Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The History of Talking - Communications Museum

There certainly were quite a few museums along that stretch of road on the southern bank of the Mainz, and it was always going to be a bit of a toss up as to which ones we would end up visiting. As I suggested previously I was somewhat glad that the World Cultures Museum was closed because, well, the more I thought about it the more I realised that I wasn't particularly interested in seeing a museum focused on world cultures - I personally prefer to experience them first hand as opposed to in a museum, though I have written a post on Australian Aboriginals since there was a room dedicated to them at the Museum of South Australia.

So, after visiting the Film Museum, we still had a little bit of time left over so we decided to go and check out the Museum of Communications. Mind you, I didn't actually ask if we were allowed to take photos inside (as I generally do), though nobody came and told me off so I must admit that that did turn out to be a good thing. However, there were some interesting parts of the museums, which included a display containing messages in bottles, an exhibition on the history of advertising, and the main section of the museum itself which explored communication from the time we would send letters to each other (and before) up to the modern age of the internet.

The advertising exhibit deserves a post of its own, but I probably should say something on the messages in the bottles before moving on to the museum proper, however I must post the photo of the sheep sculptures in the entrance because, honestly, they're cool.

Message in a Bottle

All of the sudden I have this song going through my head by the Police, that is the band as opposed to the law enforcement agency, a link to which you will find here (isn't it great that you can now find pretty much any and every video clip on Youtube). Anyway, enough of the Police because this is a post on communication as opposed to the classic rock of my youth (not that I was actually a huge fan of The Police, though I did quite like Sting in Dune). Anyway, the museum has a technical section, an art section, and a section for temporary exhibitions. The advertising exhibition appeared to be the temporary section, while the art section were the messages in bottles. In fact it seems as if any and every sort of bottle (and message) was represented.

The thing is that as a form of communication the message in a bottle is incredibly unreliable and unpredictable. Sure, the bottle floats, but the currents and waves tend to have this unpredictable nature which means that the message could land up anywhere and everywhere, and the bigger the island you are stranded on, the more likely that your bottle will simply be pushed back to land. Sure, currents do tend be quite predictable, but the problem with messages and bottles is getting them far enough out into the ocean that the currents will take hold. Then, once they are happily drifting about the place, then comes the problem of the bottle actually getting somewhere important, and if and when it does, the person who discovers it being able to work out where it actually came from.

So, the message in the bottle is pretty impractical, though I do remember playing around with them when I was much younger (and even tried throwing them off jetties). There is still something quite romantic about them though. Sure, they float, and the contents tend to remain dry, but they seem to relate more to the story of the person stranded on the island looking for anyway of letting the outside know that they are there. However, they aren't entirely caught up in the realm of fiction, since the Ancient Greek Theophrastus used them in his experiments to prove that the Atlantic was connected to the Mediterranean. Further, there have actually been some messages in bottles found in real life.

The Written Word

Writing goes back centuries, and can even be considered to have been around the time when the cavemen painted pictures on the walls of their caves. The thing is that while it might be suggested that this isn't writing in the traditional sense, it is an early form of writing and these pictures eventually developed into pictograms, which slowly turned into the alphabet that we know of today. For instance, it has been suggested that the modern A was originally the head of an ox. One thing to note is that our modern alphabet had its routes in the Middle East, where is came from Phonecia to Greece where it morphed into the Greek Alphabet, and then over to Rome where it became the Latin Alphabet that we know today.


The interesting thing about pictograms is that while they may have first represented the objects that were drawn, they eventually came to represent sounds - this is what the role of an alphabet: to capture sounds that are made by the speaker and place symbols representing those sounds on paper - an alphabet is effectively just a series of sounds that when placed in a certain order become words, which in turn represent objects, actions, and ideas. What I found interesting is that when I am learning a new language the first thing we always do is learn the alphabet, and the sounds that the letters make - which is why I have come to realise that French isn't actually as hard as I thought it was.

So, we now have the written word, but what was it used for? Well, the earliest examples that we have are actually commercial documents such as contracts and stock lists. It wasn't until sometime later that people began to write stories and record their mythologies. In that sense the earliest of these we have are those of the Mesopotamians. The other aspects of writing was as a memorial to those who have died, in particular kings. In fact the Egyptians used writing as a form of propoganda, just like we use billboards today, to confront the people with the reality of the land.

As we moved into the modern world, and with the invention of the printing press, we see the ability to read expand across society, and the creation of newspapers, and of course books. However, the next step in our journey through the history of communication comes with the letter.

Le Poste

Okay, since this is a German Museum, the exhibition involves the Budespost (or the German Postal service), but the use of letters being sent about the place goes back a lot earlier than the modern era. For instance, we have a series of letters written by Plato, as well as Cicero, and of course the Apostle Paul. The thing with letters is that they were generally written to a specific person, or a group of people, though some of them seem to take the form of being a shorter form of literature. In fact, if we look at the letters that have come down to us from the ancient time they aren't the type of letters that are written to specific people, but rather they contain some discussion of philosophy and theology (though Cicero's letters do tend to be quite personal in nature).

However there is always the issue of getting the letter from the sender to the receiver. That isn't an issue in a small town like Athens because you just go and hand it to the person, but then again if you where to do that you might as well just deliver the message verbally. However, if it were over long distances then you would need to send somebody to deliver them, and in the Roman times it was usually by slaves. Mind you, when Paul sent his letters he tended not to use slaves, but he did need personal messengers.

