring that he "seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools." The Times will issue an oh-so-witty correction to this stance on July 17, 1969, the day after the launch of moon-bound Apollo 11. More on the story here. Also this year a few hundred people with radio earphones hear the U.S. presidential election results (Harding beats Cox) from KDKA in Pittsburgh; this is history's first commercial broadcast.

1922: A key year for radio. The British Broadcasting Company (the BBC) begins operations, the world's first national broadcasting organization. Meanwhile this year, AT&T in the U.S. announces plans for the first national radio network; the concept will mature over the course of the decade. Also this year a broadcasting boom occurs in the U.S. - a sudden mushrooming of radio activity, from small town amateurs to big companies. See this book for a provocative examination of radio's early years.

1923: Vladimir K. Zworykin files a patent for his invention of the iconoscope - the eye of the televison camera.

1926: John Logie Baird demonstrates that moving images can be transmitted through airwaves. Also this year Robert H. Goddard launches the world's first liquid-fuel rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts.

1927: Philo T. Farnsworth produces the first television powered by a cathode ray tube. Farnsworth will engage in legal combat with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) for the next decade.

1929: Several thousand Britons watch television regularly on the low-resolution Baird 30-line mechanical system.

1930s: During this decade, military men around the world ponder how best to use the tank, which was invented during the First World War. German Army officer Heinz Guderian sees the value of radio for coordination of tank attacks and designs tactics to take advantage of this. German armor will roll through France in a stunning six weeks in 1940; Hitler will very nearly win World War II during this period.

1931: History's first public demonstration of microwave transmission takes place on April 3 in Dover, England. Microwaves are radio waves with shorter wavelengths and higher frequencies than the waves used in radio broadcasting. Microwaves offer certain useful attributes including the ability to carry a great deal of information. Their main disadvantage is, they require line-of-sight propagation, in contrast to other radio waves which can pass around hills. Over the course of the 20th century, microwave transmission will become fundamental to telecommunications. This year sees an early published use of the term "microwave" - possibly the first use. The word, rendered "micro-wave," appears in The Telegraph and Telephone Journal. ("Microray" was briefly a candidate for describing these waves.)

1934: The Communications Act of 1934 is enacted in the United States. A short history of the regulation of American telecommunications can be found here.

1935: Edwin H. Armstrong invents FM radio. (He earlier created the regenerative circuit.)

1936: Alan Turing publishes "On Computable Numbers, With an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem" - the "founding work of modern computer science," says the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

1938: Author E.B. White watches TV and writes a lyrical and over-heated review of the medium: "I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television - of that I am quite sure."

1939: Hewlett-Packard (HP) is founded this year, a centerpiece of Silicon Valley (see "1909"). Also this year the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), a branch of RCA, begins regular television programming. Early shows include cartoons, cooking and fashion programs, opera, and live transmissions from the New York World's Fair.

Late 1930s: Author H.G. Wells proposes a "Permanent World Encyclopaedia," a bank of knowledge stored on microfilm, updated often, distributed globally by airplanes - a beautiful vision for making the world's knowledge widely available and a rudimentary World Wide Web (see also "1945" below). "Our contemporary encyclopaedias," writes Wells, "are still in the coach-and-horses phase of development."

1940: Introduction of the first Walkie-Talkie - the Motorola SCR-300.

1940s: The Third Reich pours money into rocketry during the Second World War. Hitler's rocket scientists and engineers, transported to the U.S. after the war, will have a large impact on development of the field in the '50s and '60s.

1940s and '50s: Computer ideas come forth from many pioneers including John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, Heinz von Foerster, Howard H. Aiken, John V. Atanasoff, and Clifford Berry. For additional background on computer history see this Website.

1945: Vannevar Bush, a computer engineer and science administrator, publishes an article in The Atlantic Monthly proposing a system of linked documents on microfilm - another rudimentary World Wide Web. (Perhaps Bush is a fan of H.G. Wells; see "Late 1930s" above.) The article, titled "As We May Think," inspires the 21-year-old Douglas Engelbart, among others; Engelbart will become one of the key computer pioneers of his generation (see "1968"). Also in 1945, Arthur C. Clarke, an electronics officer for the Royal Air Force in Britain (and part-time science fiction writer) publishes an article in Wireless World suggesting use of rocket-borne satellites for TV communications.

