Early methods

Better than shouting

Communication begins with language, the distinctive ability which has made possible the evolution of human society. With language any message, no matter how complex, can be conveyed between people over a limited distance - within a room or place of assembly, or across a short open space. In modern times 'town criers' hold an annual contest to discover which of them can shout a comprehensible message over the greatest distance. The world record is less than 100 metres. Already, at that short range, a more practical alternative is to run with the message.

The history of communication is mankind's search for ways to improve upon shouting.

When running with a message, to convey it in spoken form, it is safer to do it oneself. Sending anyone else is unreliable, as the game of Chinese whispers demonstrates. So another requirement for efficient communication is a system of Writing.

Messages carved on stone pillars communicate very well across time, down through the centuries, but they are an inefficient method of communicating across space. The message reads only within reading range; its recipients must travel to receive it. The system is altogether more efficient if it is the message which travels. This requires yet another ingredient in the communication package - a portable Writing material such as Papyrus.

There are forms of long-distance communication not based on words. The smoke signals used by American Indians (above all perhaps in westerns) are of this kind. So are bonfires lit in succession on a line of hilltops. But such devices are only capable of conveying very limited pre-arranged signals, such as 'danger' or 'victory'.

Some non-verbal systems are more sophisticated. The whistled language of Gomera, in the Canary islands, is used to communicate across deep valleys. It is well adapated to the islanders' immediate needs, but would be incapable of sending this paragraph as an accurate message. For communication of this kind Writing remains indispensable.

Post haste: 6th century BC

The sending of written messages is a standard feature of government in early civilizations. Much of our knowledge of those times derives from archives of such messages, discovered by archaeologists.

There is great advantage to a ruler who can send or receive a message quicker than his rivals. In the estimation of the ancient world the most efficient postal service is that of the Persians. Put in place by Cyrus in about 540 BC to control his new empire, the largest yet known, it is much improved upon by Darius a generation later.

Imperial communication: 522-486 BC

Darius extends the network of roads across the Persian empire, to enable both troops and information to move with startling speed. At the centre of the system is the royal road from Susa to Sardis, a distance of some 2000 miles (3200 km). At intervals of a day's ride there are posting stations, where new men and fresh horses will be available at any moment to carry a document on through the next day's journey. The Greek historian Herodotus marvels at these Persian couriers.

By this method a message can travel the full distance of the road in ten days, at a speed of about 200 miles a day. A similar road goes down through Syria to the Mediterranean coast and Egypt. Another goes east to India.

Many different tongues are spoken in the Persian empire, from Egypt to India. But all the official messages travelling on the imperial roads are in one language, Aramaic. This Semitic tongue, deriving from a tribe in northern Syria, first spreads through Assyria. Then Babylonian merchants carry it further afield until, by the 6th century, it is in general use as a lingua franca throughout Mesopotamia.

As a language for the Persian civil service, Aramaic also has a practical advantage. It uses the Phoenician alphabet, a language to which it is related. So its letters can be written on Papyrus (easily portable) instead of needing to be pressed with a Cuneiform stylus into wet clay.

Speeding up the messenger: 2nd - 11th century AD

Until recent centuries, the only way to increase the speed of communication has been to improve the speed of the messenger. This depends on good roads, fast riders and well provisioned staging posts at which fresh men and horses are always available. The network of Roman roads makes communication steady and reliable, but it is unlikely that it is faster than the delivery system perfected by the Persians - on the terrain of steppe and plateau, across which horsemen can gallop with fine abandon.

However one major improvement in the speed of communication is recorded in the Middle East, where in certain circumstances a simpler messenger is substituted for the horse and rider.

Pigeon post: from the 11th century

Domesticated pigeons are first developed in ancient Egypt, and the pigeon loft or dovecote subsequently becomes a living larder for many communities - such as medieval monasteries. In Baghdad, in the 11th century, the idea first occurs of making use of the tendency of certain pigeons to fly straight home from wherever they may be.

A rapid one-way postal service (always back to base) becomes possible. By selective breeding of suitable birds, the homing pigeon is developed. The swiftest and most wide-ranging conqueror of medieval history, Genghis khan, sees the obvious potential. Pigeons carry swift news of each new conquest to his homeland in Mongolia.

But the rapid and widespread dissemination of a message must await the development of printing.

Scholars in the east have had the benefit of printing for many centuries, enabling holy and learned texts to be more widely possessed. But the very late arrival of printing in the west proves to be of much greater significance. The development by Gutenberg in Germany of movable type happens to coincide with the Renaissance, a time of great vigour in European culture.

