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International communications includes communications between the inhabitants and between the governments of diﬀerent states. Such communications have increased in speed, reliability, and volume since the beginning of civilization, until they now constitute a ﬂood.
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1. Ancient And Medieval Communications
Messengers were the ﬁrst means of conveying information over long distances. Before the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, Phidippides, ‘by profession and practice a trained runner,’ ran to Sparta, 120 miles away, arriving ‘on the very next day.’
Inhabitants of cities and isolated communities had no choice but to rely on messengers and travelers, but kings needed more regular communications. To keep control of their far-ﬂung domains, the Persians established a permanent postal system with relays of horses along the Royal Road that stretched from Susa in western Iran to Ephesus on the Aegean Sea. The Romans created a similar network of imperial messengers and relay posts along their major roads, called cursus publicus. The Chinese, Inca, Mongol, and other empires established similar systems. These early imperial networks were reserved for oﬃcial messages; anyone else who had a message to send would have to ﬁnd a traveler going in the right direction, and hope for the best.
The Middle Ages saw the decline or disappearance of the governmental apparatus of classical times and the emergence of numerous unoﬃcial channels of communication, some of them well organized. The Benedictine monks of Cluny entrusted pilgrims with messages to other monasteries from Spain to Poland. The merchants of the Hanseatic League carried documents and messages along with merchandise. Butchers, who traveled from place to place buying and slaughtering livestock, carried messages for people. The most organized of these nongovernmental networks was the one centered on the University of Paris, whose students came from all over Europe and carried and sent messages between Paris and their homelands. Although they were supposed to serve only the university community, in fact they commonly carried messages for the public as well. These networks were slow and unreliable, however, for they did not operate on a schedule, nor did they use relays of horses or messengers.
2. Postal Communications
The ﬁrst postal system that established permanent relays and oﬀered its services to the general public was founded in 1489 by Franz von Taxis, postmaster to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. The Thurn and Taxis family provided a regular postal service throughout most of Europe until 1867. With up to 20,000 messengers and relays of horses on all the main routes, their postal service was reliable and, by the standards of the day, fairly swift: from Brussels to Paris in 44 hours, to Innsbruck in six days, and to Toledo in 12 days. Service, however, was very costly.
The Habsburgs may have trusted the Thurn and Taxis family, but the rising national monarchies of France and England did not, nor did they trust any other private or nongovernmental message service. The ﬁrst royal messenger service in France, established in 1464, was reserved for oﬃcial messages. Private individuals could bribe the royal couriers to carry messages surreptitiously. The royal postal service was opened to the public in the early seventeenth century. It set the rates for private letters very high, to subsidize the oﬃcial mail. Once the royal mail service was opened to the public, the government attempted to suppress private messengers, in order to protect its lucrative monopoly and permit easier surveillance of potentially subversive communications; the last nongovernmental service in France, that of the University of Paris, ended in 1719.
The evolution of the English postal system paralleled that of France. There had long been royal messengers, but the ﬁrst permanent service was founded in 1512. Royal messages to and from foreign countries, however, were still hand-delivered by special messengers. Meanwhile, merchants had their own networks, such as the Merchant Adventurers’ Post for English merchants engaged in foreign trade, and the Foreigners’ Post for foreign merchants in England. Queen Elizabeth, suspicious of Catholic plots, ordered all mail leaving or entering the country to be carried by the royal post. This decree, though often repeated by her successors, was never fully enforced.
In 1635, the royal postal service began to serve the public; two years later it included the foreign mails as well. As in France, ‘public service’ was a euphemism, for postal rates were kept extremely high as a source of income for the treasury and for the king’s favorites and oﬃcials had the right to open and read private letters. Surreptitious inspection of letters, especially those from abroad, was a common occurrence in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Most people who needed to correspond across borders preferred to send letters with a friend, a servant, a hired messenger, or a traveler. Surveillance abated in the mid-nineteenth century, as the increased volume of mail overloaded the postal bureaucracies.
