From Whale Sounds To Communicating With Outer Space

Exchanging information is essential for business communication, to navigate social life and even in nature. Telecommunications replaced the service of messengers – human and animal – with the mechanical telegraph in 1794, copper wires in 1837, electromagnetic waves in 1896, and optical fibre in 1973. Until recently, geographic proximity limited communication between people. However, due to continuous innovation in telecommunications, we are now living in the information age where distance is no longer an obstacle. This article delves into the fascinating history of telecommunications over the last three centuries and the different telecommunication techniques – from whale sounds to outer space communication!

Long before man had the need for long range communication, the animal kingdom was already using long-range, high amplitude calling for communication. Whales, for example, can communicate at frequencies of between 30 Hz to about 8 000 Hz (8 kHZ) with their low-frequency sounds being able to travel up to 10,000 miles. A few centuries later, before mobile phones and the Internet, telecommunication progressed in the 1800s with the invention of the telegraph and the telephone. Since then, telecommunications and advancements in this field have made great strides. For the last few decades, researchers have been listening patiently to the cosmos to find extra-terrestrial communication. From their hub at the SETI Institute in California, these researchers are searching for any signal or radio transmission, from outer space. Closer to home scientists are also recording the communication of certain whale species that produce low-frequency sounds that can travel up to 3 200 km or more underwater. These are just two of the unique ways in which communication research is taking place in the 21st century.
  1. Pre-1799s
At the end of the 18th century, optical telegraphy was first discovered. Robert Hooke (1635–1703) invented the first optical-mechanical signalling system with the help of telescopes and cut out symbols to convey information. However, before this discovery, ancient civilisations used smoke and fire signals to send information and messages. For example, when Agamemnon attacked Troy, he constructed a 500-km line of beacons in 1084 b.c. The beacon flares were ultimately used to signal the fall of Troy.
  1. 1800s
Modern telecommunications emerged in the 19th century with the discovery of electromagnetism which was based on the combined theories of Hans C. Orsted, Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell. This discovery inspired new methods to transmit information over long distances and soon progressed to the use of electromagnetic wave propagation in telecoms systems. During this period, innovation was driven by economic, political, and military needs. The 19th century is also known for the invention of the Internet.
  1. 1900s
  The 20th century dawned with a remarkable achievement in radiotelegraphy that scientists up to that point believed to be impossible – Morse code. It also saw the introduction of electronics and semiconductor physics. This led to rapid (at the time!) technical progress and the widespread distribution of mass telecommunications. Radio and television were introduced to audiences and gave them immediate access to news and information. This was a significant leap from receiving information by telegraph or train. The next step was space – the then Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, in 1957.
  1. 2000s
The 21st century, particularly in 2003, had a breakthrough in telecommunications with internet protocols making it possible for computers to transmit phone calls. This meant that already established computer networks could be used for long-distance communication and it need not cost anything. This is what we know today as VoIP. As we build upon these technologies, we also added 5G, big data and artificial intelligence in the last decade; all transforming the telecommunications landscape as we know it. In 1932, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) formally recognised the term ‘telecommunications’ and defined it as: ‘any telegraph or telephone communication of signs, signals, writings, images, and sound of any nature, by wire, radio, or other system or processes of electric or visual (semaphore) signalling.’ Today, telecommunications is no longer a novel concept and is intertwined in almost all aspects of our daily lives with ever-increasing intensity.