Skip to main content

Long Distance Communication Timeline

Wondering about improving the collaboration of a distributed Scrum team, I started thinking of the history of long distance communication.  I'm no expert but here's what I see in history, the trend, the current state, and the future.

History shows us that we humans have struggled with the problem of transmitting message over space.  Getting a signal to cross space is easy, attaching meaning to the signal has been much harder and insuring the veracity of the meaning is really tough.  None of that insures that meaning has been understood.  However we have studied this phenomenon and found that increasing the modes of message transmitted improves the understanding of the  received message.  That is; as we move along the modal continuum of written, verbal, visual, video messages we increase the chance for higher fidelity message understanding.

Lessons to be learned - use the highest bandwidth medium possible.
1983 Map of the early internet (ARPAnet)

But in the year 2010, I still find our technology lacking.  Dick Tracy had a great system in the 1960s, his wrist watch TV always worked never had glitches or dropped calls.  I believe FaceTime to be in keeping with that vision.  It is simple to use, but requires I stand in selected areas (wi-fi enabled zones of my environment).  It also is a proprietary system that like the first telephone system require pairing the two end points with the same device.  This was a problem with early systems in Greece (clepsydra - water clock).  Solving this requires standardization upon open protocols - it is a known solution and responsible for the success of the internet/web that you are now using.

The telephone networks in the USA were largely successful because of the monopoly that was granted to Ma Bell.  That had it's down-side also - stagnation of the industry.  If we were to pick a company today to be that monopoly holder with the hopes of unifying the industry and making all system work together (like the POTS - Plain Old Telephone System), who would it be?  I select Apple.  One of the largest 10 companies in the world (market capital) and one of the most innovative.  After we get our ubiquitous video phone on our wrist watches (ala Dick Tracy) and we are happy with the service we can break up Apple (like we did AT&T & Microsoft, etc).


Signal Fire - think prearranged and agreed message indicated by the lighting of a fire at the top of a mountain.  The fall of Troy was signaled by King Agamemnon to Queen Clytemnestra in Greece using this method.

490 BC the Expendable Runner-Messenger - think Pheidippides from a battlefield at Marathon, runs 26.2 miles to Athens to deliver the news "Niki!" ("victory"), then collapsed and died.  Before this innovation people just walked, but news traveled much slower.

Signal Flags - think ships at see with the Jolly Roger set in the mast.  Early use of this was shown to include mis-communication of the highest order.  On the Argonautic Expedition Theseus used colored sails to send messages to the fleet.  Forgetting to lower the black sail (signal of battle and of death) after the battle, his father Zgeus saw the black sail and interrupted the signal as the death of Theseus.  Grieving he jumped overboard to drown.  Opps - Theseus should have raised the red sail - a signal of victory.

So way back then we were challenged with low bandwidth and poor signal quality.

335 BC Bull Horn or stentorophonic tube.  Alexander the Great used one and could communicate 12 miles.

A clepsydra is a water clock which if paired with a similar device could be used to sends prearranged signals via light signals.  Yes this is the beginning of optic communication systems. Image that the device, a container was inscribed with messages at varying heights of water, the container had a hole & plug in the bottom.  Upon signaling the two water clocks would be unplugged at the same time (synchronized by the light signal) when the light was extinguished the hole would be plugged.  Given the same flow rates the water level would be identical and the height would indicate the message at that level.  Pure genius, but quite a lot of preparation work to send a signal of prearranged messages. And the cycle time was quite high - one had to refill the two containers with water.

This is not much different than current signaling technology.  The prearranged messages are now 1 or 0, on or off.  However the signaling rate is much higher (mega hertz) not to mention multiple channels of concurrent signals.

Compressing the timeline a bit - because the state of messages transmitted over distance didn't change much for thousands of years.

1790s Optical Telegraph - Napoleon used one innovated by the use of semaphore networks, he was able to communicate over much greater distances than his foes, and gained great advantage.

1830s Electromagnetic Telegraph - it took quite some time for innovation to make these devices useful.  Invented in 1804, and put into commercial use on Britain's Great Western Railway in 1839.  Morse developed his telegraph and the famous code in 1837 and drove the Pony Express out of business with a trans-continental telegraph line by 1861.

1843 Alexander Bain invented a device that could be considered the first facsimile machine - a recording telegraph.

1855 Giovanni Caselli created a telegraph that could transmit images. The "Pantelegraph" was successfully tested on a telegraph line between Paris and Lyon.  Note how long it will take to make this commercially available - why? See 1934 below for a hint.