1946: The first stirrings of a new industry: mobile telephony. Also this year, Murray Leinster (under the name Will F. Jenkins) publishes a short story titled "A Logic Named Joe" that foresees networked personal computers.

1947: Bell Telephone Laboratories ("Bell Labs") introduces the idea of a cellular telecommunications network. The required technologies will take years to mature.

1947 and '48: Creation and public demonstration of the transistor, "probably the most important invention of the 20th century" in the opinion of Ira Flatow, host of "Science Friday" on National Public Radio, a view shared by many. Large numbers of transistors are incorporated in integrated circuits (also known as integrated chips) which form the backbone of modern telecommunications and computing. More information here, here, here, and here. See also "Late 1950s" below.

1948: Mathematician and engineer Claude Shannon publishes an article titled "A Mathematical Theory of Communication" stating the rules of information theory. This is "the founding document for the modern science of information," writes physicist Freeman Dyson, "....After Shannon, the technology of information raced ahead, with electronic computers, digital cameras, the Internet, and the World Wide Web." Text of the paper here. Also this year Norbert Wiener publishes "Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine." Cybernetics will be a foundation for the Internet.

1950: In New York City, Reevesound Company introduces the first practical pager system.

1950 and '51: Publication of two seminal works of communications/media theory by scholar Harold Innis: "Empire and Communications" and "The Bias of Communication." Innis will have a large impact on Marshall McLuhan (see "1962" and "1964" below). See the Wikipedia entry on Innis here; scroll down to the subhead "Innis and McLuhan."

1953: Author Ray Bradbury publishes a short story titled "The Murderer" predicting the future existence of cell phones, the GPS system, and various other gadgets. Bradbury's protagonist, Albert Brock, revolts against the stuff. He uses chocolate ice cream to kill his car navigator/phone/radio: "That car radio cackling all day, Brock go here, Brock go there, Brock check in, Brock check out, okay Brock, hour lunch, Brock, lunch over, Brock, Brock, Brock." See here.

1954: Radio pioneer Edwin H. Armstrong commits suicide after years of psychological battering by legal disputes over his work. He stands as radio's greatest inventor. Also this year the Regency TR-1 transistor radio hits the market (on October 18) for $49.95, the first consumer device to use transistors. "If you owned one," says a piece in Fortune magazine some years later, "you were the coolest thing on two legs" because you owned the first media player that was robust and easily portable. Transistor radios use small, light-weight, shock-resistant transistors as amplifiers, and are powered by small, light batteries; portable radios based on vacuum tubes need bulky, fragile tubes and large, heavy batteries. (Most vacuum-based radios get plugged in.) Details on transistor radios here. Also this year, William Golding publishes "The Lord of the Flies" which uses two ancient communication modes as plot devices: a conch and a signal fire. Major film adaptations will appear in 1963 and 1990.

1954 and '55: Scientist-engineer John R. Pierce of Bell Labs does key analysis of satellite concepts.

1955: Sony introduces its first transistor radios. The company's models will become the most popular such devices in the marketplace. Sony is based in Japan; its radios will help put Japanese manufacturing on the map globally. (Also helpful in this regard is Honda's C100 Super Cub motorcycle, the best-selling motor vehicle in world history, introduced in Japan in the summer of 1958 and a year later in the U.S.). The killer app for transistor radios is rock 'n' roll. The summer of '55 sees the first rock 'n' roll record to reach number one on the Billboard pop chart, "Rock Around the Clock" by Bill Haley & His Comets. Elvis Presley will arrive on the chart in 1956.

1956: Laying of TAT-1, the first submarine transatlantic telephone cable. (Radio-based transatlantic phone service began in 1927.)

1957: The Soviet Union puts Sputnik I into orbit, the first artificial earth satellite. Many people in the U.S. are horrified at this seeming defeat in the Cold War. "We have always felt that the sky was America's special domain," author C.D.B. Bryan will write in 1979. "Where we led, all other nations followed; that is, until October 4, 1957, the day Russia's 184-pound Sputnik I became the world's first artificial satellite. Its thin, otherworldly beep-beep-beep demonstrated so advanced a state of Soviet space technology that it precipitated disbelief and panic in the American people...." At the same time, however, some Americans are thrilled at this sign of scientific progress.