The mid-nineteenth century saw a tremendous surge in the volume of mail, thanks to two innovations. One was the penny post with prepaid stamps, introduced in England by Rowland Hill in 1840 and soon imitated in other countries. The other was railroads and steamships, which made transportation cheap and fast. Letters from relatives or friends in foreign countries, a rarity until then, became a commonplace experience for middle-class families in the Western world.
Airplanes began transporting mail right after World War I. In parts of the world, such as Africa and South America, that had poor telegraph and rail connections, airmail represented a breakthrough comparable to the eﬀect of railways in Europe a century earlier. In places well served by traditional postal services, airmail competed with the cheapest kind of telegram, the ‘night letter.’ After World War II, airmail became the standard means of sending ﬁrst-class postage over long distances.
3. The Telegraph
Many scholars believe that modern telecommunications began with the electric telegraph. From a technical perspective, the advent of electricity was certainly revolutionary. From an information point of view, however, the revolution began half a century earlier with the optical telegraph, invented by Claude Chappe in France in 1794.
Throughout the French Revolution and after, every French government expanded the optical telegraph network and supported the family that ran it. Chappe and his brothers built lines east to Strasbourg, west to Brest, and north to Dunkirk and Brussels; under Napoleon, they extended the network south to Lyon and Marseilles. As Napoleon’s empire grew, lines radiated to Turin, Milan, and Venice, to Antwerp and Amsterdan, and to Mainz. After the defeat of Napoleon the French network was reduced to its domestic lines. Other European countries, as well as the USA, Egypt, and Australia, built individual lines linking their major cities to the nearest harbors. Some of these were government-owned lines reserved for oﬃcial or military traﬃc, while others served the merchant communities. In the few instances where two systems met at a border, any message going from one country to the other had to be decoded, translated, hand-carried across the gap, and encoded for further transmission. International telecommunication had to await the electric telegraph.
During the 1830s, several inventors came up with methods of transmitting information over long distances by electricity. The one that eventually displaced all others was invented by Samuel Morse. Morse’s contribution was not the use of electricity but a code which allowed the use of only one wire, with the earth serving as a return. The cost savings of Morse’s system made up for the need for trained operators.
During the next two decades, the nations of Europe and North America began installing electric telegraph lines. At ﬁrst, they used incompatible systems; messages had to be written out, translated, hand-carried across the border, then retransmitted. As traﬃc grew, governments strove to overcome this barrier to communication. In 1850, Austria and several German states signed the Austro-German Telegraph Union. Treaties between France and its neighbors followed. Finally in 1865, all European governments except the UK founded the International Telegraph Union, to be administered by the International Bureau of Telegraph Administrations, the ﬁrst permanent international organization. It encouraged national telegraph administrations to adopt compatible technical standards and to connect their lines across border. By the 1860s, it was possible to send telegrams across Europe and between the USA and Canada.
Meanwhile, engineers had solved the technical problems of communicating across the sea. The ﬁrst successful submarine cable crossed the Channel in 1851. Cables across oceans were a greater challenge, however. The ﬁrst Atlantic cable failed in 1858, as did the ﬁrst cable from Egypt to India two years later. After many trials and errors, cable technology ﬁnally caught up with the demand. The Atlantic cable of 1866 proved reliable. In the 1870s, British companies rushed to lay cables from the UK to India and from there to China and Australia. Cables reached South America and Africa in the 1880s. By World War I, cables crisscrossed all the oceans and connected every continent and every country.
Submarine cables were phenomenally expensive, however. Only the North Atlantic had enough traﬃc to justify several competing cables. In other parts of the world, the high cost of cables had to be amortized over small numbers of customers, and a few ﬁrms, most of them branches of the British conglomerate Eastern and Associated, dominated the market. The high cost of sending messages over long distances led business customers and news agencies to develop elaborate code books.
4. Wireless Telegraphy
Although the telegraph had ‘annihilated time and space’ (to use a favorite expression of nineteenthcentury boosters), it left many people dissatisﬁed, for both economic and political reasons. Economically, international telegrams were very expensive, and transoceanic ones exorbitantly so, placing them out of reach of all but the wealthiest clients and commercial enterprises. And politically, the fact that most ocean cables belonged to British ﬁrms, and that most intercontinental telegrams passed through British hands, made all other governments very uncomfortable, especially after 1900, when the UK proved that it was not averse to intercepting, delaying, and censoring foreign messages during a crisis like the Boer War (1900–2).
