A Short History of Media

Updated on December 23, 2017
Rupert Taylor profile image

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

Forty thousand years ago, some human ancestors painted on the walls of a cave on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi (below). 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.

What were those ancient people trying to tell us?
What were those ancient people trying to tell us? | Source

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. | Source

By early in the 17th century, the first newspapers appeared but, since 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.”

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 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 being 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. | Source

Over the Airwaves

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. | Source

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. There was:

  • First cable delivery system – 1948
  • Canada got its first TV service - 1952
  • First colour broadcast but nobody had a colour receiver – 1953
  • First satellite broadcast – 1962
  • Colour technology improvements encourage widespread use - 1965
  • Beta home video recorders introduced - 1976
  • High-definition television demonstrated - 1983
  • First digital broadcasts - 1998
  • Flat screens – 2005, and
  • Three-dimensional television – 2010.

Source

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 HyperText 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.

There are now more than one 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.

Source

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.

Sources

  • “Internet History Timeline: ARPANET to the World Wide Web.” Kim Ann Zimmermann & Jesse Emspak, Live Science, June 27, 2017.
  • “Media History Timeline.” Prof. Jim McPherson, Whitworth College, 2002
  • “What Happens Online in 60 Seconds?” Robert Allen, Smart Insights, February 2, 2017.

Questions & Answers

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      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        9 months ago from Norfolk, England

        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!

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