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From snail mail to instant messaging - how has the technology of communication advanced?

By Edited Mar 25, 2014 0 0
The old fashioned way
Credit: Image via crative commons at Flickr, from http://www.flickr.com/photos/dullhunk/

Communicating by one means or another online now takes up an average of 2.1 hours of the day of every worker, it is claimed. So that's more than a quarter of our working days which is estimated to be taken up by communicating with other people.

And yet, it's fair to say that this technology has enjoyed a remarkable rise, with email not having been widely available until the mid-1990s.

The advance of online communication methods could never have been foreseen when Rowland Hill introduced the world's first single-rate postage system in 1840, the Penny Post. Yet this opened the eyes of people all around the world to the thought that they could communicate with other people for an affordable sum, from wherever they happened to be.

Over the ensuing years, people started to take for granted the fact that they could send written communications to anyone else in the country – and eventually all around the world – for a small sum of money.

And for at least the next 125 years, most people would have had little idea that another fundamental shift in the ways in which we communicate could be on the way, meaning that written communication held sway for all this time.

The biggest clue we had to the change to come was in the advent of the facsimile (fax) machine, by which it became possible to send printed material via a telephone line. American company Western Union sent one of the first recorded fax messages in 1935, transmitting images of Mickey Mouse between two of its offices on opposite coasts of America.

But the electronic age wasn't truly ushered in until 1965, when students and tutors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology first devised the concept of sending written messages by an electronic means.

The concept of a uniform format by which messages could be sent electronically was first proposed in 1977, and it didn't take long for America's Universal Postal Service (UPS) to have the foresight to believe that eventually, sending messages by this means could usurp the old-fashioned written letter.

That uniform format came into being in 1982, in the form of Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), which laid down a means of transcribing emails into a code which could be read by any computer.

It's inevitable that Bill Gates will get a mention in any history of communications technology, and he played his part when his Microsoft organisation introduced the first commercial email-handling computer programme, Microsoft Mail, in 1988.

It was another four years until Microsoft introduced its Outlook email management programme, and the following year, 1993, saw AOL connect its own email service to the internet.

Free, web-based email marketing and communication services were the next major innovation, and it was in 1996 that it became widely acknowledged that everyone could have free access to their messages, when Hotmail was introduced. Its popularity really took off the following year, when it was acquired by Microsoft.

And the latest advance is the ability to send and receive emails between mobile devices, made possible by the advent and refinement of wireless technology.

Subsequent developments have largely involved refinements of these basic email programs. But with 1.3 billion people now believed to regularly send emails worldwide, and in the region of two billion messages being sent every day, it's clear that the simple concept of one person being able to send messages to and receive them from any number of others is one which has revolutionised communication in general, and is here to stay.

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