Overview: From the pencil to touch retina displays, the historical development of communications technology is as diverse and as ingenious as the earliest inventions to the future of how we connect.
The Past, Present and Future of Communications Gadgets
Communication isn’t a new invention. We’ve been chatting, texting and sharing our ideas with one another for over 40,000 years. What is new though, are the gadgets we use to get our point across. Evolving over hundreds of years, technology ranging from the pencil, invented in 1565, to the latest Smartphone, has enabled us to communicate in ever more sophisticated ways. What’s surprising is that most technologies that we think to be state-of-the-art have their roots somewhere in history.
Throughout the centuries, society has had an urgent need to send communicate. Letters were traditionally written by hand, a laborious task when there were many letters to be written. In 1714, an Englishman by the name of Henry Mill landed the patent for what, according to the application, appears to be the first mechanical writing machine: the typewriter.
Though conceived, the typewriter wouldn’t be formally invented until 1808 by Italian, Pellegrino Turi. Even then, it took until 1868 for this groundbreaking machine to become commercially viable. It would go on to replace handwriting, along with the bulk of writer’s cramp, as the primary method of noting things down, and would become increasingly diverse as it moved into the electronic era.
In the end, it was the computer that replaced this amazing machine and in November 2012, typewriter makers Brother announced that the last ever typewriter had been made and production ceased. The machine was donated to the London Science Museum.
Meanwhile, the electric telegraph system was being developed by Samuel Morse and by 1837, the distinctive pips of the Morse Code was tapping out messages from one recipient to another. It was the text messaging of its day and the electronic forerunner to today’s Internet. By the 1870’s, telegraph cables had been placed on ocean floors and communication was revolutionised. Impressively, pictures were transmitted during the latter stages of the 19th Century, marking the first move toward sending funny photos to your mates.
Not more than a decade later, Alexander Graham Bell had successfully made the telephone a commercially viable piece of kit. Now long-distance voice calls could be held from one side of the Atlantic to another, closing the gap between nations and shaking the world awake to the idea of a global community.
By the 20th Century, technology was advancing at such a pace that every year brought the development of previous ideas and huge leaps with invention. The humble telegraph, connecting cities all across the world, was soon replaced by a new fangled bit of technology: the computer.
The computer did not emerge in the 1980s as many people believe. This machine was originally conceived as far back as ancient Greece and China, and ideas about computing were continuously theorised throughout the 19th Century. The real breakthrough came with the emergence of the Second World War when Alan Turing published his paper ‘On Computable Numbers’ in 1936.
With Turing’s theoretical work, the first modern electronic computers were designed and built, which came in handy for cracking the notorious German Enigma code during the war. By the end of the global conflict, computers were ready to go commercial and in 1951, they were made available to the general public. Eight years later, the first microchip was invented. In 1962, Intel built the first ever microprocessor, heralding a new age for communications gadgetry. Computers were now doing more and doing it faster.
The 1980s was the decade for the computing revolution as IBM created the PC in 1981 and the Apple Mac came into the world in 1984. The computer became so influential and pivotal to modern-day living that Time Magazine named it ‘Man of the Year’ in 1983. Shortly before in 1982, the Internet made its debut, transforming the lives of people, businesses and commerce forever.
From 1971, after Ray Tomlinson sent the first electronic message over a network, email became the quickest way to send a message. This rendered the hand-written letter, typewriter, telegraph (and to some extent the telephone), mostly obsolete. It took until the late 1980’s however for email to move outside of specific, closed networks and onto the Internet, so not everything went out of fashion overnight.
It’s not just the software that’s evolved. Desktop PCs were being complemented with the creation of the Laptop during the 1970s, with the Epson HX-20 released in 1981 and the Macintosh Portable in 1989. These early Laptops and Macs have gone on to define the personal portable computer with today’s latest models: Acer C7 Chromebook, HP Envy, Samsung Series 7 Ultra, Apple MacBook Air, to name a few.
Let’s not forget the exploding tablet market, either. The first tablets were developed in the 1980s, with Microsoft releasing the first viable contender, the Fujitsu Windows XP Tablet, in 2002. But it wasn’t until the release of Apple’s iPad in 2010 that the tablet became affordable and functional for the masses.
Since then, Apple and Android technology has given us increasingly sophisticated and diverse tablet technology such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, the Microsoft Surface Pro, the Google Nexus 7, the Kindle HD Fire, the Tesco hudl. and the latest iPad Mini. Phew! That’s a lot of different gadgets to communicate with, crammed with the latest technological diversity.
These contemporary innovations have become so advanced and complex, they even integrate the mobile phone and tablet into one harmonious device, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and the Nokia Lumia.
Speaking of mobile phones, we commonly believe them to be a contemporary invention. The truth is, they originated in the 1920s with the development of radio technology. Japan established the first cellular phone network in 1971. The first cell phone was created by Motorola employee Martin Cooper in 1973 but it took until 1984 for mobiles to become available to the public.
From there, the mobile phone was developed and transformed to include cameras by 2002 and multi-functions by 2003 with the release of the BlackBerry.
Smartphones have been in the works from as early as the 1990s but would come into force with the launch of Apple’s iPhone in January 2007. Sony’s Experia and Samsungs Galaxy S4, to name but two, have further expanded our communication capacities by allowing email, video calls, blogging and vlogging, instant messaging, document composition and editing, photography and group phonecalls, all on the go.
The availability of all these clever gadgets, handheld, sat on our laps or perched on our desktops, is now enormous and the tech just keeps getting smarter. But how smart can it get?
The Future Is Now
So what’s in store for us next? What will be the next step in communications gadgetry? The humble wristwatch has most recently been turned into the smartwatch with the release of the Samsung Gear, and the impending arrival of Apple’s iWatch and LG’s take on futuristic wrist-wear in 2014.
Gadgets are becoming increasingly thinner and lighter so it may be no surprise to find that holographic technology, the simulated projection of images and artificial environments into thin air, is being researched.
Through combining existing technology such as cameras, projection units and 3D imaging software, we may all one day be in the same virtual room at the same time, whilst being thousands of miles apart and in different time zones. And if that isn’t sci-fi enough, this tech could result in users being able to directly interact with their virtual environment.
Bluetooth headsets are the current means of hands-free communication but in the future, all of our technology could be activated and controlled by voice, even the blink of an eye.
Google is currently engaging in Project Glass, a device worn like a pair of glasses which responds to voice commands for activities like recording videos, sending messages and getting directions, and then displays results and information before your very eyes. Awesome.
But it’s not all about hands-free. Hands-on communications is also becoming more evolved and tactile. g-speak Spatial Operating Environment, currently under development by Oblong Industries, is something straight out of science fiction movies like Minority Report. It moves beyond the mouse and keyboard, giving users physical control of what’s on screen in front of them through virtual gestures, and allowing multiple users to access the same location at the same time.
Everything we use to communicate with one another is a result of the development and elaboration of previous technologies. From the cordless telephone to the mobile phone, to the latest Smartphone and multipurpose tablet, the future of communications technology rests easy upon previous innovations, opening new doors to incredible and tantalising ideas. The progression of communication gadgetry alone is so astounding, it’s difficult to envisage a complete History of Communication timeline.
But the rapid march toward an enhanced communications future isn’t a dream. These technologies are happening now and one way or another, they will break through into mainstream society, altering the way we talk and share ideas for generations to come. What do you think will come next?