As a society, we’ve come a long way from the grunts and hand gestures that used to define the upper limit of our species’ ability to communicate.
The evolution has been profound and sometimes laced with unintentional humor. Here’s a collection of “firsts” in communication history: from moments as significant as the first motion picture, to the first grainy-textured image posted to Instagram.
The first cave painting – circa 30,000 BC
The Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in the Ardèche department of southern France is a cave that contains some of the earliest known cave paintings, as well as other evidence of Upper Paleolithic life. It is located near the commune of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc on a limestone cliff above the former bed of the Ardèche River. Discovered on December 18, 1994, it is considered one of the most significant prehistoric art sites.
The cave was first explored by a group of three speleologists: Eliette Brunel-Deschamps, Christian Hillaire, and Jean-Marie Chauvet, for whom it was named. In addition to the paintings and other human evidence, they also discovered fossilized remains, prints, and markings from a variety of animals, some of which are now extinct. Further study by French archaeologist Jean Clottes has revealed much about the site, though the dating has been a matter of some dispute.
The first book printed in English – circa 1475
Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye or Recueil des Histoires de Troye, is a French courtly romance written by Raoul Lefevre, chaplain to Philip III, Duke of Burgundy. Translated by William Caxton, and printed by him probably with Colard Mansion in 1473 or 1474 (traditionally “ca. 1475″) at Bruges. The work is now known mainly as the first book printed in the English language. Source
Here’s the full text.
The first photograph ever taken – circa 1826
Long before the first public announcements of photographic processes in 1839, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a scientifically-minded gentleman living on his country estate near Chalon-sur-Saône, France, began experimenting with photography. Fascinated with the craze for the newly-invented art of lithography which swept over France in 1813, he began his initial experiments by 1816. Unable to draw well, Niépce first placed engravings, made transparent, onto engraving stones or glass plates coated with a light-sensitive varnish of his own composition. These experiments, together with his application of the then-popular optical instrument, the camera obscura, would eventually lead him to the invention of the new medium.
The first phone call – 1876
Alexander Graham Bell makes the first telephone call in his Boston laboratory, summoning his assistant from the next room.
The Scottish-born Bell had a lifelong interest in the nature of sound. He was born into a family of speech instructors, and his mother and his wife both had hearing impairments. While ostensibly working in 1875 on a device to send multiple telegraph signals over the same wire by using harmonics, he heard a twang.
That led him to investigate whether his electrical apparatus could be used to transmit the sound of a human voice. Bell’s journal, now at the Library of Congress, contains the following entry for March 10, 1876:
I then shouted into M [the mouthpiece] the following sentence: “Mr. Watson, come here — I want to see you.” To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said.
I asked him to repeat the words. He answered, “You said ‘Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you.’” We then changed places and I listened at S [the speaker] while Mr. Watson read a few passages from a book into the mouthpiece M. It was certainly the case that articulate sounds proceeded from S. The effect was loud but indistinct and muffled.
Watson’s journal, however, says the famous quote was: “Mr. Watson come here I want you.”
The first recorded film – 1888
Roundhay Garden Scene is an 1888 short film directed by inventor Louis Le Prince. It was recorded at 12 frames per second, runs for 2.11 seconds and is the oldest surviving film.
Watch this, and then watch Avatar. One hundred years can make an incredible difference.
The first AM radio broadcast – 1906
The first claimed audio transmission that could be termed to be from a broadcast station occurred on Christmas Eve in 1906, and was made by Reginald Fessenden.
The invention of amplitude-modulated (AM) radio, so that more than one station can send signals (as opposed to spark-gap radio, where one transmitter covers the entire bandwidth of the spectrum) is attributed to Reginald Fessenden and Lee de Forest. On Christmas Eve 1906, Reginald Fessenden used an Alexanderson alternator and rotary spark-gap transmitter to make the first radio audio broadcast, from Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Ships at sea heard a broadcast that included Fessenden playing O Holy Night on the violin and reading a passage from the Bible. Learn more
[Note: Photo is an antique radio set (the Grebe CR-9 radio), but not the "first" radio set. I'm not sure I can find a photo of that.]
The first email sent -1971
Like many technological innovations, email has its roots in military technology. In the late 1960s, MIT graduate Ray Tomlinson was working at research and development firm Bolt, Beranek and Newman. His work included contributing to technologies related to the ARPANET, the military communications network that was the earliest form of the Internet. This included a file transfer program for mainframe computers.
With this file transfer experience, Tomlinson was assigned to modify a program called SNDMSG, which allowed messages to be sent between different users of the same computer – this was in the days when computers were incredibly expensive, and the idea of one person having a computer to themselves was impractical. His task was to allow messages to be sent between two different computers, and in October 1971 he cracked it.
Tomlinson doesn’t remember what that first email actually said – perhaps ‘QWERTY’ or another string of characters, but whatever it was, it traveled a distance of one meter between two separate computers. One small step for a message, one giant leap for mankind. Source
The first text message – 1992
“Merry Christmas” may not be the most original greeting in the world, Neil Papworth admits today, but as he was about to send the world’s first text message to a cellphone, it struck him as fittingly festive, certainly more so than “Mr. Watson, come here,” the first words spoken over the telephone. Source
The first photograph posted to the web – 1992
The first photographic image ever uploaded to the Web was a Photoshop disaster. It was created to sell something, and featured attractive women in a come-hither pose.
In short, photo-uploading was born with some original sins that have never quite washed away.
The first video uploaded to YouTube – 2005
By the time you’re done reading this sentence, thousands more videos will be uploaded to YouTube.
The first Tweet – 2006
just setting up my twttr
— Jack Dorsey (@jack) March 21, 2006
Jack Dorsey set up his “twttr” in 2006. Millions (and counting) would follow. (And if you’re interested, here’s a tech-heavy read describing the origin of the @mention that Twitter has popularized.)
The first photo shared on Instagram – 2010
Before the $1 billion sale to Facebook, before the 575 likes per second, before the 30 million registered users…there was this Instagram photo of a foot and a dog.
The shot was featured in a blog post on Monday by Instagram HQ, celebrating two years to the day of the first photo uploaded to the photo-sharing network’s precursor, Codename. Fast forward a couple years, and feet and dogs have become Instagram mainstays along with cats, brunch and bridges. Source
From humble beginnings come great things. These moments helped to empower people to document the first version of history.