In 1895, Guglielmo Marconi demonstrated the possibility of transmitting information through the ether by electromagnetic radiation. He found immediate backing from the Royal Navy and from British shipping lines, which had long wanted to communicate with their ships at sea. France, Germany, and the USA also greeted the new technology with enthusiasm, for they had fallen far behind the UK in the cable business, and saw radio as a means of building international connections independent of the UK.
Until the late 1920s, wireless used longwaves (over 1 km, or less than 300 kHz), which required power in proportion to the distance to be covered; stations powerful enough to transmit across continents or oceans needed dozens of huge towers, miles of antennas, and alternators that used as much electricity as a small town. Within countries, wireless could not compete with the cheap and eﬃcient telegraph net- works. Across oceans it was competitive only under unusual circumstances. Before World War I, the four major powers built stations linking them to their colonies. During the war, when it was impossible to lay cables, the US expeditionary force built stations in France to supplement the overloaded transatlantic cables. After the war, to meet the booming demand for transatlantic communications, companies found it faster and cheaper to build gigantic transmitters than to lay costly cables.
Longwave wireless had two ﬂaws to which cables were immune: they were vulnerable to atmospheric static and to interception and cryptanalysis. The British, with their heavy investment in cables and their far-ﬂung colonies and bases, were concerned with keeping their cables viable. Thus, it came as a shock when Marconi, the man who had invented wireless, announced a new technology that threatened to make both longwave radio and submarine cables obsolete, namely shortwave radio (c. 13–120 m or 2.5–22 MHz).
Shortwave, though more vulnerable to atmospheric conditions and less reliable than longwave, had one enormous advantage: it was extraordinarily cheap; a transmitter cost a few hundred dollars instead of hundreds of thousands. Even small inexpensive transmitters could, at certain hours of the day, reach across oceans and around the globe.
The advent of shortwave coincided with the Depression. The collapse in international trade brought the British cable companies to the brink of bankruptcy, but they were rescued at the last moment by their government for strategic reasons. Although cables served a useful function in World War II for the transmission of top-secret information, they were overshadowed by the proliferation of shortwave transmitters throughout the world. Indeed, a war of movement over enormous theaters of war like the Russian plains or the western Paciﬁc would have been inconceivable without a multitude of radios. At the same time, the reliance of armed forces on radio meant that the outcome of battles depended on communications intelligence and cryptanalysis as much as it did on ships, tanks, and planes.
Broadcasting, the transmission of radio and later television programs to many receivers at once, played a tremendous role in the cultural history of every twentieth century nation. The ﬁrst experiments in transmitting voice and music over the airwaves took place before and shortly after World War I. However, broadcasting had little impact on international relations before the 1960s, for two reasons. One was that most broadcasting was in the medium wave range (150–600 m, or 500–2,000 kHz), which did not carry far; only border regions could receive foreign broadcasts. The other was that programs were in the language and culture of each country (or rather, of each country’s elite), with little appeal to foreigners.
International shortwave programs, such as those pioneered by the BBC in the early 1930s, were speciﬁcally designed to appeal to people in other countries. Soon, every major country had its shortwave station beaming news and propaganda to the world, often in many languages. No doubt such broadcasts appealed to the converted and reminded exiles of their homelands, but whether they persuaded more than a handful of foreigners is questionable.
Mention should be made of the interesting cultural phenomenon of ham radio operators who communicated around the world, not so much to convey information as to collect lists of other distant amateurs they had contacted, much as birdwatchers collect the names of birds they have spotted.
Television uses high-frequency waves that cannot bend with the curvature of the earth. Until the advent of satellites in the 1970s, transmitters could only reach local viewers. Satellite television, however, has opened up the world to broadcasts from foreign countries; all that is needed is a dish antenna. Countries with conservative theocratic or tyrannical regimes resent the intrusion of such foreign cultural phenomena as sex, violence, and free speech. However, prohibition is hard to enforce, and people around the world are much more interested in foreign television programs than they ever were in shortwave news broadcasts.
