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Back to the Future: The Evolution of Business Communication
May 29th, 2017

Back to the Future: The Evolution of Business Communication

Virginia Fair

Communication has come a long way since the days of smoke signals and carrier pigeons. But do you know the entire evolution of business communication?

Archaeologists trace mankind back to 200,000 and 100,000 BC. And we take it womankind, too since we’re here to tell about it.  That would be our ancestral family, the homo sapiens (wise man). They disagree however as to how the family tree branched out. Most believe our direct ancestor was homo habilis (working man) who lived 2.5 million years ago. Dissenters argue it was

Dissenters argue it was homo ergaster (workman). They were the restless branch, the first to leave Africa 1.9 million years ago to settle in various places around the world. Whether they, the Neanderthals or the Aboriginals felt a need to communicate with those they left behind remains unknown.

And then someone smelled smoke.

Smoke signals    

The Chinese came up with the earliest form of visual communication, smoke signals. They used them to send messages along the Great Wall of China as far back as 200 BC. Known as industrious merchants, no doubt these clouds of smoke conveyed news concerning commerce. The erudite Greeks refined the technology in 150 BC. The scholar Polybius devised a system of smoke signals that represented the alphabet. It required that message senders use paired sets of torches.

Can’t you just hear them cry “Can you see me now?”

Carrier pigeons

The Egyptians were the first to use a third-party provider. Pigeons!

In 12th century AD, they used Sultan Nur-ed-din’s pigeons to carry messages to cities as far away as Baghdad, in what is now Iraq. Since Baghdad was one of the major centers of trade, the pigeons may have carried commercial documents.

Snail Mail

The Persian queen Atossa is credited with the first handwritten letter in 500 BC. That’s quite an evolution.  Carefully folded sheets of paper, sealed in wax gave way to today’s hastily stamped- and-dropped-in-a-mailbox receipts and invoices!

The United States Postal Service delivers the mail today in its red white and blue trucks. But in a more colorful era, it depended on stage coach drivers and the Pony Express.

The telegraph

The first communication tool to use electric signals, the telegraph relayed messages through the wires from location to location. When they reached their destination, telegraphers translated the message into words. They used Morse code is named for Samuel Morse who invented the telegraph and sent the first message in 1844. Messengers delivered the decoded messages to businesses in letters known as telegrams.

The telephone

It was one not-so-small step for Alexander Graham Bell but one huge stride for communication when he invented the telephone in 1876. Remarkably, the technology has remained fundamentally the same in today’s traditional copper line phones. We speak into the receiver.  our voices are translated into electric signals and transmitted through copper wires. At the receiving end, the signals revert to soundwaves and the recipient hears our voices.

Starting in the 1950s, those who could afford it could make direct long distance calls. However direct is debatable. It required operators in multiple cities steering the call to the right party and recording its passage for billing.

The fax

Although the fax machine, as we know it, did not come into being until the 1960s, Scottish inventor Alexander Bain came up with a forerunner in 1846. He called it an electric printing telegraph and used it to reproduce graphic signs in a laboratory setting. The modern fax machine reached its peak in the period spanning the 1980s to early 2000s. Scanning documents for sending through the phone lines, it changed the way we do business.

And then came the internet.

Computers, email, and the internet

All three have come a long way in a relatively short time.

  • Computers once weighed a much as a compact car.
  • To access the early dial-up internet you needed a modem. Unless you had a dedicated line, anyone trying to reach you got a busy signal. Downloading a document to your computer took forever as you sat there watching that infernal spinning wheel. required a modem and sitting forever watching a spinning wheel on the screen.
  • During its infancy, only subscribers to the same service could email each other. Today, the average person receives more than 150 messages a day.

Fast forward to today when thanks to VoIP technology we enjoy flexible work options. We can choose to work one or two days from home.  Pair it with wireless technology, and we can conduct business from the coffee shop or kitchen on our cell phones.

Unified Communication technology allows us to engage in video conferences from just about everywhere, whether on cell phones or in the office. We use collaboration tools to share and edit files, whiteboard and chat with offsite and onsite coworkers as well as vendors and customers.

We’ve progressed from smoke puffs in the clouds to cloud-based computing and storage. And technology isn’t finished with us yet.


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