15th - 16th century

Gutenberg and western printing: AD 1439 - 1457

The name of Gutenberg first appears, in connection with printing, in a law case in Strasbourg in 1439. He is being sued by two of his business partners. Witnesses, asked about Gutenberg's stock, describe a press and a supply of metal type. It sounds as though he is already capable of printing small items of text from movable type, and it seems likely that he must have done so in Strasbourg. But nothing from this period survives.

By the time he is next heard of in connection with printing, he is in Mainz. He borrows 800 guilders in 1450 from Johann Fust with his printing equipment as security. The resulting story of Gutenberg and Fust is a saga in itself.

Gutenberg's great achievement in the story of printing has several components. One is his development of the printing Press, capable of applying a rapid but steady downward pressure. The concept of the Press is not new. But existing presses (for wine, oil or paper) exert slow pressure - uneconomical in printing.

More significant are Gutenberg's skills with metal (his original trade is that of a goldsmith). These enable him to master the complex stages in the manufacture of individual pieces of Type, which involve creating a master copy of each letter, devising the moulds in which multiple versions can be cast, and developing a suitable alloy (Type metal) in which to cast them.

No date appears in the Gutenberg Bible (known technically as the 42-line Bible), which was printed simultaneously on six presses during the mid-1450s. But at least one copy is known to have been completed, with its initial letters coloured red by hand, by 24 August 1456. The first dated book from these same presses, in 1457, is even more impressive. Known as the Mainz psalter, it achieves outstanding colour printing in its two-colour initial letters.

These first two publications from Germany's presses are of an extraordinary standard, caused no doubt by the commercial need to compete with manuscripts. The new technology, so brilliantly launched, spreads rapidly.

All this skilful technology precedes the basic work of printing - that of arranging the individual letters, aligned and well spaced, in a forme which will hold them firm and level to transfer the ink evenly to the paper.

The printing process involves complex problems at every stage, and the brilliance of the first known products from Gutenberg's Press suggest that earlier efforts must have been lost. If not, the decision to make his first publication a full-length Bible in Latin (the Vulgate), printed to the standards of the best Black-letter manuscripts, is a bold one indeed.

The spread of printing: AD 1457-1500

An invention as useful as printing, in a Europe of increasing prosperity, readily finds new customers.

The first Italian press is founded in 1464, at the Benedictine town of Subiaco in the papal states. Switzerland has a press in the following year. Printing begins in Venice, Paris and Utrecht in 1470, in Spain and Hungary in 1473, in Bruges in 1474 (on a press owned by Caxton, who moves it to London in 1476), in Sweden in 1483. By the end of the century the craft is well established in every European kingdom except Russia.

During the early decades, German printing predominates. More books are published in Germany than anywhere else (by 1500 there are printers in some sixty German towns); German printers carry the craft secrets abroad; and foreign printers come to Germany to study as apprentices.

The earliest typography is therefore in the black-letter style of contemporary German manuscripts. But by the end of the century the most fashionable and influential printing is being done in Italy, with a corresponding change in appearance.

From the 1470s, when Nicolas Jenson establishes a press there, Venice becomes a city known for the quality of its printing. Its preeminence in the field is firmly established by the end of the century through the publications of Aldus Manutius.

These Venetian printers develop type faces more open and elegant than the German black-letter tradition, deriving them from the scripts of the Italian humanists. In doing so, they provide the book trade with two of its most lasting typographical conventions - roman and italic.

From incunabula to mass communication: AD 1457 - 1525

In the first half-century of European printing the book rapidly displaces the the manuscript of earlier generations, providing equal elegance at less cost. Printed books of the 15th century are known as incunabula (Latin for the 'cradle' of printing). Though very rare now, incunabula were surprisingly numerous then; 1700 presses in some 300 towns are estimated to have produced about 15 million volumes by 1500.

Even in their own time these incunabula are special and expensive objects. But printing has another trick up its sleeve - in the long run one which is much more significant.

The profusion of presses in Europe by the early 16th century means that the machinery is in place for a different and entirely new form of production - the rapid printing of Pamphlets, or even single sheets, which can be used in a war of propaganda.

This potential lies dormant until an unexpected opportunity arises. It comes through an intellectual controversy of unprecedented violence - the Reformation. After Luther's challenge to the Roman Catholic church, the printing presses feed and fan the flames. Pamphlets fly in all directions. The printed page finds a new role as an arena of almost instant debate. The 'press' acquires a new and significant meaning.

First with the news: AD 1609-1690

If the 16th century is the first age of the pamphlet, the 17th fills the same role in relation to the newspaper. The turmoil in Europe in the first half of the century, particularly during the violent and complex Thirty Years' War, makes people eager for information about the latest events. The printers and newsgatherers move rapidly to satisfy this need.