6. International Telephony
Telephony is a recent phenomenon. Though invented in the 1870s, it aﬀected few people before the early twentieth century in North America, the 1920s in western Europe, and the post-World War II period in other parts of the world; at the beginning of the twenty-ﬁrst century, there were fewer telephones in all of Africa than in Manhattan.
International telephony is an even more recent phenomenon. Due to the bandwidth requirements of the human voice, telephone messages could not use telegraph wires, but needed repeaters every few hundred miles. International calls were possible only between adjacent countries. Most telephone systems were government controlled, and calls to foreign countries had to go through an operator and were extremely costly. Calls overseas required two radio stations in each country, one to transmit and one to receive. Until the 1950s, such calls were considered newsworthy events rather than a medium of communication.
This situation began to change after the ﬁrst transatlantic telephone cable was laid in 1954, and especially after the advent of satellite transmission of telephone calls in the 1970s and ﬁbre-optic cables in the 1980s. As prices fell from dollars to pennies a minute, the number of international calls has multiplied exponentially, with no end in sight. Businesses and even many individuals now make calls to distant countries as readily as their parents once called across town.
As this is written, a new technology promises to change international telephony as dramatically as the ﬁrst telephone cables: low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites that can relay calls to and from portable telephones anywhere on earth, bypassing national networks. Although governments and national companies are likely to resent this intrusion on their monopolies, telecommunications technology is too invasive to stop. Eventually, the well-to-do will be connected around the world, regardless of governments and borders, while the rest of humankind looks on in wonder.
7. Data Communication And The Internet
The current revolution in communication is as radical as the telegraph’s ‘annihilation of time and space’ that so amazed our ancestors a century and a half ago. By turning text, voice, music, pictures, and video images into bits, electronic digitization allows the transmission of all forms of information with equal ease and speed. Two associated technologies, microwaves and ﬁber-optic cables, have reduced the cost of transmission almost to zero. The results are nothing short of phenomenal. The ﬁrst transatlantic telephone cable could carry a dozen or so telephone calls at once; the most recent ﬁber-optic cables across the Atlantic carry hundreds of thousands of simultaneous calls, or dozens of television channels, or any combination of data, voice, text, or images. Communication is not free because other costs remain, such as switching and distribution. But the price diﬀerences between local, long-distance, and international communications are shrinking fast.
The Internet began in the 1970s as a US military project to link the mainframe computers of research institutions. By the mid-1980s, when personal computers began to proliferate, engineers in Europe, North America, and Japan ﬁrst created simple networks to transmit data, then linked them together into a super-network called the Internet that could transmit any information to any connected computer. The demand for this new form of communication soared beyond anyone’s prediction, as the public logged onto a virtual world of chat rooms, bulletin boards, electronic mail, shopping, entertainment, advertisements, even music and video clips from around the world. And the cost is very low. For people who own a computer (even a primitive ‘Web-TV’ box) this amazing service costs a few dollars a month and the price of a local telephone call. All other costs (servers, cables, switches, software, and administration) are borne by governments or by advertisers. In the near future, the Internet promises to oﬀer television and telephone service, and to compete with newspapers, libraries, and even universities. And unlike the technologies that it replaces, the Internet is oblivious to borders and political jurisdictions. We can only speculate about the eﬀect on cultures and on the politics of nation-states.
What the public sees is only a fraction of the world of international digital data transmission. Computer networks, connected by ﬁber-optic cables, have revolutionized ﬁnance and commerce as well. Credit-card charges, engineering drawings, business contracts, stock market reports, late-breaking news, banking transactions, and myriad other data ﬂit across the globe at the speed of light. The amount of money—in the trillions of dollars—that circulates at any given moment dwarfs the economies of the largest countries. The new communications media oﬀer the potential for phenomenal economic growth and for disastrous crashes. Humans may still be bound by the laws of physics, but for information, space and time have truly been annihilated.
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