1958: In a direct response to Sputnik, the U.S. government establishes the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, known today as DARPA, with "Defense" added to the name). At first the agency will focus on satellites. Its portfolio will soon expand to include computer networking and communications technology, and it will become the birthplace of the ARPANET, which will begin coming together as a network in 1969. (See "1969" below.) The ARPANET will contribute to creation of the Internet, a global system of hundreds of millions of interconnected computers (see "1960s," "1962," "1968," and "1969"). It should be noted that several theories exist about the origins of the Internet; see here for background on this debate. See here for a history of computer communications published by the Computer History Museum. Also in 1958: the term "Information Technology" first appears.

Late 1950s: Working secretly and independently at their respective companies, Jack Kilby (Texas Instruments) and Robert Noyce (Fairchild Semiconductors) develop the integrated circuit (also known as the integrated chip), a profoundly important technology for the Internet Age. As noted in "1947 and '48" (above) large numbers of transistors are incorporated into integrated chips; the chips form the backbone of modern telecommunications and computing. More information here and here. Jack Kilby gets honors for being first with the integrated circuit. Bob Noyce will cover himself with glory again in 1968 by co-founding Intel, one of the bastions of Silicon Valley, and once again in 1971 when Intel introduces the microprocessor, a programmable integrated chip. Noyce will get profiled by Tom Wolfe in Esquire in 1983.

1960: The U.S. Navy conducts the first successful test of a satellite navigation system. This is a significant step toward widespread application of the Global Positioning System. For more on the GPS see "1994" below.

1960s: Computer scientists and engineers explore and develop "packet switching," a technique for maximizing the efficiency and robustness of computer data transmission. This technology will be used for the ARPANET and the Internet. Among the key pioneers are Paul Baran, Donald Davies, Leonard Kleinrock, and Lawrence Roberts. More on the story here.

1961: Newton N. Minow, chair of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the Kennedy Administration, describes television as a "vaste wasteland." The comment strikes a chord with many people and will influence the massive expansion of U.S. public broadcasting in the 1960s and '70s. During his FCC tenure Minow will also make a large contribution to the establishment of satellite communications. In 2011, in his 80s Minow will publish a significant examination of TV and of telecommunications in general.

1962: The world has about 10,000 computers. The machines are expensive mainframes that sometimes fill rooms - they're called "Big Iron." Most mainframes are produced by eight companies: IBM (by far the market leader), Burroughs, Control Data, General Electric, Honeywell, NCR, RCA, and UNIVAC. (Minicomputers will come along in 1964 and personal computers will arrive in the 1970s.) Computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider this year composes and distributes a series of memos about globally-interconnected computers. This is a foretelling of the Internet and a spur to its creation. Licklider becomes a top manager at ARPA in October.

Also this year, on July 10, NASA launches the AT&T satellite Telstar 1 for telephone and TV transmissions. (The Telstar satellite will go through a number of iterations in coming years; Telstar 18 will be launched in 2004.) Telstar quickly has an impact on world events. On July 23, President John F. Kennedy says in a televised press conference that the U.S. does not intend to devalue the dollar. Telstar beams the comment live to Europe; the London gold market is affected as a result of the remark; this change in gold prices hadn't happened to such an extent in previous months despite the fact that the president said the same thing repeatedly in the print media. The satellite transmission makes all the difference. Thus the world takes a big step toward electronic globalization.

Meanwhile this year, the Canadian scholar Marshall McLuhan publishes "The Gutenberg Galaxy": "The world has become a computer," he writes, "an electronic brain....a global village." McLuhan's ideas are regarded as wacky in mainstream '60s academe but they will show staying power; in 2010 the scholar Ben Ehrenreich will call "The Gutenberg Galaxy" "almost spookily prescient." McLuhan appears in a video here. For more on him see "1964."

In the autumn of '62, the world's excitement about its new satellite is captured by the pop song "Telstar" by the Tornados, a British group; the record hits number one in Britain and America.

