As we go through our day today, giving and receiving information through a device that fits nicely on our lap or even in the palm of one hand, we should spare a thought for our ancestors, who certainly did not have things so easy or time- efficient. And by ancestors we are not just talking about those who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Think about this. Only 25 years ago there were no smart phones, laptops or tablets. No texting or Skyping. No worldwide internet. And definitely no YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. Only 25 years ago.

The big question is, of course, this; how on earth did people communicate 25 years ago without all the technology we take for granted today, let alone those who came before them?

Human beings are social creatures and have always striven to find more effective ways to communicate with each other. While there is no doubt we are witnessing and part of an explosion in technology never seen before in the history of humanity, there have been many other important developments along the way to where we find ourselves now.


Our very first communication tool was, of course, the human voice. The development of speech about 100,000 years ago allowed us to pass information to each other both in our daily lives, and from generation to generation through storytelling.

As wonderful as this development was, it did have its limitations. The information could only be passed on to those immediately around, and even with the assistance of animals it could take weeks or even months to send and receive a message.

The accuracy of the information was often compromised, too, because of its “word-of-mouth” nature.


The use of symbols developed about 30,000 years ago among many ancient civilisations, including the Egyptians, Chinese, Native Americans and Aztecs, which helped information last longer and be more accurate.

Cave paintings are the oldest known symbols created for communication purposes, with the oldest and most famous found in the Chauvet Cave in France. Then from about 10,000BC came petroglyphs, or carvings into the rock’s surface, which depicted objects, situations or events. Around 9000BC came pictograms, which would tell stories about events, and then ideograms, which represented abstract concepts as well as real objects.


Five thousand years ago human communication took another important step forward with the development of pure writing systems, at the beginning of the Bronze Age in Sumer (modern-day Iraq), and then Egypt and China. The Sumerian writing system began with pressing a round-shaped stylus into soft clay, and developed later into pictographic writing with a sharp stylus on clay tablets.

The first pure alphabet emerged around 2000BC in Ancient Egypt and nearly all other alphabets around the world descended from this. People wrote on papyrus or parchment until the Chinese invented paper in 200BC.


The next important communication breakthrough was the invention of printing. The Chinese invented printing with blocks in the 6th century, which heralded the arrival of books, even if only on a very slow and limited basis.

It was not until Johannes Gutenburg invented the printing press in the mid-15th century that books became cheaper and more widely available, and newspapers then became a reality from 1641. However, in many places, including England, the town crier would still shout out royal proclamations, local by-laws and business advertisements, since most townspeople were unable to read and write.

With the pencil having been invented in 1565, and postal services set up by European monarchs around the same time, written communication also continued to flourish.


Communication became much more efficient and exciting in the 1800s with the invention of the telegraph in 1837. After a cable was laid across the English Channel to France in 1850, and then all the way across the Atlantic Ocean 16 years later, people were able to send information across far greater distances at greater speed than ever before.

And with the mid-19th century also seeing the invention of the fax machine in 1843, and then the telephone in 1876, the world became an even smaller, more accessible place. There were many inventions for written communication at this time, including the typewriter in 1874 and the fountain pen 10 years later.


Telecommunication, the transmission of signals over a distance, existed in more simple forms long before the invention of electrical communication in 1837.

It began thousands of years ago with the use of fires, smoke signals, drums and horns in places like Africa, America and parts of Asia. Messages were transmitted by horseback and pigeon post as far back as the 6th century BC, as well as by human runners. It is said that in 490BC a Greek man Pheidippides ran 240km in two days to announce the Greek victory over Persia.

Later came the use of other visual non-electrical methods, including the:

Semaphore telegraph — a series of towers with pivoting shutters.

Heliograph— a solar telegraph that signalled using flashes of sunlight reflected by a mirror.

Flag semaphore— encoded messages sent through hand-held flags, paddles or even bare hands, a system widely used in sea travel in the 19th century.

Signal lamp — flashing long and short coded signals from a lantern.


In 1902 when Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi sent his first transatlantic radio signal from Cornwall, England, to Newfoundland, Canada, he started off a process that would lead to commercial radio broadcasting in the 1920s. The idea of sound magically travelling through air from far away locations must have seemed nothing short of magical.

The invention of television by John Logie Baird in 1925, with its “moving pictures” as well as sound, must have seemed even more incredible. Television arrived in Australia in 1956, was in colour from 1967, and is to this day a major source of information and entertainment. The “plugged into the wall” telephone became common in most households from the 1960s, and the launch of the experimental satellite Echo around the same time began the age of the far-reaching possibilities of satellite communication.


The late 1900s saw the beginning of a technological explosion never seen before, and still happening now. There have been many “firsts” in that time; the first hand-held mobile phone call in 1973; the first commercial text in 1992, the introduction of smart phones in the mid-1990s, the explosion of developments in computers from slow, hulking, barely available beasts to the highly efficient, widely used laptops, tablets and other smart devices of today.

With the arrival of the global internet in 1994 came email, Google and other search engines, instant messaging, online chat, video calls, blogging and social networking. It’s hard to believe that a world with Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in it has only existed for 10 or so years.

Today’s digital media landscape can seem a bit overwhelming, especially for anyone over 20, as we talk, listen, read, write, text, email, tweet, FaceTime and Google through our days.

Fortunately, humans have proved continually that they have the capacity to seek out and adapt to communication advancements, no matter how fast they come.


It is amazing to see how communication methods have evolved. When early man was painting walls he could never have imagined his world evolving to today’s complexities in communication.

Technology is now expanding extremely rapidly. We can accomplish things in one year that would have taken centuries in the ancient world, and this can be frightening but thrilling.

In 10 or 20 years we may look back on this time as the dawn of an era when rapid innovation changed almost everything about the way we lived, and especially the way we communicate.


  • Indigenous Australians believe songlines or dreaming tracks are paths across the land that mark the route of “creator beings” during the Dreaming. The paths, recorded in songs, stories, dance and paintings, enabled Aboriginals to navigate huge distances through areas of people with different cultural traditions and language dialects.
  • In 1825 American Samuel Morse realised the importance of making communication faster after someone came to tell him his wife was ill. Sadly, she died before he could reach her. This inspired him to invent Morse code, a telegraph system allowing much faster communication over long distances.
  • Before 1973 mobile phones were only found in cars and other vehicles. When Motorola’s Martin Cooper made the first call from a hand-held mobile phone, the device he used weighed about 1kg and measured 25cm long, 13cm deep and 4.45cm wide. It could only be spoken on for 30 minutes and took 10 hours to recharge.
  • It is feared young people are losing the ability to communicate effectively face to face because they spend so much time connecting through electronic devices. Facial expressions, hand gestures, body language, eye contact and touch are very important ways to share information and feelings. So step away from that smart device occasionally and experience the joys of a longer, deeper interaction.


© The West Australian

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