The Germans, as with earlier stages in the Development of printing, are first in the field. Both Augsburg and Strasbourg have News sheets during 1609. Occasional sheets are known in several European cities during the late 16th century, but these two Germany papers seem to be the first published on a regular basis.

During the next two decades newspapers are published in Basel, Vienna, Amsterdam, Antwerp and London - where the title of the earliest news sheet in 1621 (Corante, or, Newes from Italy, Germany, Hungarie, Spaine and France) suggests the strongly European flavour of this thirst for information.

France follows in 1631, when the Gazette de France is established with official encouragement from Cardinal Richelieu. Newspapers are soon known in Denmark (1634), Florence (1636), Sweden (1645) and Poland (1661). The earliest American newspaper is published in Boston in 1690 under the title Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick.

Improving the post: AD 1633-1639

All governments depend on communication, and throughout history there have been repeated attempts to increase the speed and reliability of the mail. For rulers who know their Herodotus, there is always the performance of the Persian couriers as a challenging yardstick.

The Mongols in the 13th century achieve a speed of communication similar to that of the ancient Persians. Soon after this the princes of Moscow are said to have learnt from their Mongol neighbours how to establish an efficient postal system. Louis XI sets up a royal post in France in 1464, with the necessary relays of horses in permanent readiness. But it is in the 1630s that a sense of urgency seems to develop.

In 1633 Charles I commissions Thomas Witherings to improve postal communications between England and France. Witherings does so by placing boatmen under contract to make regular crossings with the mail between Dover and Calais. Two years later Charles decides to make the inland mail a royal monopoly, and again selects Witherings for the task.

Witherings establishes on a permanent basis the ancient system (familiar everywhere as a temporary measure in any military campaign) of official 'posts' whose job is to keep fresh horses and couriers in readiness at all times at their particular 'post stage'. During the 17th century the posts begin to be referred to more often as post masters.

Witherings adds a new element by placing the system on a commercial basis, enabling private mail to be carried on a published scale of payment. The payment relates to a single sheet of paper (causing the English to learn to write very small), and it varies according to the distance travelled - with extra charges if the item is carried on by branch posts from any of the main towns on the post road. This postage system remains in place until the great reform by Rowland Hill in 1840.

Witherings' speed of 120 miles a day is not up to the standard of ancient Persia (Britain being less easy for galloping across), but a letter can now be sent and an answer received between London and Edinburgh within a week.

Sweden follows this example, establishing a royal mail in 1636. Three years later, the first organized postal system in the American colonies gives an intimate view of how personal any postal system is at this early stage - with the post master very directly responsible for the efficiency of his own area.

In 1639 the authorities in Massachusetts legislate for the distribution of mail in the colony (as yet only ten years old). All mail arriving from overseas is to be delivered to the house of Richard Fairbanks in Boston. Fairbanks has the responsibility for getting each letter to its destination, and is allowed to charge one penny for his pains.

Optical signals: 17th - 18th century AD

The invention of the telescope in the 17th century makes possible a wide range of optical signalling systems. The earliest to be developed is that of flags at sea. Pioneered in England in 1653, the complexity of the messages which can be sent becomes steadily greater over the years.

By 1782 the admiral of the fleet, Lord Howe, has at his disposal a total of twenty-eight flags to be used in conjunction with a printed code issued to all his officers. In different combinations, used either as whole words or single letters, the flags can form any sentence.

This system is finalized during the Napoleonic wars as the Signal Book for the Ships of War, issued by the Admiralty in 1799. This is the code used by Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805, to fly from his masts the message 'England expects that every man will do his duty'. His signals lieutenant later reveals that the admiral told him to transmit 'England confides..', but he suggested the change because 'expects' was in the code as a word whereas 'confides' would have to be spelt out.

Meanwhile the same war has stimulated both sides to evolve a similar technique for sending messages on land.

The French take the initiative. In 1791 Claude Chappe develops the idea of a line of hilltop towers, each bearing a structure with two hinged arms. The pair of arms can be moved to any of 49 recognizably different positions, seven for each arm. Every tower has two telescopes, fixed and focussed on its neighbour in either direction - between three and six miles away. Messages, made up of a few frequently used words and others spelt out from the alphabet, can be rapidly passed from tower to tower.

Chappe coins two words for his invention which become widely adopted - telegraph (from Greek for 'far write') and semaphore (Greek for 'sign bearer').

Chappe's semaphore is used in France, where several lines of towers are built. It is also taken up in many other countries, and is adapted to a human version over shorter distances - with a signaller's two arms, extended by flags, taking up the coded positions instead of the mechanical equivalent in the tower.

