Telecommunication is the transmission of information, over significant distances, for the purpose of communication. In earlier times, telecommunications involved the use of visual signals, such as beacons, smoke, semaphore telegraphs, signal flags, and optical heliographs, or audio messages via coded drumbeats, lung-blown horns, or sent by loud whistles, for example. In the modern age of electricity and electronics, telecommunications now also includes the use of electrical devices such as telegraphs, telephones, and teletypes, the use of radio and microwave communications, as well as fiber optics and their associated electronics, plus the use of the orbiting satellites and the Internet.
The first breakthrough into modern electrical telecommunications came with the push to fully develop the telegraph starting in the 1830s. The use of these electrical means of communications exploded into use on all of the continents of the world during the 19th century, and these also connected the continents via cables on the floors of the ocean. The use of the first three popular systems of electrical telecommunications, the telegraph, telephone and teletype, all required the use of conducting metal wires.
A revolution in wireless telecommunications began in the first decade of the 20th century, with Guglielmo Marconi winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909 for his pioneering developments in wireless radio communications. Other highly notable pioneering inventors and developers in the field of electrical and electronic telecommunications include Charles Wheatstone and Samuel Morse (telegraph), Alexander Graham Bell (telephone), Nikola Tesla, Edwin Armstrong, and Lee de Forest (radio), as well as John Logie Baird and Philo Farnsworth (television).
Telecommunications play an important role in the world economy and the worldwide telecommunication industry's revenue was estimated to be $3.85 trillion in 2008. The service revenue of the global telecommunications industry was estimated to be $1.7 trillion in 2008, and is expected to touch $2.7 trillion by 2013.
A replica of one of Chappe's semaphore towers in NalbachDuring the Middle Ages, chains of beacons were commonly used on hilltops as a means of relaying a signal. Beacon chains suffered the drawback that they could only pass a single bit of information, so the meaning of the message such as "the enemy has been sighted" had to be agreed upon in advance. One notable instance of their use was during the Spanish Armada, when a beacon chain relayed a signal from Plymouth to London that signaled the arrival of the Spanish warships.
In 1792, Claude Chappe, a French engineer, built the first fixed visual telegraphy system (or semaphore line) between Lille and Paris. However semaphore systems suffered from the need for skilled operators and the expensive towers at intervals of ten to thirty kilometers (six to twenty miles). As a result of competition from the electrical telegraph, the last commercial semaphore line was abandoned in 1880.
The telegraph and the telephone
The first commercial electrical telegraph was constructed by Sir Charles Wheatstone and Sir William Fothergill Cooke, and its use began on April 9, 1839. Both Wheatstone and Cooke viewed their device as "an improvement to the [already-existing, so-called] electromagnetic telegraph" not as a new device.
The businessman Samuel F.B. Morse and the physicist Joseph Henry of the United States developed their own, simpler version of the electrical telegraph, independently. Morse successfully demonstrated this system on September 2, 1837. Morse's most important technical contribution to this telegraph was the rather simple and highly efficient Morse Code, which was an important advance over complicated Wheatstone's telegraph system. The communications efficiency of the Morse Code anticipated that of the Huffman code in digital communications by over 100 years, but Morse had developed his code purely empirically, unlike Huffman, who gave a detailed theoretical explanation of how his method worked.
The first permanent transatlantic telegraph cable was successfully completed on 27 July 1866, allowing transatlantic electrical communication for the first time. An earlier transatlantic cable had operated for a few months in 1859, and among other things, it carried messages of greeting back and forth between President James Buchanan of the United States and Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom.
However, that transatlantic cable failed soon, and the project to lay a replacement line was delayed for five years by the American Civil War. Also, these transatlantic cables would have been completely incapable of carrying telephone calls even had the telephone already been invented. The first transatlantic telephone cable (which incorporated hundreds of electronic amplifiers) was not operational until 1956.
The conventional telephone now in use worldwide was first patented by Alexander Graham Bell in March 1876. That first patent by Bell was the master patent of the telephone, from which all other patents for electric telephone devices and features flowed. Credit for the invention of the electric telephone has been frequently disputed, and new controversies over the issue have arisen from time-to-time. As with other great inventions such as radio, television, the light bulb, and the digital computer, there were several inventors who did pioneering experimental work on voice transmission over a wire, and then they improved on each other's ideas. However, the key innovators were Alexander Graham Bell and Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who created the first telephone company, the Bell Telephone Company of the United States, which later evolved into American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T).
The first commercial telephone services were set up in 1878 and 1879 on both sides of the Atlantic in the cities of New Haven, Connecticut, and London, England.
Radio and television
In 1832, James Lindsay gave a classroom demonstration of wireless telegraphy via conductive water to his students. By 1854, he was able to demonstrate a transmission across the Firth of Tay from Dundee, Scotland, to Woodhaven, a distance of about two miles (3 km), again using water as the transmission medium. In December 1901, Guglielmo Marconi established wireless communication between St. John's, Newfoundland and Poldhu, Cornwall (England), earning him the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1909, one which he shared with Karl Braun. However small-scale radio communication had already been demonstrated in 1893 by Nikola Tesla in a presentation before the National Electric Light Association.
On March 25, 1925, John Logie Baird of England was able to demonstrate the transmission of moving pictures at the Selfridge's department store in London, England. Baird's system relied upon the fast-rotating Nipkow disk, and thus it became known as the mechanical television. It formed the basis of experimental broadcasts done by the British Broadcasting Corporation beginning September 30, 1929. However, for most of the 20th century, television systems were designed around the cathode ray tube, invented by Karl Braun. The first version of such an electronic television to show promise was produced by Philo Farnsworth of the United States, and it was demonstrated to his family in Idaho on September 7, 1927.
Computer networks and the Internet
On 11 September 1940, George Stibitz was able to transmit problems using teletype to his Complex Number Calculator in New York and receive the computed results back at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. This configuration of a centralized computer or mainframe computer with remote "dumb terminals" remained popular throughout the 1950s and into the 60's. However, it was not until the 1960s that researchers started to investigate packet switching — a technology that allows chunks of data to be sent between different computers without first passing through a centralized mainframe. A four-node network emerged on December 5, 1969. This network soon became the ARPANET, which by 1981 would consist of 213 nodes.
ARPANET's development centred around the Request for Comment process and on 7 April 1969, RFC 1 was published. This process is important because ARPANET would eventually merge with other networks to form the Internet, and many of the communication protocols that the Internet relies upon today were specified through the Request for Comment process. In September 1981, RFC 791 introduced the Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) and RFC 793 introduced the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) — thus creating the TCP/IP protocol that much of the Internet relies upon today.
However, not all important developments were made through the Request for Comment process. Two popular link protocols for local area networks (LANs) also appeared in the 1970s. A patent for the token ring protocol was filed by Olof Soderblom on October 29, 1974, and a paper on the Ethernet protocol was published by Robert Metcalfe and David Boggs in the July 1976 issue of Communications of the ACM. The Ethernet protocol had been inspired by the ALOHAnet protocol which had been developed by electrical engineering researchers at the University of Hawaii.