1963: Moscow and Washington DC establish a "hotline," a system allowing faster, clearer communications between the Kremlin and the White House. Impetus for the link was generated by the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

1964: What is the future of telecommunications? AT&T (American Telephone & Telegraph), which dominates the business in the U.S., presents a modest answer: the Picturephone, which it displays at the New York World's Fair. The device will not catch on. Also this year, 11 countries create Intelsat - the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization. Also this year: a book titled "Masers and Lasers" by Manfred Brotherton includes the first published use of the word "superhighway" in connection with communications. (The video artist Nam June Paik in 1974 gets partial credit for the coinage; see here for details.)

Marshall McLuhan (see "1962") publishes "Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man" which becomes a bestseller and offers a strange new phrase: "The medium is the message."

Also this year the James Bond craze spawns "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." on American TV. The show's first year ('64-'65) features a Cigarette Case Communicator; subsequent seasons offer a refinement of the concept in the form of a Pen Communicator - a silvery pen that converts into a telecommunications device ("Open Channel D"). The TV show "Get Smart" (1965 premiere) features a shoe phone. James Bond movies from this period include various advanced communications devices including a pager in "From Russia With Love" (1963), homing beacons in "Goldfinger" (1964), and a homing pill in "Thunderball" (1965).

1965: Gordon E. Moore of Fairchild Semiconductor (later co-founder of Intel), based in Silicon Valley, publishes a forecast that becomes known as Moore's Law, the key law of growth for computer equipment: the number of transistors that can be placed on a computer chip will double about every two years. (Originally Moore predicts a doubling every year; he will later refine the period.) Moore's statement is the event that "made the (information) flood plainly visible," physicist Freeman Dyson will write in 2011 in his review of "The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood" by James Gleick. Background on Moore's Law can be found here; a video is here.

1967: The U.S. establishes the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 creating PBS and NPR. Also this year the BBC broadcasts "Our World," the first live, global, satellite-based television production. It's shown on the evening of June 25th in the United Kingdom; in the U.S. this is Sunday morning and afternoon. The two-and-a-half-hour program requires 10 months of planning; it features the Beatles, Picasso, Maria Callas, and Marshall McLuhan (no politicians are invited). The show is watched by 400 million people in 31 countries. The satellites used for transmission are Intelsat I (called "Early Bird," launched in 1965, the first geostationary satellite), Intelsat II, and ATS-1. The Beatles have quite a year in '67; see commentary here by critic Langdon Winner that mentions the unifying power of transistor radios playing Sgt. Pepper music.

1968: Computer scientist J.C.R. Licklider (see "1962") and technology manager Robert Taylor publish a paper about global computer networking (i.e., what will become known as the Internet) in the April issue of the journal Science and Technology, fostering excitement and discussion among thousands of scholars and students. (See here and here for more information.) Also this year, computer scholar Douglas Englebart (see "1945") uses a mainframe computer to give a demonstration of such key concepts as email (short for electronic mail) and video conferencing. (The roots of email can be found in the mid-1960s when it was pioneered by multiple users of time-sharing computers.) Intel is founded this year with an eye toward creating the computer future. Meanwhile Stanley Kubrick presents an unsettling vision of that future in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

1969: "Computer networks, in any real sense, didn't exist until the ARPANET was built starting in 1969," writes computer scientist Ray Tomlinson. The date 10/29/69 is sometimes cited as the start of the Internet Age. At 10:30 p.m. on this day, Charley Kline, a student of Leonard Kleinrock at UCLA, sends the first-ever host-to-host, networked computer communication. The intended message is "login"; Kline sends the "l" and "o" but then the system crashes, making the first message "lo." The message is sent via the ARPANET from UCLA's Network Measurement Center to the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) in Northern California. Also this year CompuServe launches (known in its early days as Compu-Serv Network Inc.). It will expand dramatically in the 1980s, offering Internet connectivity starting in the late '80s, but it will get blown out of the water by AOL in the 1990s. Also this year a groovy little film appears presenting a telecommunications future. And the most-watched moment of history occurs (up to this point): Neil Armstrong steps onto the moon.

1971: Ray Tomlinson sends the first intercomputer email via the ARPANET between two computers standing side-by-side. Also this year Arthur C. Clarke announces, "I believe that communications satellites can unite mankind." (So, Mr. Clarke, how's that unity thing going?)

1970: Scientists at Corning Glass Works develop the first optical fiber broadly suitable for telecommunications.