In England a similar device is developed a year or two later by an aristocratic clergyman, the Reverend Lord George Murray. On his towers he places a structure with six sections, each of which can be either open to the sky or closed with a black panel. The six black-white options give 64 elements in Murray's vocabulary, in place of 49 in Chappe's.

By 1796 one line of towers runs from Deal on the coast of Kent to London, and another from Lille to Paris. Messages about the enemy flash in each direction. Both sides claim that transmission with trained signallers over these distances takes only two minutes. Whatever the precise times, these methods certainly outdo all previous options - being faster than a runner, a galloping horse or even a pigeon.

After the war Britain adopts the French system. Semaphore holds sway until the arrival of the next and (once again) infinitely superior method of sending messages - an early version of which is demonstrated by Charles Wheatstone in 1838.

Mail coach: AD 1784 - 1797

Benefits in both communication and travel derive from an initiative of John Palmer in 1782. As owner of a theatre in Bath, he is struck by the fact that letters to and from London often take three days on the journey - because the royal mail employs for the purpose individual postboys on decrepit horses.

Palmer proposes to the government a more ambitious scheme, by which the mail is to be carried in special coaches with good horses, armed guards, and no outside passengers. There is strong opposition from the post office, but the young William Pitt gives Palmer his personal support. As chancellor of the exchequer, he is attracted by the idea of higher postal charges for a better service.

The first mail coach runs from Bristol to London in 1784. It is so successful that by the autumn of the following year Palmer has launched services to sixteen other towns including Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Norwich, Dover, Portsmouth, Hereford, Swansea and Holyhead. Edinburgh is added in 1786. By 1797 there are forty-two routes in operation.

The departure of the mail coaches becomes a famous event every evening in London, for they all leave together at 8 p.m. Average speeds are now up to nearly 10 m.p.h. Edinburgh is reached in 43 hours, meaning that an answer can be received in London within four days.

The reporters war: AD 1854-1856

Recent developments in many fields make the Crimean War the first modern war, in the sense that the public at home becomes rapidly and intensely aware of what is going on at the front.

The first important changes are in transport and printing. When the editor of the Times in London decides to send a reporter out to join the British army in the Crimea in April 1854, he knows that reports will get back to London (with the best available combination of ship, train and electric telegraph) faster than from any previous conflict. And his mechanized steam presses will be able to supply a large readership with news of unprecedented immediacy.

His chosen reporter is William Howard Russell, whom the Crimea soon transforms into a national figure - Russell of the Times. Appalled at what he sees in British army camps and hospitals, Russell makes himself intensely unpopular with the authorities by describing the conditions in vivid detail. His account of British patients at Scutari, in September 1854, compares their condition unfavourably with the French hospitals. He makes a passionate plea for 'devoted women' to come out from England to tend them.

It is a measure of the new immediacy that one devoted woman, destined to be even more famous than Russell, responds directly to his words. Florence Nightingale sails for the Crimea, with thirty-eight nurses, in October.

The Crimean war lives with similar immediacy in images. It is the first war assignment undertaken by a photographer. Early in 1855 a Manchester publisher, Thomas Agnew, decides to send a photographer to the front. He selects Roger Fenton, who becomes a familiar figure of great curiosity to the troops. He travels round in a converted delivery vehicle with the words 'Photographic Van' painted on the side. Inside is the dark room where he develops his large glass plates.

Needing exposure times of up to twenty seconds, Fenton's photographs are mainly of soldiers posed among the paraphernalia of war in the Crimean landscape. They are published by Agnew in five portfolios before the end of 1855.

Meanwhile a British print dealer, Dominic Colnaghi, has used the same approach in a more traditional art form. He sends out the artist William Simpson, who arrives at Balaklava in November 1854 and stays with the army until the fall of Sebastopol in September 1855.

Advances in printing mean that Simpson's watercolours can be rapidly produced in London as realistic Tinted lithographs. Two series are issued in 1855-6 under the title The Seat of War in the East. Simpson, with his pencil and brush, can capture the drama and pathos of war in a way not yet available to Fenton. His picture of Florence Nightingale among the wounded at Scutari, published in April 1856, contributes to her legend.

Photography soon catches up, to establish itself as the medium best equipped to convey the horrors of war. In 1860 an Italian-born British photographer, Felice Beato, photographs the dead defenders sprawled in a fort which has just been captured in the second Opium War. A bystander sees him at work and describes the rush of adrenalin of the authentic war photographer.

The first war to be fully covered photographically is the American civil war. Thanks to the enterprise of Mathew Brady, who sends teams of photographers to the various battle fronts, some 10,000 glass negatives survive as a detailed visual record of four years of conflict.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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