English 110, Section 5
December 1, 1999
A Shrinking World
The world today has changed greatly from the way it was in the past. Communication, for example, was often slow since people themselves were often the messengers. However, in the last fifty to seventy years, the time needed to send a message to another person has virtually become zero, due to great advancements in communication technology. This near-instantaneous communication will enable people to carry out most tasks from their own home, including work and shopping. Advancements in communication have allowed the world we live in to become a smaller place.
Communication in the past was often a slow and sometimes dangerous process. People, of course, were the primary bearers of this information and used such methods as ships, canals, and horseback to aid them in delivering their messages (Neal 116). Before those innovations, however, people themselves carried messages on foot. Harry Edward Neal, in his book Communication – From Stone Age to Space Age, states that as early as 3800 BC, King Sargon of Babylon used human runners in one of the first-ever postal systems to deliver messages inscribed on clay tablets. This system tended to be problematic, however, since the tablets were heavy and the runners were vulnerable to robbers. If robbed, the message would have to be re-sent, increasing the time to send the message even more. Later, messages began to be sent via horseback. In the 5th century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote of messengers on horseback who carried messages inscribed on bronze tablets. This, of course, helped to reduce the time needed to send the messages. The Romans figured this out as well, after introducing a "public post" system around 100 AD. It was first intended for private, government usage, and utilized human runners as message carriers. In 300 AD, the Roman emperor Diocletian made the service public, and began using horseback messengers (121-122).
The usage of horses in the early postal systems helped to decrease the time needed to send messages. Some problems did exist, though. For example, as Neal also states in his book, all of the early postal systems until 1464 ran at irregular intervals, somewhat like an on-demand courier service. In 1464, King Louis XI of France began the first-ever postal service that ran at regular intervals. However, it was only for government usage. The first public, regular-interval postal service was implemented by Queen Elizabeth of England, which used horseback riders as messengers. Riders rode at seven miles per hour in the summer, and five miles per hour in the winter. This service, used considerably by the English citizens, lasted for more than 200 years. Closer to home, mail service began in the United States in Massachusetts in 1693 (123). Later, due to the California gold rush, a transcontinental courier service was needed as well. Advancements such as clipper ships, canals, and stagecoaches all helped to speed mail service to the West (Neal 125). Neal also tells in his book how on April 3, 1860 the famed Pony Express began service. This service used fast-riding horseback messengers to speed messages across the western United States. The time to send a message was shortened even more by the Pony Express – it was cut almost in half. The first parcel sent by the Pony Express took ten and a half days, whereas the fastest took place in seven days, 17 hours (126). Later yet, mail service was sped up by the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10th, 1869 (Neal 129). The first air mail route came a number of years later, in 1918, helping to decrease the time to send a parcel or message to mere hours (Neal 129). Message transfer time had indeed decreased, helping to decrease distance. The mail still took some time to reach its destination, though, and can still take hours to weeks today. For many years, the postal service was the quickest way to send a message to someone.
Communication in the 1800s was lacking, and the people of the United States knew it. The country was growing and swiftly becoming a world power. Communication was slow in the United States, but even slower when communicating with countries overseas. Something better was needed.
Samuel Morse began designing and building the telegraph in 1835 (Neal 138). It was completed, and given a successful public demonstration, in January 1838 (Neal 139). Despite repeated attempts, the government was disinterested in Morse’s invention, so in 1845 Morse made a public stock offer in his company (Neal 141). After the stock offering, telegraph networks began to rapidly spread across the country (Neal 141). A few years later, in 1861, Western Union completed the first transcontinental telegraph line (Neal 142). This, of course, resulted in a network across the United States that helped to make message transfers much quicker. With the completion of the transcontinental telegraph line in 1861, the glorious Pony Express was run out of business (Neal 142). Overseas communication was also made easier, when on July 13, 1866, Cyrus W. Field finally succeeded in laying a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable from Newfoundland to Valentia Bay, Ireland (Neal 149). However, the telegraph was generally not something that people kept inside of their own homes. A few years later, the telephone became a very popular wired communication device – one that the average person could have in his or her home. Alexander Graham Bell, for some time, had been interested in trying to send the sound of speech over electric telegraph wires (Neal 151). He succeeded in doing this on March 10, 1876 (Neal 152). Bell gave a quite successful public demonstration of his telephone at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in June of 1876 (Neal 153).
