Genie Litchfield — Humankind has developed tools of mass communication for the sake of spreading the news. History and mass communications are intertwined and interdependent like the two strands of DNA.
People call it “the news” because it spreads detailed information about major human events among people in the north, east, west, and south. Since people began walking upright and emerged from their caves, they have recorded and spread the news about their achievements with the best available means of mass communication. Anthropologists claim, “History is made by the people who have the tools to write it down,” and some sociologists argue the pace of human history has accelerated in direct proportion to increases in the speed of mass communication. It took longer for Paul Revere to ride and spread the alarm through Lexington and Concord than it took to bring full-scale revolution to Tunisia via the Internet. Mass communications created the “global village”, and they preserve its history.
Two miraculous machines
Historians credit Gutenberg with the first revolution in mass communications. He and his printing press spread “the good news” in the Bible, and then entrepreneurs adapted the big press and moveable type for their own commercial purposes. Most of those same historians credit Steve Jobs with fomenting a revolution approximately equal to Gutenberg’s because Jobs and his Cupertino clan put the “personal” in personal computing and made their magic machines affordable for the masses.
The history of mass communications shows how people have shared words and pictures with people around town, around the nation, and around the world:
The age of print and engraving: The printing press enabled large-scale production of books and laid the foundations of the “knowledge-based economy.” Most historians agree the printing press sped dissemination of technical information and drove the industrial revolution. Most historians also agree that the printing press promoted “popular literacy” and public education which in turn laid the foundations of modern democracy. As the printing press evolved, printers combined engravings with moveable type to produce illustrated books and periodicals. Further advances enabled production of daily newspapers which dominated the mass media until “the golden age of radio” dawned in the late 1920s. Some pundits and prognosticators suggested radio would drive daily newspapers into extinction, but advances in photographic printing processes enabled print media to keep pace with the evolution of broadcast media.
Radio and television: Radio evolved from telegraphy, and television evolved from radio. Radio goes into the books as the first wireless technology. Guglielmo Marconi won a Nobel Prize for physics as he perfected and popularized the machinery for wireless telegraph transmissions. Then, during “the roaring ‘20s,” a few enterprising appliance manufacturers perfected the means of producing inexpensive radios, and they developed programming and networks to promote radio sales. Television added pictures to the wireless transmissions, but it did not render radio obsolete any more than radio drove newspapers the way of the dinosaurs.
Advanced telephony: Collaboration among radio, electronic, and ceramic engineers enabled Bell Labs to perfect technology for the touch-tone telephone, the first popular device to work primarily by a digital system. The same advanced micro-circuitry that drove telephone technology helped to shrink computers to workable proportions and enabled construction of the Mercury and Apollo space capsules and the space shuttles. Neither radio nor television reached their full potential until America was “fully electrified” in the early 1960s. Subsequent advances have largely depended on “universal” access to inexpensive electric power.
The digital age… marks the convergence of physics, mathematics and electrical engineering in tools designed for instant transmission of news and information around the world and, at least theoretically, out into the universe. Advances in binomial mathematics laid the foundation for computer coding which essentially establishes sequences for turning electrical impulses on and off; evolution of transistors and micro-circuits enabled machines to keep pace with the sequences, and subsequent advances in materials technology enabled machines simultaneously to process millions of electrical impulses without overheating or burning out.
All the tools still depend on print.
Tiny transistors replaced big radio and television tubes modeled after light bulbs, and transistors plugged into circuit boards printed on silicon. At first, gold and platinum circuits were, in fact, silkscreened onto glass and ceramic boards. Most of the circuitry in personal computers and handheld consumer electronics still is machine printed on sophisticated ceramic materials. However, laptop computers and other digital tools depend on one further advance in printing technology. In the late 1970s, several of the same engineers who pioneered the touch-tone telephone collaborated once again to perfect the process for printing gold and platinum micro-circuits on Mylar film enabling big keyboards for processing more binary signals.
One historian therefore quips, “No, Al Gore did not invent the Internet. Gutenberg did.”
About the Author
Genie Litchfield writes for several higher ed blogs. If you’re interested in communications you may want to check out universities that offer a master of mass communication.