1972: Intel introduces its 8008 computer chip with 3,500 transistors, the first commercial 8-bit microprocessor, a key advance in computing power. Also this year: Home Box Office (HBO), a U.S. cable TV network, begins transmitting programming; the first movie is "Sometimes a Great Notion." Polaroid introduces the SX-70 Land Camera; its combination of simplicity and immediacy makes it "the direct forebear of today's low-end digital cameras," PC World will write in 2005. Laurence Olivier appears in the simple, elegant TV commercial.

1973-74: Computer scientists Robert Kahn and Vinton G. Cerf, working with several others, create TCP/IP, the Internet Protocol Suite, a set of rules that guide interconnectivity of computers, a foundation of the Internet. During this period Cerf uses the word "internet" as a short form of "internetworking"; this, apparently, is the origin of the term Internet.

1975: Founding of Microsoft.

1976: The Apple I personal computer kit goes on sale, created by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. The goal of the machine is expressed thusly by Jobs: to give computing power to "people who have no computer experience and don't particularly care to gain any." This credo, notes Scientific American in 2011, "ushered us from the cumbersome technology of mainframes and command-line prompts to the breezy advances of the Macintosh and iPhone. (Wozniak and Jobs) helped to forever change our relationship with technology."

1977: Apple Computer Inc. incorporates on January 3, 1977 (it will later change its name to Apple Inc.). The Apple II, a pivotal machine in the history of personal computing, is introduced on April 16, 1977 at the first-ever West Coast Computer Faire. Its main competitors are the Tandy TRS-80 and the Commodore PET.

1978: Introduction in February of the first dial-up bulletin board system (BBS). These systems will become very popular and can be regarded as forerunners of the social media explosion of the 21st century. Also this year, the Internet's first spam message is sent. By 2011, notes technology author Evgeny Morozov, 85 percent of global email traffic is spam.

1979: Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, visits the Xerox PARC facility in Palo Alto and is inspired by the technical advances he sees there, especially the easy-to-use windows/icon/mouse system (the "graphical user interface" or "GUI" pronounced "gooey"). His enthusiasm will soon find articulation in Apple products. More on the visit here and here. Also this year, a technical journal published by AT&T offers a series of papers on how a cellular telephone network might work.

1980: Publication of the best-selling "The Third Wave" by journalist, historian, and futurist Alvin Toffler, an important popularization of cutting-edge thinking about information and communications, among other topics.

1981: Release of the IBM Personal Computer. Also this year Stanley S. Hubbard founds United States Satellite Broadcasting. Hubbard is a significant figure in the development of satellite TV.

1982: Time magazine recognizes the impact of the personal computer by naming it Machine of the Year for 1982. The magazine's article, crisply written by Otto Friedrich, published in the issue of January 3, 1983, is full of concrete examples of what personal computers can do. It's the first lengthy piece that many people read about the subject and will take its place as the most important article on computers ever published in a mass-circulation magazine.

1983: Control Video Corp. launches; it will change its name to Quantum Computer Services in 1985 and to America Online (AOL) in 1989.

The term "Internet" moves into common parlance. And the modern mobile wireless telecommunications industry steps toward center stage with unveiling of the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x, the first hand-held cellular telephone available for wide sale. "The Brick," as it's called, weighs almost two pounds, has a battery life of one hour, and costs $3,995. See here for a history of cellphones.

1984: Break-up of AT&T ("Ma Bell") in the U.S. into seven Baby Bells. One of the results is a surge in telecommunications competition. See here for a history of telecommunications regulation in the U.S. Also this year Apple introduces the Macintosh computer; the machine features a graphical user interface.

Also this year, the word "cyberspace" is coined by novelist William Gibson in his novel "Neuromancer." Gibson's work predicts something like the Internet.

1985: Publication of "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business" by educator Neil Postman. Also this year, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) releases the ISM band for wide use. ISM stands for Industrial, Scientific, and Medical radio bands. The FCC ruling paves the way for Wi-Fi wireless connectivity between PCs, smartphones, etc., and the Internet. The Wi-Fi Alliance will take shape in the late 1990s. See here for a talk by scholar and author Vic Hayes about Wi-Fi history. See here for a list of types of wireless networks.

1987: The film "Wall Street" prominently features the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x.