The telegraph enabled trans-Atlantic communication at a fast rate, but voice transmission over long distances was something to be desired. The first trans-Atlantic telephone cable was not laid into place until 1956, and could only handle 89 conversations at once for all of North America and Europe (Cairncross 5). In the meantime, experiments with wireless communication began to take place. In 1890 Guglielmo Marconi began to experiment with radio (Neal 153). As Marconi himself reflected later,
"From my youth, I would almost say my boyhood, the experimental discovery of electrical waves made by Hertz had fascinated my mind, and soon I had the idea . . . that these waves . . . might furnish mankind with a new and powerful means of communication. It could be used not only across continents and seas but also on board ships" (Neal 154).
Marconi eventually succeeded in making the first trans-Atlantic radio broadcast on December 12th 1901 (Neal 155). Marconi’s discovery and implementation of radio did indeed help to decrease distance – for example, in 1915, speech was first broadcast between New York City and San Francisco, and between Arlington, Virginia and Paris, France (Neal 159).
Television came into play soon after. In 1923, Vladimir Zworykin created the cathode ray tube, the essential part of the television that displays the images (Neal 160). The first experimental television broadcast took place in 1927, between Washington, D.C., and New York City (Neal 160). By 1937 there were 17 experimental television stations in the United States, and in 1939, the first American president to be on television, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was seen opening the New York World’s Fair (Neal 160). Distance was indeed beginning to decrease.
At the present, communication technologies have advanced greatly. Frances Cairncross, in her book The Death of Distance, shows that in contrast to the trans-Atlantic phone service of the 1950s, today’s trans-Atlantic cables are fiber-optic. One such cable, laid in 1988, can handle some 40,000 conversations at one time. Future cables, however, are slated to carry more than three million conversations on just a few strands of hair-thin glass fiber (5). The usage of television has increased as well. Just after World War Two, approximately eight thousand homes had television sets – in 1996, over 840 million had them (Cairncross 7). These televisions of today also receive timely data – as recently as the 1970s, over half of television news was a day old or more, whereas due to the launch of communications satellites, television news is generally broadcast the same day the event happens (Cairncross 8). Mobile communications have also had an impact. Cellular phones tend to merge the principles of radio and telephony, so one can call another from many miles away. For example, Cairncross tells of one instance in 1996, in which a stranded mountain climber on Mt. Everest was able to call his wife in Hong Kong, over 2000 miles away, with his cellular phone. He was able to have his wife arrange for his rescue. These phones became popular in the 1980s, and in 1996, over 47% of new phone service subscriptions were for cellular phones (7). Perhaps the most innovative and revolutionary development in communication, however, has been the Internet.
The Internet has been around for longer than most people think. Its roots began as the ARPAnet – the network of the Defense Department of the United States (Cairncross 10). TCP/IP, the method of sending data between the computers, was also an integral development during this time (Cairncross 11). Essentially, since ARPAnet was designed to withstand a nuclear attack, it meant that the usage of TCP/IP would allow the network to function even if one or two main computers were lost (Cairncross 93). Eventually the network began to move more towards peaceful purposes, with universities using it to exchange information and computing resources (Cairncross 92). From the 1980s to the 1990s, Internet usage doubled (Cairncross 11). The major advancement in the Internet came from the development of the World Wide Web. In 1989, Tim Bernes-Lee helped to develop the World Wide Web at CERN’s European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Switzerland (Cairncross 96). Marc Andreessen’s Mosaic World Wide Web-browsing program also helped to popularize the Internet, by making the Internet a more visual experience, with the use of pictures, sounds, and words (Cairncross 11). It did this quite well – over 40% of homes in the United States now have computers in them, and in 1997, an estimated 57 million people used the Internet, with another 13 million using it solely for e-mail purposes (Cairncross 2). These people regularly tap into a system in which there is no regulatory control, allowing information to flow freely (Cairncross 94). The Internet is also fast – one can send messages to another in mere seconds, even when that person is on the other side of the globe. In 1997, an estimated 200 million electronic mail messages were being sent in one day via the Internet (Cairncross 104).
