From Smoke Signals to FacebookNov 01, 2015 ● By Bob Warren
Come with me as we take a quick look at the evolution of long-distance communication. It probably started when mankind began to venture away from his home cave, beyond shouting distance of his friends and family. They used primitive methods such as smoke signals and drums to stay in touch. Then, history tells us that long after cave men “quit smoking,” ancient Greeks and the Chinese used smoke and fire to converse with each other. Years later, when white men came to America, they found Native Americans were, like their ancestors, using smoke signals and drums for long-distance communication.
In early colonial times, correspondence depended on friends, merchants and Native Americans to hand deliver messages from place to place. Letters to their families back in Europe went by ship, taking several weeks for delivery. In 1692, Thomas Neal got a grant from the British Crown to establish the first official North American postal service. Then, in 1775, the Second Continental Congress gave birth to what would become the U.S. Postal Service. Benjamin Franklin was appointed our first Postmaster General, at a salary of $1,000 per year. By the way, two of our presidents, Lincoln and Truman, had, years before their presidency, served as postmasters in their hometowns. A popular way to get messages to people was to send “town criers” throughout villages announcing news. Years later, when the western part of our nation was being settled, mail was sent coast-to-coast by the short-lived (1860 –1861) Pony Express. The trip by relaying horses took eight to 10 days.
You may remember that for years, first class postage for a letter was only two cents, and the price increased to three cents in 1932. In those days, “penny post cards” were a very popular way to send messages. Later, six-cent stamps would buy you faster service by airmail.
That was then, but in today’s world, writing letters and sending them by the postal service is practically unheard of. In fact, writing in longhand (cursive) is becoming a lost art. Electronic communication such as emailing, text messaging and using Twitter or Facebook has taken over the world of long-distance communication.
But, for getting messages out locally, somewhat like the town crier of old, we have found, through the years, a variety of ways to broadcast messages. For example, in Frisco’s early days, I remember hearing Sunday morning church bells ringing to remind the people that it was time for church. For many years, Frisco’s Fire Department was made up of all volunteers, mostly businessmen and farmers. A large siren, which could be heard for miles around, was used to call the volunteers to hurry from their homes and places of work to operate the fire equipment. Today, the city’s emergency warning system, by loud wails and verbal messages, alerts citizens of approaching storms and other emergencies.
In the early 1800s, the telegraph is said to have revolutionized long-distance communication. This method of sending electric impulses by wire was invented in 1836 by Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail. The same twosome developed Morse code, a system of dots and dashes that had to be translated into words. In 1844, Mr. Morse sent, from Washington, DC, to Baltimore, Md., his now famous first message, which said, “What hath God wrought?” This method of communicating progressed rapidly from that point. Soon, the Western Union Telegraphy Company laid the first transcontinental line across the country. Then, in 1866, the first permanent Transatlantic Cable was laid across the North Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland. That cut the time of delivering messages to Europe by 10 days, the time required to send letters by ship.
For many years, telegrams continued to be a very popular way of communicating. On a personal note, in 1945, during World War II, I was stationed in Europe when my daughter, Kay, was born, and the very precious message telling of her birth came to me by telegram. Coincidentally, that same year, it was by cablegram that the Japanese sent word of their surrender. The last ship-to-shore telegram was sent to President Bill Clinton on July 12, 1999, as the Internet made the telegraph irrelevant.
Let us back up to the 1870s. At that time, Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gary had been working independently to design devices that could transmit speech electrically. Mr. Bell beat Mr. Gary to the patent office, and thus the telephone was born. Some consider the telephone to be the greatest invention of the nineteenth century. We no longer had to translate dots and dashes into words, but could actually transmit voices by wire.
1902 brought the railroad through this part of the country, and a little town that would become Frisco was born. Phone lines and telegraph lines ran alongside the new railroad tracks, and as the town grew, businesses and residents joined the fledgling telephone system. The telephone operator, known lovingly as “Central,” was located in a two-story building on Main Street. In that building, she received calls and replied with a cheery “number please.” Central seemingly knew everything that was going on in town. Sometimes, when you told her who you were calling, she might say, “Well, honey, he or she is not at home, but you can find them at the hardware store or at Curtsinger’s Drug Store.”
For years, Frisco’s phone system did not reach beyond the city limit, and that was not very far. Later, a program allowed rural customers to connect to the system by furnishing the wire and stringing it along the top of the fence lines. It was 1947 before the phone company installed its own poles and wire, allowing the rural customers to be officially connected to an eight-party line. Party lines were, though not intentionally, a great news network. When the phone rang and you lifted the receiver, you could hear other parties picking theirs up too, so any news was instantly spread up and down the line. We soon learned to keep any secrets to ourselves. In that day, telephones were considered a luxury, and cost about $1.50 per month. Long-distance calls were rare and expensive.
Watching the evolution of the telephone has been fun. I have seen it go from the wall-mounted, hand-cranked model to the desk set with a rotary dial, and then to push-button dial desk sets. Portable phones liberated us so we could go from room to room, or even outside, talking without missing a word of our conversation. Even better, today’s smart phones are portable, and with Bluetooth technology, we can talk hands-free while shopping or driving.
Now, we have one of the greatest modes of long-distance communication ever -- the Internet. Several individuals have claimed credit for its invention, but one version says that, in the early 1960s, the military started exploring the use of a method of communication that became the Internet. The first Internet system, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (or ARPANET), was developed in 1965. In 1971, the first emails were sent between two computers that were on different networks, proving that email could be used to send and receive data on an international scale.
From communication’s humble beginning evolved many things that are all the rage today, such as text messaging, tweeting, Facebooking, Skyping, etc. Yes, we have gone from smoke signals to Facebook! Our methods of long-distance communication have come a long way. Like Mr. Morse’s famous telegram said, “What hath God wrought?” I wonder, what will the next 100 years bring?