1989: Motorola introduces the MicroTAC 9800X, the first flip phone and the first truly portable phone. Kodak debuts its Professional Digital Camera System (later known as the DCS 100) produced in collaboration with Nikon; this is the first digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera. See "1997" for more about Kodak.

1989-91: Creation and introduction of the World Wide Web, an information-retrieval architecture that's a section of the Internet. The primary developer, software consultant Timothy Berners-Lee, adapts a software system called hypertext and joins it to the Internet. At first, few people even notice the Web. Its only visitors during its first couple years are the technically adept. Many computer users are intimidated by its complex protocols. A big breakthrough will come with the introduction of user-friendly Web browsers (see "1992" and "1993" below). Tim Berners-Lee comments on the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web: "It's like the difference between the brain and the mind. Explore the Internet, and you find cables and computers. Explore the Web, and you find information." That said, with the passage of the time the terms "Internet" and "Web" will become interchangeable in many people's minds. A video on the Web's inner workings is here.

1990: Introduction of the first commercially-available, completely digital still camera for consumers, the Dycam Model 1 (also sold as the Logitech FotoMan). Also this year Sirius Satellite Radio is founded under the name Satellite CD Radio Inc.; the company will begin radio programming in 2002. The killer app for Sirius is Howard Stern.

1992: This year sees development and introduction of Lynx, a pioneering Web browser.

Bruce Springsteen's new album "Human Touch" includes the song "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)" which gets released as a single. The accompanying video includes a jaw-dropping shot of a speeding car smashing through a pile of television sets, one of the great images in the history of TV. By 2012 the video is essentially deleted from the world media scene. It's rarely seen on TV and it's blocked from YouTube on the grounds of copyright infringement.

1993: The New York Times takes its first detailed look at the World Wide Web on December 8, 1993. The article, by John Markoff, refers to the Web as the "World-Wide Web."

The Web browser Mosaic Netscape 0.9 is introduced (known as Mosaic; later called Netscape Navigator) making the Web dramatically more accessible for the broad public. So whatever happened to Netscape anyway?

Wired magazine debuts. On the cover of the first issue: Bruce Sterling, cyberpunk author. Number of URLs in the issue: zero. The magazine attracts an influential group of tech cheerleaders as chronicled here.

1994: National Geographic magazine, in its February issue, offers a poignant comment from a man who loves the privacy accorded by a commuting trip between Darien, Connecticut, and Manhattan: "At home, you can get me; at work, you can get me. On the train, no one can get me." This commuter's serene daily interludes will change over the next few years as cell phones proliferate.

Also this year the first smartphone goes on sale (a cell phone with advanced computing and connectivity features) - Simon, designed by IBM, sold by BellSouth for $899. Also this year DirecTV launches, a satellite TV firm.

Also in 1994, Business Digest magazine, published by Pacific Bell, the main phone company in California, runs a piece about a new field: telemedicine, which, says the article, can mean "any of several things: a group of heart surgeons from around the state participating in a real-time teleconference to discuss new techniques, using an ultra-high-speed billions-of-bits-per-second network; transmitting X-rays and CAT scans using millions-of-bits-per-second equipment; and transferring patient records at tens of thousands of bits per second." (See also "2006" below.)

The Global Positioning System becomes fully operational this year. Paid for by the American taxpayer, it will spawn many new companies and applications in cellular telephony, mapping, disaster relief, earthquake research, just-in-time productivity, air traffic control, maritime commerce, education, recreation, robotics, wildlife management, tracking of vehicles and pets, and other fields. (See also "1960" above.)

1995: "As of February 1995 you still need a degree in rocket science" to launch a Website, writes Web pioneer Dave Winer this year. This will change over the next several years as more companies get involved in Web design and hosting. Pretty quickly the word "Website" enters the common parlance (also rendered "Web Site," "Web site," "website," and "web site"). The number of Websites in 1995 is 18,000, according to Netcraft; in 2006 the total will pass 100 million. (See here and here for details.) "It took telephones seventy-one years to penetrate 50 percent of American homes," journalist Ken Auletta will write in 2009, "electricity fifty-two years, and TV three decades. (The Internet) reached more than 50 percent of Americans in a mere decade."

