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The communications time-line

African cave paintings

Beginnings... : walking upright

The first species of human to look like us was homo erectus - a member of a breed of people who not only walked upright but also knew how to make fire and cook food. They travelled over land bridges from Africa and began to populate the world about one million years ago.

It is from these first 'upright men' that we get our basic body language and the beginnings of speech. In the evening, after hunting, these people would gather round the campfire; talk, laugh and tell stories. But it would be another half million years or more before they started to draw or write.

The first human carvings date from around 45,000 BC - some Neanderthal man had made scratchings on a mammoth tooth, discovered in Hungary. The first drawings of animals date from around 30,000 BC and were found in Germany and France.

Chinese motto

Ancient civilisations : drawing and writing

It took around 30,000 years from the first known drawings or carvings before the appearance of the first organised civilisation. This was the Sumerian society in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), who were using tokens for accounts and book keeping around 5000 BC.

The Sumerians had the first known writing - using picture forms. At about the same time, on the other side of the world, the ancient Chinese were also starting to write.

Over the next three thousand years other civilisations sprang up - the Babylonians, the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Persians and the Greeks.

Greek soldier using his shield and the sun as a heliograph

Classical civilisations : earlier than you think...

By about 1000 BC the first civilisations had between them developed the first encyclopaedia (Syria), alphabets and libraries (Greece), also a postal service and newspapers (China).

The Greeks had also developed early forms of telegraph using drums, beacons, smoke and mirrors.

By 200 BC the first books were appearing, handwritten on parchment and vellum.

By 1 AD couriers were carrying mail across the Roman Empire. By the time the Western Empire fell, around 450 AD, the first printing presses were appearing in China.

Engraving of William Caxton, the English Printer c1480

Middle Ages : the dark ages

Between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, Europe fell into the dark ages. Most scientific progress was taking place in China and Japan, where paper, printing and books were being developed. By the year 1035 the Japanese were even recycling paper.

The first paper reached England early in the 14th century - and so did the Black Death, which killed half the population and set progress back by a century. It would be a further 100 or so years before the first printing presses arrived - first Gutenberg in Germany (1450s) and later Caxton in England (1476).


GPO poster: Early use of the magnet in China

Renaissance and beyond : learning to learn

Europe's late discovery of books and printing was the key needed to unlock the gates of thought and progress, as the Continent recovered from the Black Death.

Italy was the cradle of civilisation and progress, which spread throughout Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. By the middle 1600s, postal services and newspapers were starting to flourish and, by the end of the century, Isaac Newton had formulated his theories of mass, forces and gravity.

The real scientific explosion took place in the 18th century: photochemistry, lithography, metallurgy and many other sciences made huge progress in what became known as 'The Age of Reason'. This tidal wave of progress swept though the 19th century with the development of electricity and electromagnetism.

GPO advertisment promoting the telephone, 1935

The Modern Age : the white heat of technology

Most people trace the dawn of our modern age to the Industrial Revolution in England in the 1780s. At this time, the fastest any man had travelled was around 12 mph - the speed of a galloping horse.

Within 50 years Britain had become an industrial society, using steam power, machines, factories, surfaced roads, canals and railways, and with the majority of people living and working in cities.

By the 1870s a similar situation had spread across Europe and in the United States.

The century that had opened with mechanical semaphore as the last word in telecommunications would see the introduction of telegraphy, telephony, facsimile, wireless, cameras, recorded sound, the cinema, the cathode ray tube, and the electric tabulator - a predecessor of the computer.

And the relentless acceleration of progress continued right the way through the 20th century. By the year 2000 the fastest speed a man had travelled had been raised to 25,000 miles per hour - taking astronauts to the Moon.

fun and games

Can you beat our games? Explode equipment to see what's inside, hear the changing sounds of telecommunications, see how telecommunications designs have changed over time or send an e-postacard.

what's on

The UK's first permanent gallery dedicated to the history of information and communication technologies opens in the new Information Age gallery at London’s Science Museum.

audio history

Take a trip down memory lane with extracts of the interviews which have been recorded as part of the Connected Earth oral history programme.

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