The Wire

How bandwidth rebuilt the world

Text by Sohrab Golsorkhi

Pre-literate era
North American Indians used smoke signals to spread news across large distances, the signaller would add damp grass to a fire to create a column of smoke. Each tribe had its own code to preserve the secrecy of their messages. In ancient China too smoke signals were used to spread news of an imminent attack along the Great Wall from watchtower to watchtower. In a matter of hours they could transmit a message as far as 750km. Since at least 1878 smoke signals have been used to communicate the success or failure of the Vatican's Papal elections in Rome.

59 BC: In print
Daily handwritten news sheets (acta) were posted in the Roman Forum from 59 BC to at least 222 AD. Government produced news sheets were also frequently circulated among officials in China between 202 BC and 221 AD.

1450-1600: Movable type
By 1450 Johannes Gutenberg's first movable printing press is established in Mainz. Recent research by Jeremiah Dittmar, published by the Quarterly Journal of Economics, suggests the printing press accounted for between 20 and 80 per cent of growth in cities that adopted the printing press in the first 50 years leading to 1500. Notably the printing press fostered skills and knowledge important in commerce.

1600s: Foreign affairs
The first newspapers started to appear across Europe. As a centre for world trade, Amsterdam housed newspapers in a number of languages, including the first known English language newspaper published in 1620.

1792: Long distance
Semaphore networks were first demonstrated in 1792 by Claude Chappe in France and remained in operation until 1852. Though the networks required operators every 30km and could only accommodate approximately 2 words a minute, they were widely imitated across Europe and USA and were predominantly used by governments. Aside from the relaying of commodity price information, semaphore networks were generally too expensive for wider commercial use. The last commercial semaphore network was used in Sweden until 1880.

1814: Hot off the press
The Times of London acquired a printing press capable of making 1100 impressions per minute. Soon, it was adapted to print on both sides of a page simultaneously.

1833: News on a wire
In 1833, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Wilhelm Weber built and first used the electromagnetic telegraph for basic communication. In 1843, Scottish inventor Alexander Bain invented a device that could transmit images by electrical wires. In 1837 a telegraph was independently developed and patented in the United States by Samuel Morse and his assistant Alfred Vail. Together they developed the Morse code signalling alphabet that's still in use today. Over the course of the following two decades the Morse/Vail telegraph was quickly deployed and by October 24 1861 it connected the West Coast to the East Coast, bringing an end to the Pony Express.

1835: A view from the top
Agence Havas [now Agence France-Presse] was the worlds first news agency founded in 1835 by a Parisian translator and advertising agent, Charles-Louis Havas. Two of his employees, Paul Reuter and Bernhard Wolff, later set up rival news agencies in London and Berlin respectively.

1860s: Divide and conquer
The first commercially successful transatlantic telegraph cable was introduced on July 18 1866. It reduced the cost of sending messages by a factor of 30 when compared to the semaphore network. Havas' sons, who ran Agence Havas from 1852, signed agreements with Reuter and Wolff, which gave each agency an exclusive reporting zone in different parts of Europe. Cheaper and easier to distribute than ever before, the news had become a freely tradable abstract commodity.

1893: Radio is born
Nikola Tesla made the first public demonstration of a modern wireless system in 1893 and applied for two key radio patents in 1897 - the same year that Guglielmo Marconi conducted a series of demonstrations with a radio system for communications over long distances. Though many inventors did valuable research in the field of wireless telegraphy, it was Marconi who demonstrated radio's potential in commercial, military and marine communications and in 1909 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for "contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy," together with Karl Ferdinand Braun.

1899: Report for duty
To satisfy the increasing demand for news, the first journalism programme was introduced at Washington and Lee University, Virginia. The École Supérieure de Journalisme, founded in Paris in 1899, and the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri, founded in 1908, were the first schools solely dedicated to journalism.

1919: Live broadcasting
Dutch engineer Hanso Schotanus à Steringa Idzerda made the first regular wireless broadcast for entertainment from his home in the Hague on November 6 1919. Other countries soon followed.

1930s -1950s: Primetime
The first television station started broadcasting from the General Electric factory in NY and is today known as WNBC. As new technology was being tested by the engineers, the image of a Felix the Cat doll, rotating on a turntable, was broadcast for 2 hours every day for several years. In 1936 the Olympic Games in Berlin were broadcast to television stations in Berlin and Leipzig and the BBC first started transmitting from Alexandra Palace in London. Although the television was introduced to the wider public in the USA during the 1939 World's Fair, WWII staggered the television's development. By the 1950s television had taken the world by storm.

1957: Net-worth
The seed of the internet is planted when the US ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) is formed to research information technology in response to the Soviet's Sputnik 1 launch.

1993-1994: A growing interest
CERN announces WWW technology is free for anyone to use in 1993. In 1994 the internet steps up. Netscape is released, the World Wide Web Consortium is formed, FEDEX starts it's online tracking service, MySQL is released for data organization and storage, and even the White House goes online.

2003: To infinity and beyond
According to Google, in 2003, a total of five exabytes (that is 5x1018 bytes) of data existed. Now we generate that every two days.

2011: Power to the people
More than 500 million Facebook users share 30 billion pieces of content (including photo albums, web links, news stories, blog posts and notes) each month. An average of 177 million tweets are sent each day, up from 50 million per day in 2010. Only 19 per cent of Twitter users have at least 10 followers and 20 per cent have tweeted 10 or more times. The vast majority of Twitter users are passive consumers.

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