Also in 1995: eBay begins. Microsoft introduces Internet Explorer. Sony debuts the Handycam DCR-VX1000, which makes digital video editing do-able on the desktop; for example, it's the first camcorder with FireWire for transferring video to a PC. Sprint PCS builds the first PCS (Personal Communications Service) network; it's situated in the Washington DC-Baltimore area (see here for a list of the various kinds of wireless networks). And in July, (founded in '94) starts selling books. First volume sold: "Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought" by Douglas Hofstadter. Amazon will claim, within a month, to have sold books in 50 states and more than 40 countries.

Also this year Wired begins publishing an edition in Britain. The first issue of Wired UK features a cover shot of Thomas Paine, the Enlightenment revolutionary (born in England), with a quote from him: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again." Nice thought. The British edition will soon fail.

1996: The 1996 Telecommunications Act is established in the United States. (See here for additional background.) The 1996 law barely mentions the Internet; the question of regulation of the medium and of "net neutrality" will remain unresolved well into the 21st century.

Also this year Time magazine runs a cover story featuring Netscape with the headline "The Golden Geeks"; the magazine convinces company co-founder Marc Andreessen to pose for a photograph sitting on a golden throne, resulting in a memorably irritating cover.

Also in 1996 Motorola introduces the StarTAC mobile phone, the smallest such phone up to this time and the first model to use the clamshell approach; it will become one of the first widely popular cells. In addition this year, Motorola debuts the PageWriter, giving users the ability to send and receive text messages on a wireless device. This year also sees establishment of the company Dish Network.

1997: Publication of "The Death of Distance: How the Communications Revolution Will Change Our Lives" by Frances Cairncross, an essential book on the subject, if perhaps a shade too starry-eyed. On June 11 of this year the first camera phone photograph is shot and distributed by entrepreneur Philippe Kahn, who uses a Casio QV-10 digital camera and Motorola StarTAC cell phone that he solders together. The photo is of his new-born daughter Sophie (mom is Sonia Kahn). The shot gets instantly sent from his phone, via a Website and email, to the computers of family and friends around the world. Philippe and Sonia Kahn soon begin trying to sell the camera phone concept to "major U.S. camera and cell phone makers," but, he notes evenly, they are "focused elsewhere" - for example "on better ways to print pictures...." (If we read between the lines we can deduce that Kodak is one of the firms they approach. Kodak will tank in the 21st century.) Also in 1997 Go Daddy forms (original name Jomax Technologies); it will become the largest Web domain registrar. And Steve Jobs returns to the helm of struggling Apple after an absence of more than a decade.

1998: Publication of two significant books: "Media Technology and Society: A History From the Telegraph to the Internet" by Brian Winston and "The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers" by Tom Standage.

Google begins operations. Nokia introduces the 5110 phone. The first BlackBerry arrives, the 850 Wireless Handheld, contributing to a new paradigm for wireless email.

Motorola launches a multi-billion dollar satellite telecommunications effort called Iridium. It promptly crashes and burns (financially speaking). It was hyped as the next step beyond cellular, but as noted by co-authors Paul B. Carroll and Chunka Mui, it turned out to be a "poor cousin" of the cell network, forced to "survive on the scraps of the diminishing market not yet served by cellular." See here and here for more information. Iridium will be resurrected in truncated form in 2001.

1999: Nikon begins selling its D1 digital camera and convinces early adopters (some of them, anyway) that digital photography is worthy. Retail price: $5,580. Megapixels: 2.7. Also this year: the appearance of TiVo and ReplayTV. Time magazine names Amazon founder Jeff Bezos its 1999 Person of the Year. The hit movie "The Matrix" features a modified Nokia 8110.

2000: The height of the dot-com bubble occurs on March 10. In November, Sharp and J-Phone introduce the J-SH04, the first consumer camera phone, available only in Japan.

2001: Formal launching of Wikipedia. Also this year, the film "Zoolander" features a very small cell phone used by dimwitted male model Derek Zoolander. When it rings he thinks God is calling. (A phone with a similar celestial connection, albeit full-sized, appears in the 1991 film "The Doors.")

2002: Nokia introduces the 7650, its first cell phone with a built-in camera. The device is prominently featured in the film "Minority Report" this summer starring Tom Cruise and directed by Steven Spielberg. Also this year, in the fourth quarter, Amazon turns its first profit, a very modest $5 million (which is $5 million more than many firms that vanished in 2000 with the bursting of the dot-com bubble).