Already the Internet is fast becoming a global community. People from around the world can communicate and exchange information in near real-time, as though in a face-to-face meeting. Distance is effectively reduced to zero – what once could take months to reach someone, can now be there in the click of a mouse button. The Internet in the future will grow even faster and even larger, allowing for common tasks to be done right from home, without ever having to leave.
One usage of the Internet that will come into play more in later years will be "e-commerce". Essentially, e-commerce is the act of making business transactions across the Internet. Already this is becoming popular, with such web sites as eBay and eToys. Even retailers who operate physical stores have jumped onto the e-commerce bandwagon. Companies such as Wal-Mart and Tesco, a London-based grocery chain, allow people to purchase their products on-line (Cairncross 129). Future businesses may focus on Internet retailing more than they are currently since it does not require costly buildings in high-traffic and high-visibility areas to be successful (Hughes). Also, with so many users, entrepreneurs will likely take grasp of the world market that the Internet provides. Internet entrepreneurs do not need a business license or permission from a parent company – they simply need startup capital and a respective market (Cairncross 102). Many new companies of the future will conduct business on the Internet for those reasons. Though retail business via the Internet will grow, inter-business commerce will gain even more ground (Cairncross 127). Currently, a single company, General Electric, electronically trades more with its suppliers than all of the Internet retailers’ trades combined – over $1 billion a year (Cairncross 127, 149).
The Internet will also allow for people to go to work without ever leaving home. Telecommuting is a growing practice, and will continue to grow. As Cairncross claims in her book, employees will be able to be located miles apart, and still work together seamlessly. The engineering business, for one, has already experimented in this. In 1996, the software company Division utilized the Internet to link five designers together, in three differing locations, to design a Formula One race car. Frito-Lay also equips salesmen with handheld computers that allow them to send back sales data to their district managers. Thus, due to this usage of technology, Frito-Lay only needs thirty district managers to manage a sales team of over 10,000 employees (148-149). Companies will save money by implementing practices such as these in the future. Also, since employees who telecommute to work will not need permanent office space assigned to them, businesses can save money by using smaller central offices (Hughes).
These changes in communication have made a noticeable impact on the nation, world, and myself. First and foremost, the United States and the world are simply smaller due to the speed of communication at the present time. No longer does one have to wait weeks or months to learn of an event that took place overseas. With communication satellites and television, these events can be watched live, as they happen, right in your own home. Major events, such as the fall of communism in Russia, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the death of Princess Diana of Wales would have never received the timely coverage that they did without innovations in the past communication methods. Had these events happened years before, it is quite possible to say that people in the United States would have learned of the events weeks later than they happened, as opposed to mere hours. The Internet, with its huge volume of users, has made an impact on society as well. Four years ago one never would have seen advertisements on television for a web site, however, it can be common at the present time to see them. AltaVista.com, Snap.com, Salon.com, and Lycos.com all have ran television ads in the past year. Also, traditional companies today are seen as being behind technologically and economically if they do not have their own Internet presence. In 1997, when I began to work at Montgomery Ward in Bismarck, North Dakota, the company had no public web site. Towards the end of my employment there, in 1999, a public web site was developed for the company. It allowed information directed toward the customer to be disbursed efficiently and at low cost. Prospective customers can access this information at no charge, without waiting for printed materials to arrive to their households. The effect on my family and I is strong as well. I use the Internet daily, not only for schoolwork, but to communicate in real-time with friends in Bismarck, North Dakota, and Eureka, California. I also use the Internet to keep in touch with my family back home with the use of Internet chat programs and e-mail.
Distance has indeed shortened. Gone are the days of the horseback messenger and the weeklong waits for news from far-away lands. Our world is fast becoming a sea of information, propagated in cyberspace. The people of the world will come together in this virtual land, and share their knowledge and information with the rest of mankind. Distance will be a thing of the past.
Cairncross, Frances. The Death of Distance. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1997.
Hughes, James C. The Communication Revolution and Older Metropolitan Areas in the
United States. 19 April 1996. 5 November 1999. <http://www.sru.edu/depts
Neal, Harry Edward. Communication – From Stone Age to Space Age. New York: Julian
Messner, Inc., 1960.