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A Short History of Media

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

What were those ancient people trying to tell us?

What were those ancient people trying to tell us?

Where Did Media Begin?

Forty thousand years ago, some human ancestors painted on the walls of a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (see above). They left stencils of their hands and other markings.

Cave paintings in France and Spain have been dated to a couple of thousand years later. Experts don’t know exactly what purpose the artwork had, but some suggest they might be the first examples of communicating through a medium. The “audience” for such paintings was very small.

Wider Audience

The so-called “mass media” had to wait for the creation of new technologies before coming to life. The first of these was paper, invented in China in about 100 BCE. However, another 1,500 years had to pass before Johannes Gutenberg built the first printing press. This meant that books could be mass-produced whereas before each one had to be handwritten.

Medieval book publishing

Medieval book publishing

By early in the 17th century, the first newspapers appeared but, because few people were literate, readership was limited. As more people learned to read and write the reach of mass media grew. By the early 1800s, high circulation newspapers such as The Times of London were developing huge readerships. High-speed rotary printing presses churned out large volumes and the development of railways made for wide distribution.

The arrival of photography changed the media scene. In 1862, Matthew Brady held an exhibition of photographs he had taken of the U.S. Civil War. Shocked Americans stood and stared at Brady’s images of the dead at the Battle of Antietam. The New York Times noted that Brady brought “home to us the terrible reality of war.” (A similar impact was observed when Americans saw films of the war in Vietnam being beamed into their living-room televisions).

By late in the 19th century, new technology allowed newspapers to print photographs.

In 1895, the Lumière brothers gave the first public demonstration of moving pictures in Paris. Some members of the audience were frightened.

Instant Telegraphic Contact

Samuel Morse invented his code in 1835. A series of dots and dashes could be sent down a telegraph wire and received at the other end. Messages could be sent over long distances at almost instantaneous speed. Until then, the fastest speed at which information could travel was about 55 km/h via railways.

(Telegraph messages were still in use in the 21st century; the last one was sent in India in July 2013.)

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Now, instant two-way voice communication was possible.

In December 1901, the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi raised a radio antenna attached to a kite on Signal Hill, St. John’s, Newfoundland. He received a radio signal from Cornwall, England, 3,400 km away. Instant communication without wires or cables was now possible.

Five years later, the Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden transmitted speech across the Atlantic.

Guglielmo Marconi

Guglielmo Marconi

The First Radio Stations

On November 2, 1920, radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania went on the air to report the results of that year’s presidential election. Eight years later, pictures were added to sound. W3XK was located in a Washington suburb and it broadcast television, mostly to hobbyists, for four years.

New York radio station WRNY Magazine in November 1928 carried an article on how to build your own television receiver

New York radio station WRNY Magazine in November 1928 carried an article on how to build your own television receiver

However, the widespread installation of television sets in people’s homes did not happen until the late 1940s. The technology of television kept improving over the years.

Timeline of Television Technology

  • 1948: First cable delivery system
  • 1952: Canada got its first TV service
  • 1953: First color broadcast but nobody had a color receiver
  • 1962: First satellite broadcast
  • 1965: Colour technology improvements encourage widespread use
  • 1976: Beta home video recorders introduced
  • 1983: High-definition television demonstrated
  • 1998: First digital broadcasts
  • 2005: Flat screens
  • 2010: Three-dimensional television
  • 2017: Organic Light Emitting Diode TVs as thin as credit cards
Family gathered around the television

Family gathered around the television

The Internet

The most recent media jolt came in 1965, but hardly anybody knew about it. Two computers communicated with each other in a lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The technology broke a message down into individual packages which were then reassembled at the receiving computer.

With many refinements, this became The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). This was adopted as a communication system by the U.S. military in 1969. It allowed packages of information to be routed across networks using different paths. The idea was (and still is) that if one line of communication is knocked out by hostile action the system will switch to an undamaged route.

In 1974, ARPANET was adapted for use commercially. LiveScience reports that in 1976 Queen Elizabeth II hit the “send button” on her first e-mail. Then, in 1990, along came Tim Berners-Lee and his development of Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML), a technology that allows people to navigate the internet. The following year, the World Wide Web went into action, and, by 1993, there were 600 websites and two million computers connected to the internet.

In 1998, the Google search engine was born and the way people use the internet was changed forever. In 2004, Facebook went online and the whole social networking phenomenon began.

As of January 2020, there were more than 1.7 billion websites with about 140,000 new ones created daily. SmartInsights gives us a glimpse of what happens every 60 seconds on the internet:

  • 500 hours of YouTube videos are uploaded;
  • 149,513 emails are sent;
  • 3.3 million Facebook posts are made;
  • 3.8 million Google searches are started; and
  • 448,800 Tweets are sent on Twitter.

The internet has become a mammoth information delivery system. It seems inevitable that sometime in the future a different technology will come along and make the internet obsolete.

Bonus Factoids

  • Charles Francis Jenkins aired the first television commercial in the late 1920s. The U.S. government fined him for doing so. Today, the average person in North America sees 20,000 television commercials a year.
  • According to the BBC’s Quite Interesting program, “Only 35 percent of the average person’s Twitter followers are actual people.”
  • In 1981, there were 1,730 daily newspapers published in the United States. The Editor & Publisher Magazine database of newspapers publishing daily weekday editions in October 2017 listed 1,173.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 Rupert Taylor


Nancy on July 14, 2020:

Amazing and very relevant information. Good job. Thanks very much

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on February 22, 2020:


The reason there is "no mention of scriptural text or translations" is that this is an article about the media and not an article about religion.

Dhirt on February 22, 2020:

This is a great article. I wonder why there was no mention of scriptural text or translations? The Bible is has been and still is the largest selling book of all time.

simon on February 12, 2020:

absolutely worth, all the answers to my course work here

soban on September 07, 2019:

very useful poora chaapliya project tha karun..... on July 07, 2019:

This article is veru much important for me.Thank you very much(SABUZ FROM BANGLADESH)

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on April 10, 2019:

Seema - If I knew what "principles and management in media industry post liberalisation" meant I would give it a go.

Seema on April 10, 2019:

Please update on principles and management in media industry post liberalisation

Ku.Reenu on March 30, 2019:

Really helpful

Billy Phrotop on January 22, 2019:

Good job mate loved to teach my class this stuff!

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on October 16, 2017:

I love reading your article, it was so interesting reading about the history of media. I particularly enjoyed watching the Lumière Brothers video. How interesting!