A Look at the 6 Technologies That Revolutionized Communications

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The 19th century saw a revolution in communications systems that brought the world closer together. Innovations like the telegraph allowed information to travel over vast distances in little or no time, while institutions such as the postal system made it easier than ever for people to conduct business and connect with others.

Postal System

People have been using delivery services to exchange correspondence and share information since at least 2400 B.C. when the ancient Egyptian pharaohs used couriers to spread royal decrees throughout their territory. Evidence indicates similar systems were used in ancient China and Mesopotamia as well. 

The United States established its postal system in 1775 before independence had been declared. Benjamin Franklin was appointed the nation's first postmaster general. The founding fathers believed so strongly in a postal system that they included provisions for one in the Constitution. Rates were established for the delivery of letters and newspapers based on delivery distance, and postal clerks would note the amount on the envelope.

A schoolmaster from England, Rowland Hill, invented the adhesive postage stamp in 1837, an act for which he later was knighted.Hill also created the first uniform postage rates that were based on weight rather than size. Hill's stamps made the prepayment of mail postage possible and practical. In 1840, Great Britain issued its first stamp, the Penny Black, featuring the image of Queen Victoria. The U.S. Postal Service issued its first stamp in 1847.

Telegraph

The electrical telegraph was invented in 1838 by a Samuel Morse, an educator and inventor who made a hobby of experimenting with electricity. Morse wasn't working in a vacuum; the principal of sending electrical current via wires over long distances had been perfected in the previous decade. But it took Morse, who developed a means of transmitting coded signals in the form of dots and dashes, to make the technology practical. 

Morse patented his device in 1840, and three years later Congress granted him $30,000 to build the first telegraph line from Washington D.C. to Baltimore. On May 24, 1844, Morse transmitted his famous message, "What hath God wrought?," from the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., to the B & O Railroad Depot in Baltimore.

The growth of the telegraph system piggybacked on the expansion of the nation's railway system, with lines often following rail routes and telegraph offices established at train stations large and small across the nation. The telegraph would remain the primary means of long-distance communication until the emergence of the radio and telephone in the early 20th century.

Improved Newspaper Presses

Newspapers as we know them have been printed regularly in the U.S. since the 1720s when James Franklin (Ben Franklin's older brother) began publishing the New England Courant in Massachusetts. But early newspaper had to be printed in manual presses, a time-consuming process that made it difficult to produce more than a few hundred copies.

The introduction of the steam-powered printing press in London in 1814 changed that, allowing publishers to print more than 1,000 newspapers per hour. In 1845, the American inventor Richard March Hoe introduced the rotary press, which could print up to 100,000 copies per hour. Coupled with other refinements in printing, the introduction of the telegraph, a sharp drop in the cost of newsprint, and an increase in literacy, newspapers could be found in nearly every town and city in the U.S. by the mid-1800s.

Phonograph

Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the phonograph, which could both record sound and play it back, in 1877. The device converted sound waves into vibrations that in turn were engraved on a metal (later wax) cylinder using a needle. Edison refined his invention and began marketing it to the public in 1888. But early phonographs were prohibitively expensive, and wax cylinders were both fragile and hard to mass produce.

By the turn of the 20th century, the cost of photographs and cylinders had dropped considerably and they became more commonplace in American homes. The disc-shaped record we know today was introduced by Emile Berliner in Europe in 1889 and appeared in the U.S. in 1894. In 1925, the first industry standard for playing speeds was set at 78 revolutions per minute, and the record disc became the dominant format. 

Photography

The first photographs were produced by Frenchman Louis Daguerre in 1839, using silver-plated metal sheets treated with light-sensitive chemicals to produce an image. The images were incredibly detailed and durable, but the photochemical process was very complicated and time-consuming. By the time of the Civil War, the advent of portable cameras and new chemical processes allowed photographers like Matthew Brady to document the conflict and average Americans to experience the conflict for themselves.

In 1883, George Eastman of Rochester, New York, had perfected a means of putting film on a roll, making the process of photography more portable and less expensive. The introduction of his Kodak No. 1 camera in 1888 put cameras in the hands of the masses. It came pre-loaded with film and when users had finished shooting, they sent the camera to Kodak, which processed their prints and sent the camera back, loaded with fresh film.

Motion Pictures

A number of people contributed innovations that led to the motion picture we know today. One of the first was the British-American photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who used an elaborate system of still cameras and trip wires to create a series of motion studies in the 1870s. George Eastman's innovative celluloid roll film in the 1880s was another crucial step, allowing large quantities of film to be packaged in compact containers. 

Using Eastman's film, Thomas Edison and William Dickinson had invented a means of projecting motion picture film called the Kinetoscope in 1891. But the Kinetoscope could only be viewed by one person at a time. The first motion pictures that could be projected and shown to groups of people were perfected by the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. In 1895, the brothers demonstrated their Cinematographe with a series of 50-second films that documented everyday activities like workers leaving their factory in Lyon, France. By the 1900s, motion pictures had become a common form of entertainment in vaudeville halls throughout the U.S., and a new industry was born to mass-produce films as a means of entertainment.

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