1860 Pony Express - a fast mail courier service from St. Joseph, MO to Sacramento, CA it is well known for a failed business - it lasted just over one year (April 1860 - October 1861).  Messages required just 10 days from Atlantic to Pacific coast.

1876 Bell patents the Telephone - an innovation to the telegraph that allowed clear speech to be heard on the receiving end.  “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.”  Bell didn't invent the phone.

1885 - Edison patents wireless radio.  Ten years later in 1895, Marconi builds a wireless system capable 1.5 mile distance.

1891 Alexander Graham Bell envisions the videophone  "...the day would come when the man at the telephone would be able to see the distant person to whom he was speaking."

1893 - Nikola Tesla demonstrates the fundamentals of radio.

1906 - AM radio - Oh Holy Night is broadcast in Massachusetts by Reginald Fessenden.

1920 - Radio News Broadcast -  Detroit, Michigan.  First sports broadcast

1920s First Video Phones -  technological precursor to the videophone was the teleostereograph machine developed by AT&T's Bell Labs. By 1927 AT&T had created its earliest electromechanical videophone, called an ikonophone.

1934 - Answering Machine - How Ma Bell Shelved the Future for 60 Years "In early 1934, Clarence Hickman, a Bell Labs engineer, had a secret machine, about six feet tall, standing in his office. It was a device without equal in the world, decades ahead of its time. If you called and there was no answer on the phone line to which Hickman's invention was connected, the machine would beep and a recording device would come on allowing the caller to leave a message."

1930s Dialing Phone network - the consumer could now self select the party to call (dial a number) and the network was powered by a central office rather than individuals local battery.

1943 - US Supreme Court awards Tesla patents on radio invalidating the fundamental Marconi patents. Tesla intended to use wireless to transmit electrical power - which has just now 2010, become commercialized.

1960s AT&T introduce Touch-Tone dialing.

1960s Cordless Phone - "The Carterphone, a crude device for interconnecting a two-way radio with the telephone, led to the reversal of the Federal Communications Commission ban on direct coupling of consumer equipment to phone lines (known as the 1968 landmark Carterphone decision) on June 26, 1968. The original cordless phones, like the Carterphone, were acoustically (not electrically) connected to the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN)." Not until the 1980s will this become a successful commercial product.

1964 Picturephone AT&T's product and service in the 1964 New York World's Fair

1964 Dick Tracy's wrist TV.  

1979 Cellular Telephone - first cell network in Tokyo. Five years later the NTT network covered the whole population of Japan.

1980s Cordless Phone commercial success.

1983 First Cell Phones in Chicago, US

1990s Satellite Phone - using low earth orbit (LEO) satellites it is possible to have global coverage - however both companies (Globalstar & Iridium) have gone bankrupt with this business plan's high cost of a constellation of many satellites (44 & 66).

1991 2G Cell Networks - "modern" digital 2G (second generation GSM standard) cellular technology was launched in Finland.

1996 US telecommunication companies petition the US Congress to ban Internet phone technology.

2000s VoIP - Internet Protocol for voice transmission becomes widespread.

2004 Commercial VoIP service providers.

2010 FaceTime - Apple's video phone technology for iPhone 4.

2010s Telephone companies switch from time to data as the unit of commerce.  AT&T plans for my iPhone start charging me for data (2 GB for about $40) rather than 10 cents per minute for calling someone in the USA.  In essence AT&T gives me calls for "free" if I pay for the data that the calls require (via the merging telecommunication networks; POTS & Internet).

2014 Eugene passes the Turning Test.
"An historic milestone in artificial intelligence set by Alan Turing – the father of modern computer science – has been achieved at an event organised by the University of Reading.  The 65 year-old iconic Turing Test was passed for the very first time by supercomputer Eugene Goostman during Turing Test 2014 held at the renowned Royal Society in London on Saturday 7th June.  ‘Eugene’, a computer programme that simulates  a 13 year old boy,  was developed in Saint Petersburg, Russia." RobotEnomics - Tracking the march of the robot economy, by Colin Lewis. 

See Also:

The Hummingbird Effect: How Galileo Invented Timekeeping and Forever Changed Modern Life
by Maria Popova.  How the invisible hand of the clock powered the Industrial Revolution and sparked the Information Age.

