Not too long ago, we lived in a world without the convenience of instant messaging, a time before you could connect to your friends and social media followers in real time with a keystroke. It’s peculiar to envision a society without smiley face emoticons. The way we communicate has certainly come a long way. Join us as we trace the origins of messaging back thousands of years.
Our journey in mass communication starts with the oldest cave painting, a red disk, found in El Castillo, Spain. Archeologists have determined the painting is approximately 40,800 years old. The estimated reach of the cave painting is likely the total Neanderthal world population of 70,000 at its peak. However, since the painting cannot be moved, there is a chance it may never reach anyone other than the painter.
The origin of writing can be traced back to Cuneiform script, found on clay tablets from ancient Sumer (Iraq) dating back to 3200 BC. The estimated reach of these tablets and their early written words would encompass the city of Uruk, with a population of approximately 50,000 to 80,000 residents at its height in 2900 BC.
Written word led to more advancement in human interaction. Homing pigeons were utilized to deliver messages written on pieces of parchment across far distances. One of the first documented cases dates back to 776 BC in Olympia, Greece, where pigeons were used to announce the winners of the first Olympic games to local villages. These pigeons were capable of flying more than a thousand miles, with an average flight speed of 50 mph.
Another method to send written letters was by mail. In 450 BC, Darius the Great built an ancient highway, the Royal Road, to facilitate rapid communication in the first Persian Empire. The route ran 1,677 miles from Susa to Sardis. Using a series of relay stations, royal couriers could cover the entire distance in 7 to 9 days. The reach of this mail system would span the population of the Achaemenid Empire, which had 50 million people at its peak.
Smoke signals were also a practical way to communicate over a vast distance. The use of smoke signals can be traced all the way back to 200 BC, when they were used as a threat warning system in beacon towers along the Great Wall. The potential reach of this form of communication would’ve been the population of the Han dynasty, 57.7 million. These messages could be transmitted as far away as 470 miles in just a few hours.
Printing revolutionized the written word. In 1454, Johannes Gutenberg printed the first major mass-produced book, a Latin-language Bible, using a movable type press in Mainz, Germany. Preparation began in 1450, with 180 finished copies available in 1454. The first printed newspaper, the Relation aller Fürnemmen und gedenckwürdigen Historien, was printed in 1605 by Johann Carolus in Strasbourg, Germany. In 1950, there were 1,772 daily papers printed in the United States. In 2000, there were 1,480 daily papers printed.
Electrical signals were utilized in communication in 1844 when Samuel Morse sent the very first telegraph message from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, Maryland, a distance of 35 miles. At its peak popularity, there were 236 million telegraph messages sent in 1945. Early electric telegraphs claimed to travel at 2,600 words per hour without the use of horses, roads or additional manpower.
Over time, mail services became more efficient and commonly used. The Pony Express, which ran in 1860, reduced the delivery times of mail, newspapers and small packages in the United States using mounted riders and relay stations. It could deliver a package in 10 days along its 1,900-mile length from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, utilizing 100 stations, 80 riders and 400 to 500 horses. Today the current reach of the postal service is equal to the 154.2 billion pieces of mail delivered in 2015.
Technology would also strive to transmit spoken word. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call in his Boston laboratory to an assistant in the next room. In 1877, the first long-distance telephone line was established, connecting callers located within a distance of 60 miles across Nevada County, California. The reach of landline usage peaked in developed nations in 2001 at 57 fixed lines per 100 people.
In 1900, Reginald Fessenden made the first audio radio transmission, “words without wires.” His broadcast range was 1 mile out of Rock Point, Maryland. In 1906, Fessenden made the first successful two-way trans-Atlantic broadcast, exchanging Morse code from Brant Rock all the way to Machrihanish, Scotland, some 2,979 miles away. On Christmas Eve of that same year, he made the first broadcast of an 11-minute program featuring “O Holy Night” and Bible verses. The range of this broadcast carried to ships along the northeast Atlantic coast and shore stations at Norfolk, Virginia.
Taking the work of Bell to the next level, Motorola employee Martin Cooper made the first cellular phone call from midtown Manhattan to the Bell Labs headquarters in New Jersey 22 miles away in 1973.
The Internet then revolutionized how we interact. The first email could be traced back to 1971 when Ray Tomlinson of Cambridge, Massachusetts, sent the first message over ARPANET from one computer to another located right next to it. Today’s email reach consists of approximately 205 billion emails sent per day between 2.5 billion users worldwide. Online chat first developed in 1961 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where The Compatible Time Sharing System allowed up to 30 users to log on at the same time. By 1965, the system saw its reach expand and link hundreds of users at MIT and New England colleges. America On Line launched its standalone chat program, AOL Instant Messenger, in 1997. By 2005, AIM dominated the instant messaging market with 53 million users.
In 1992, the first SMS (text) message, “Merry Christmas,” was sent from an engineer to a director at Vodafone over the GSM network in the UK. Today’s reach covers approximately 8.3 trillion text messages sent per year. That’s 23 billion per day and 16 million per minute.
In recent times, social media platforms and apps have become frontrunners in how we exchange information. In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg, a 19-year-old college sophomore, launched his own social network, “thefacebook.com,” at Harvard University. Facebook currently reaches 1.1 billion daily active users. Every 20 minutes, 3 million messages are sent. WhatsApp was created by former Yahoo employees Brian Acton and Jan Koum for the newly formed App Store in 2010. Today, WhatsApp has a reach of 1 billion users, with 34 billion messages sent per day. Snapchat, developed by Stanford students Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy in 2011, could share images and messages that would not stay imprinted in the Internet’s memory forever. This disappearing messaging app now has a reach of 100 million users and 10 billion views per day. Kik Messenger was created in 2009 by students at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. Kik preserves its users’ anonymity, allowing them to register without a telephone number and only list a chosen username. Kik is quickly becoming popular, especially among teens, and its reach has risen to 300 million users in 230 countries.
As you can see, messaging sure has come a long way. Between calls, emails, texts and social media apps, we are available any time of the day from nearly anywhere in the world. Think of all the people you could send smiley face emoticons to. What a time to be alive.
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