My name is Steven Shepard, and I’m a writer, speaker, and industry analyst for the telecom, IT and media industries. The nature of my work is such that I visit about 70 countries every year, from wealthy First World countries with the most advanced telecom networks available to Third World countries that in many cases are building networks for the first time.
My plan is to take you on a journey through time and a voyage through space, showing you the best — and the worst — that telecom has to offer. For now, let’s go on a retrospective. Who would have thought that we would reach this point in our technological development?
People routinely communicate over great distances. They carry on casual chats as if they are sitting across from each other at the kitchen table, yet are on opposite sides of the continent. They share thoughts about books, politics, entertainment, and love. They gossip about racy topics, share personal information with each other, and immerse themselves in online fantasy worlds where they role play with others in outrageous ways.
Some of them actually get married online, occasionally to people they’ve never physically met. What an amazing thing the 21st century Internet is — except that I’m not talking about the 21st century, or the Internet. I’m talking about the early to mid-19th century, and the technology I’m describing is the telegraph.
I’m a voracious reader, and I just re-read one of my favorite books about the telecom industry — Tom Standage’s “The Victorian Internet.” In it he describes how clever, innovative people in the 1800s figured out a way to communicate with one another using the tools of the time. There was no broadband – in fact, there was barely any bandwidth! Yet even back then, long before the arrival of digital transmission, computers, high-speed connectivity or Facebook, there was an electronic human network.
Networks are Intertwined in People’s Lives
Electronic communications has been intertwined in the lives of people for nearly two centuries. The telegraph pre-dated the telephone network, and was the reason the industry laid the first transoceanic cable — something we’ll describe in other posts. But eventually the real race began, the race to move beyond Morse Code and create the ability to transmit voice over distance.
The story goes that in 1876, 134 years ago, Alexander Graham Bell reportedly spilled a beaker of hydrochloric acid into his lap, causing him to say, “Come here, Watson, I need you.” I submit to you that that is most likely not what he actually said, and that Watson didn’t need a rudimentary telephone receiver to hear Bell’s request for assistance.
That call, however, created an avalanche of technology and company development, innovation, government and industry restructuring, cost reduction, an explosion of applications, and, in the case of the developing world, an enormous amount of hope.
In 1989, Frances Cairncross published an article in The Economist entitled The Death of Distance, in which she proclaimed that advances in communications technologies had eliminated the profound impact of physical distance. I agree with her argument, but it didn’t happen in 1989: It happened in the 1840s, with the telegraph, and it happened in the 1700s, when the Chappe brothers built giant semaphores for communicating across France, and it happened when the Roman legions erected fire towers that they could use for sending rudimentary messages across the vastness of Europe.
The human network isn’t new: it just keeps getting better.
Next, I’ll be taking a look at the evolution of switching and the remarkable things that happened on that particular technological roller-coaster.