A Perspective on Time  by

All of Earth's history mapped to a 100 yard football field timeline.

A history of Europe - time-lapse of 6000 years of political control over the map.

End of nations: Is there an alternative to countries?

1 comment

Most Popular on Agile Complexification Inverter

Where is Shakespeare When We Need Him?

We are desperately searching for a term for people that connotes the best of human kind.  The creative, sensing, combinatorial synergistic, empathic solutioning persons that have yet to been labeled with a role name that works.

Some of the old terms:
Staff, Workforce, Human Resource, My Team, Army, Company

Shakespeare created 1700 words in his time.  He mutated verbs to nouns, and vice-a-versa, transformed verbs into adjectives, and formed words from whole cloth never before heard.  This skill is rare, but there is a poet that can create the term we need in the twenty-first century.

What should this term define?

21st Century Human Resource; the generalizing specialist.

Yes, but what more?  What less?

Suggest your poetry in the comments, let us see if we cannot do 1/1700 as well as The Bard.

By-the-way; who create the phrase "coin a word"?

A TED Play List - How do you create new words
Erin McKeanGo ahead, make up new words! In this fun, short talk from TEDYouth, lexicographer Er…

Elements of an Effective Scrum Task Board

What are the individual elements that make a Scrum task board effective for the team and the leadership of the team?  There are a few basic elements that are quite obvious when you have seen a few good Scrum boards... but there are some other elements that appear to elude even the most servant of leaders of Scrum teams.

In general I'm referring to a physical Scrum board.  Although software applications will replicated may of the elements of a good Scrum board there will be affordances that are not easily replicated.  And software applications offer features not easily implemented in the physical domain also.

Scrum Info Radiator Checklist (PDF) Basic Elements
Board Framework - columns and rows laid out in bold colors (blue tape works well)
Attributes:  space for the total number of stickies that will need to belong in each cell of the matrix;  lines that are not easy eroded, but are also easy to replace;  see Orientation.

Columns (or Rows) - labeled
    To Do
    Work In P…

Situational Leadership II Model & Theory

Have you ever been in a situation where you thought the technique needed to move forward was one thing, yet the person leading (your leader) assumed something else was what was needed?  Did you feel misaligned, unheard, marginalized?  Would you believe that 54% of all leaders only use ONE style of leadership - regardless of the situation?  Does that one style of leading work well for the many levels of development we see on a team?

Perhaps your team should investigate one of the most widely used leadership models in the world ("used to train over 5 million managers in the world’s most respected organizations").  And it's not just for the leaders.  The training is most effective when everyone receives the training and uses the model.  The use of a ubiquitous language on your team is a collaboration accelerator.  When everyone is using the same mental model, speaking the same vernacular hours of frustration and discussion may be curtailed, and alignment achieved, outcomes …

One Dark and Stormy during a Hurricane

I'm from the Carolina's where legend has it that our family commonly just hunkered down in the home on the coast and waterways than to head for inland shelter. Now that's from the old school days of barely improved (read paved) roads. They counted a storms severity by how high on the back porch steps (about 15 - top to ground) the water reached.  I don't recommend this action in todays world of long range forecast and transportation options.

I do recommend a drink or two in a hotel bar, far far away.

This is the week that Harvey came ashore in Texas.  I live on a hill in the little old town of Grapevine outside Dallas and Fort Worth.  And thank you all for letting me know that a storm is coming... I didn't get out and walk Malibu before the rain hit, so I grabbed a hat and we went anyway.  Much nicer walk with the drizzle, I'd say.

I'll raise a glass to you - if you were not smart enough to do the responsible thing, at the last responsible moment.

I do re…

Software Development terms applied to Home Construction

Let's Invert the typically wrong headed view of Software Development project management as a construction project.  We can map it the other way just to see if it works... to have some fun, to explore the meaning of phrases we toss around quite frequently.

Normally Project Management terms come from a construction domain.  We are going to apply the lexicon of modern software to the construction of a home.  We will follow the construction project and meet some of the people doing the work.

This is a very small (8 homes from $600,000 skyward) program in my 30-40 year old neighborhood.

About 6 months ago I saw the programs landing page go up.  It gives casual observers and some of the stakeholders a general idea of the intent of the program.  And most importantly who to contact for additional information if you happen to be interested in their products.

The Refuge program has 8 product projects and has them running independently.  Yet much of their DevOps infrastructure has already b…