However, as literature grew among the middle classes, so did the need for a specialised postal service. No doubt the original postal services were private, and you would always have to pay a fee for the service (which is where the concept of the stamp came from - it was proof that the fee for delivery had been paid). However, as the state expanded, so did the need for a centralised postal service. Thus, this is why we see government run postal services across Europe, and even in places like the United States. Mind you, the traditional postal services are beginning to struggle with the rise of delivery services, and while the need to write letters has begun to die, the need to send parcels has become much more prevalent.

By the way, here is an excellent video on how the post office made America.

Along the Wire

The modern telegraph, a system of sending messages along a wire using electrical pulses, was invented by the Russian Baron Pavel Schilling in 1832. In a sense this was the beginning of the end of the humble letter because now messages could be sent vast distances at the speed of light. In fact, the modern fax machine was invented around this time which enabled letters to be sent much, much faster than by normal post. The other thing was that prior to that messages were sent using the Optical Semaphore System, which while being sent in code, did have the chance of being deciphered.

Interestingly the telegraph was still used well into the twentieth century despite the invention of the telephone, but one of the reasons for this was that it the receiver didn't need to be present when the message was sent. However, the idea was that the sender would go to a telegraph station in one city, send the message to a telegraph station in another city, and the message would then go by 'snail mail' to the receiver, which was when the telegraph arrived at the receiver's door. This also was similar to the way Morse Code worked.

Bell's Invention

Where the telegraph would sent messages along a wire, the telephone sent sounds. The thing with the early telephone was that they could only be sent where there were wires connected, though in later stages wireless techology allowed people in remote areas to be reached through the use of satellite systems. Sure, these days pretty much everybody has a mobile phone, and in fact many of us have our own pocket computers that we not only carry around with us, but also incessantly stare into.

One of the things about the museum was that it was very interactive, and this included the telephones. They actually had on old switchboard set up where if you wanted to make a call you would contact the board, give the person the details of who you wanted to contact, and they would connect the two lines. Of course, the further the distance, the more connections that needed to be made. They also had a more modern, mechanical, switchboard, and some telephones - you would call one of the phones, watch the switchboard do its stuff, and then the other phone would ring.

Telephones have come a huge way since the days of Alexander Graham Bell, and the manual switchboard - everything is controlled by computers, and you also have the ability to have conference calls. These days you even have a concept known as Voice Over IP, which is where your phone is connected to the computer, and is actually its own computer (as one person said, you could even hack into the phone and play space invaders on it). You even have what are called 'soft phones', which is a computer program that makes and receives phone calls (in fact your smart phone has soft phones programmed into it).

Das Radio

I was initially going to write about the radio before I touched on the telephone, but the thing is that the telephone was invented prior to the radio, namely because the radio works on a wireless system while the early telephones, and telegraphs, needed wires to be able to transmit their information. The radio appeared in late 1894, and was invented by Marconi (and was called the Marconiscope). The idea had its basis in the ideas of the electromagnetic spectrum, and being able to send sounds along these waves (initially called Hertz waves, after the person who discovered them, but are know known as radio waves).

The thing with radio was that it allowed communication across a broader field and without the need for wires. Further, you not only had radios that only received and interpreted signals, but also two way radios where you could communicate both ways. I remember as a kid that we would have little two way radios that we played with as toys, and the electronics that actually go into creating a standard radio is actually pretty simple - in fact it was so simple that I was able to build one from the electronics kits that I would get as a kid.

Radio was also one of the first forms of mass entertainment, and the rise of the radio also coincided with the rise of the rock (or pop) star. Suddenly artists had the ability to reach many, many more people than previously, and news could also be transmitted much quicker. I still remember as a kid listening to the radio, both the news and the pop songs. The question that I raise though is whether radio stations still exist, because I would have thought that they would have been killed by the mobile phone. Sure, they still have their fans, but I suspect that the younger generation have drifted away towards music on demand.

Video Killed the Radio Star

I remember that one hit wonder as a kid, but what the song is about is how the rise of the television was the beginning of the end of the radio station. Sure, television has been around for decades, since before the 1940s, though wasn't being produced on a commercial scale until the 1950s. I remember my geography teacher telling me that as a kid he went on board an American warship that had docked in Adelaide and on board where televisions, but they only had static as there was no transmission available. However, the rise of the television is generally seen as the end of the golden age of Hollywood, and also the beginning of the end of the cinema.

What is interesting is that cable television appeared after broadcast television, though one of the reasons for that was because wireless transmission was already available that they worked on that principle as opposed to developing cable. However, cable came about due to necessity, namely because not everybody was in a position to be able to access the broadcasts. I remember when I was young we were spending the school holidays out in the middle of the bush, about 110 km away from the nearest town. The farm had a huge aerial which the university students had built to hopefully pick up the broadcast, but the thing was that it didn't. I still remember standing at the farm, looking at the tower, and wondering why they had built it in the gully as opposed to putting it on the hill and running a cable down.

However, one of the main reasons that radio did last much longer was because radio had one advantage - it was portable. It meant that people could carry it on their person and listen to it, where as there was no way you could do that to a television. Okay, down the track we did eventually have portable televisions, but it seemed as if they never really took off, probably because the battery power was too demanding. The thing that was always working against the radio, as well as television, is that they work on the principle of push - we watch, and listen to, what they want us to when they want us to. However, the digital age has resulted in pull technology, which means we watch and listen to what we want to when we want to.

The final section was the internet (and computers), but I have probably said enough already so I will wind it up here (and if you are interested you can go here for the post on the history of film, here for classic computers, and here for he rise of the internet).

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The History of Talking - Communications Museum by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me

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