2003: LinkedIn begins linking. Myspace launches. Also this year, for the first time, more camera phones are sold globally than stand-alone digital cameras. Also: introduction of WordPress, a Web publishing platform and blogging tool. For a history of blogging see here, here, and here.

2004: Facebook incorporates. BlackBerry has 1 million subscribers early in the year; by year's end it will have 2 million, and by 2008, 14 million.

2005: YouTube starts.

2006: Twitter launches. For more on the history of social media see here, here, and here.

This year sees the first Wireless-Life Sciences Convergence Summit, held in San Diego, a confab of companies and people involved in telemedicine, i.e., using wireless technology for medical devices and health care services. See here for a major New York Times Magazine piece from 2008 about telemedicine. See also "1994" above.

2007: Timothy Berners-Lee (see "1989-91" above) delivers a talk titled "The Future of the World Wide Web" before a U.S. Congressional committee. Google, in conjunction with the Open Handset Alliance, unveils Android. Apple launches the iPhone. And BlackBerry introduces the 8800.

2008: "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" is the title of an article by author Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic (July /August). He will turn the piece into a book titled "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains" (2010). (Carr is also author of "The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google" [2008].)

Meanwhile this year, analyst Peter W. Huber sums up a few things: "Wired and wireless technologies are still improving, and faster than ever before. So the cost of trade continues to fall, and that lowers the effective cost of everything that's traded: raw materials, labor, durable assets, consumer goods, capital, commodities and money itself. In every market - and at every step from suppliers of raw materials to consumers of finished goods - faster, cheaper communication lowers the cost of producing and consuming."

2009: Publication of "Googled: The End of the World As We Know It" by Ken Auletta.

2010: Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker, makes an interesting case for the possibility that social media may not be as revolutionary as advertised. See also "2011" and "2012" below.

2011: "Facebook pushed people toward the public square (in Cairo, Egypt, early this year during the Arab Spring)," says scholar Richard Florida in an interview. (See also "2010" above and "2012" below).

This year sees publication of "Constitution 3.0: Freedom and Technological Change" edited by Jeffrey Rosen and Benjamin Wittes, examining the impact of new technologies on constitutional principles such as right to privacy and freedom of speech.

Steve Jobs dies this year (October 5).

The magazine Green American publishes a cover story in its January-February issue titled "Do Cell Phones Cause Cancer?" Sub-head: "The telecom industry says no. The fine print on cell phone packaging says maybe. And some leading scientists say we should be very concerned." The piece cites a couple of scary pieces of evidence including a 2009 analysis of 23 studies, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, which concludes that "people who used cell phones for ten years or more had a 10-30 percent higher chance of developing cancer than those who rarely or never used cell phones."

Also in 2011, physicist Freeman Dyson writes:

The rapid growth of the flood of information in the last ten years made Wikipedia possible, and the same flood made twenty-first-century science possible. Twenty-first-century science is dominated by huge stores of information that we call databases. The information flood has made it easy and cheap to build data bases....The vision of the future as an infinite playground, with an unending sequence of mysteries to be understood by an unending sequence of players exploring an unending supply of information, is a glorious vision for scientists. Scientists find the vision attractive, since it gives them a purpose for their existence and an unending supply of jobs. The vision is less attractive to artists and writers and ordinary people. Ordinary people are more interested in friends and family than in science. Ordinary people may not welcome a future spent swimming in an unending flood of information.

2012: Planet Earth has almost 1,000 functioning satellites devoted to various purposes.

Time magazine, in the issue of January 2, 2012, names "The Protester" its "Person of the Year" for 2011 and gives full credit to social media's political impact. Wired magazine's cover story for the January 2012 issue is "How Social Media Fuels Social Unrest"; the piece includes a timeline titled "2011: A Year of Unrest."

President Shimon Peres of Israel says, referring to the impact of social media, "The matter of peace is no longer the business of governments but the business of people."

-The End-

Go to Top of Page

Profile of Thomas Edison

Website With Profiles of Inventors in Computing and Telecommunications

Website With Useful Reading on Technology's Impact in Many Realms Including the Economic, Legal, and Social