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From Smoke Signals to VoIP: Two Thousand Years of Telecom | SignalWire

From Smoke Signals to VoIP: Two Thousand Years of Telecom

The concept of video conferencing can be traced back to as early as 1870, when the idea of transmitting an image along with audio over a wire was born. It would take another 50 years before the first versions of this technology would be built, and another 50 after that to create products that would actually stick around the market. It’s pretty crazy to think about the earliest forms of teleconferencing existing 150 years ago, especially with how much transformation has happened for telecom in just the last decade or two. Teleconferencing is truly vital to the moment we currently live in to the average person, with so many of us working from home for the first time. With modern technology like computers, the internet, and smartphones really taking off within roughly the same time frame as teleconferencing, it’s pretty fun to look at what forms of communication came first, and what led to the tech that makes our lives so convenient today.

Humans have always had means to communicate through distance. Even 2000 years ago, the simplest methods would eventually lead to what we would formally define as telecom: smoke signals, drums, beacons, and horns. These were obviously very limited in their messaging, but eventually, more specific forms of communications would grow from them. The 15th century brought the spread of the printing press, which was obviously revolutionary for widespread communication. But the true revolution of what was to come was happening at sea: maritime flag semaphore was developed for ships to communicate with one another. A special code involving the positions of two flags was created, with each position of the flags representing a letter or number, later inspiring the technology that would form the beginnings of telecommunications – the telegraph and morse code.

By the 17th century the first experimental acoustic telephone was built. It was discovered then that sound could be transmitted over a wire attached to an earpiece or mouthpiece. Telegraphs were developed in the 18th century, inspired by the maritime semaphores and their flag codes. The first optical telegraphs were a system of pendulums set up in high towers to communicate visually. Messages could be passed from one tower to the next, making this the first telecommunications system to span across Europe. The electrical telegraph would come about 50 years later in the 19th century, and along with it, morse code. By sending electricity through a wire, specific messages could be sent by holding and releasing a button in certain intervals. In 1858, the telegraph went transatlantic, creating global telecom. For the first time, people could instantly communicate across the globe – though these first global systems weren’t very reliable, as they often went down entirely. The 1870s brought the first electric telephones, and when they arrived, so did that concept of transmitting an image along with audio over a wire.

The technology of the 20th century truly changed everything. The radio was developed, telephones became capable of long-distance contact across the US, and in the 1920s, images could be transmitted, creating the television. The first experimental videophones were introduced in the 1930s in the US and in Europe. In 1965, AT&T set up trial calls with this technology, at the time called picturephones. The phones were set up in booths with black and white video screens, where users on the receiving end had to remain still if they wanted to be seen on the video call. The booths were only in a few cities across the US, required reservations ahead of time to use, and a 3-minute call cost $27 (or $255 today).

The end of the millennium was crammed with new inventions, accelerating the capabilities of technology with each passing decade. When the first computer networks and mobile phones were developed in the 1970s, AT&T attempted to bring picturephones to peoples’ homes. This was extremely expensive for the consumer – about $950 for 30 minutes of call time, and this, too, ultimately flopped. $500 million was invested in this technology, and it was projected there would be 1 million users by 1980. The reality was about 500 subscribers – people just weren’t that into seeing each other while on the phone. But in the 1980’s, with the rise of the internet, mobile phone networks, instant messaging, and email, a commercial group video conferencing system was launched by Compression Labs. It was bulky and extremely expensive, but actually had some success in corporate use for international meetings.

The first webcams were invented in universities in the 1990’s. The first free video conferencing application was launched, and another in-home videophone was introduced by AT&T once again. Each of these technologies improved rapidly with every passing year, with more competitors releasing new videoconferencing systems, chat messengers, and mobile phones.

In the 2000s, all this technology continued to develop and improve, with video calling in HD becoming possible to the regular consumer, smartphones becoming widespread necessities, and the creation and growth of social networks. 2003 was a big year for the introduction of VoIP internet telephony, with phone calls now able to be transmitted over internet protocols. And now, in 2020, video conferencing technology is basically a household staple for everybody. But even with better technology than we’ve ever had available at our fingertips at every second of the day, and dozens of providers, no platform can deliver perfectly – video quality is usually what suffers in favor of maintaining audio quality. So as teleconferencing continues to evolve and improve over the next decade, the question is: who will do it best?