The history of messaging

Smoke Signals

Smoke signals are a form of visual communication that can travel over long distances and are one of the oldest forms of long distance communication. Smoke signals were used to warn others of enemy attacks in Ancient China, as they were able to be seen from tower to tower along the Great Wall. Native Americans used this form of communication as well and each tribe had their own system. Usually the placement of the signal on a hill would indicate different meanings. Today, smoke signals are still used in Rome to signify when a new Pope has been selected.

Carrier Pigeon

Carrier or homing pigeons are birds that have been bred to find their way home over long distances. Historically, when an army was engaged in a battle, a short message could be written on a small piece of paper which was then inserted into a small metal canister and attached to the leg of a pigeon. The pigeon would be labeled for a certain location and once released with the message, would then return home. The infrastructure that supported this message system required regular deliveries of birds between cities, regular release of the birds so they did not imprint on a new location, and supply of pigeons to armies or other people with time-critical messages.

Message in a Bottle

In the 16th century it was common practice in the military to send information by dropping bottles into the sea. The English Navy for example used bottle messages to send ashore information about enemy positions. Some say that Queen Elizabeth I even created an official position of "Uncorker of Ocean Bottles", and if anyone else were to stumble upon a bottle and open it without permission, they would face the death penalty.


In 1837, two sets of inventors simultaneously developed an electrical telegraph: Wheatstone and Cooke in England, and Samuel Morse in the United States. With the help of an assistant, Morse developed a new signalling alphabet using dots and dashes that became the standard for telegram communication. By 1861, this Morse telegraph system connected the West Coast to the East and put the Pony Express out of business. As technology improved, the telegraph became an audio transponder, where messages were translated based on the interval between two clicks instead of the previously used register and tape.

Pony Express

The Pony Express was a mail delivery service that served communities throughout the Great Plains and across the Rockies in the early 1860’s. Using a series of relay stations, the Pony Express reduced time for messages to travel from coast to coast to just 10 days. It was a vital system for sending notes east to west prior to the birth of the telegraph. Most notably, it helped tie the new state of California to the rest of America.

Balloon Mail

Balloon mail refers to the transport of mail by an unmanned helium or hydrogen-filled balloon. Though the sender is typically unknown, it is an effective way for those within a closed off society to send information or propaganda materials to those on the outside. This method of balloon mail was used by private activists to distribute leaflets to Warsaw Pact countries from West Germany in the mid-1950s and by South Koreans to North Korea discussing the health of Kim Jong-il.


Alexander Graham Bell is commonly credited as the inventor of the telephone, though many individuals contributed to the devices we use today. The concept of the telephone dates back to the non-electric string telephone that has been known for centuries, comprising two diaphragms connected by a wire. Many experimented with this concept, but it was Bell who filed the patent in 1876 for an "apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically"

Fax Machines

Early prototypes of the fax machine have been around since the 1880’s, but they didn’t reach widespread commercial success until 1966, when Xerox introduced the Magnafax Telecopier. The device weighed 46 lbs and sent digital versions of documents through phone lines via a series of dial tones. The fax machine allowed people to send documents across the world in a matter of minutes, replacing courier mail services and telegrams.


Sometimes referred to as a “beeper,” pagers are electronic devices that signal a person with beeps or vibrations when contacted. They tend to be triggered by a phone call and are most often worn at the hip. The wearer will respond to a signal by looking at a small screen on the device for an important message, which is usually in numeric code. These devices were created in 1949, but their first practical uses didn’t come until a paging service was launched for physicians in New York the following year. Physicians paid $12 a month for the service and carried a 6 oz pager that would receive phone messages within 25 miles of a single transmitter tower.

Cell Phones

In 1973, Motorola produced the first cellphone (which weighed 4.4 lbs!) Today, we’ve come a long way from those clunky, oversized devices and people are able to communicate with phones that weigh less than 4 oz and easily slip into their pocket.

Instant Messaging

With the advent of the Internet came “Instant Messaging”, also known as “IM’ing”. ICQ was the first stand-alone instant messenger. The idea of a centralized service with individual user profiles paved the way for later instant messaging services. While many people today use programs like Jabber, Slack, and gchat to communicate via IM, AOL was a pioneer in its field when it launched popular IM tool “AIM” in 1997.


For the past decade, we’ve been using cell phones for much more than just talking. In fact, Americans spend approximately 6 minutes per day talking on the phone, but more than 26 minutes texting. Originally, we had to type out each and every letter according to the numerical keypad on our mobile devices. Then, with the advent of T9, texting speeds increased. Finally, Blackberry and Palm Pilot added the full QWERTY keyboard and we’ve never looked back. Android and iOS devices today offer touch screen keyboards with predictive text and autocorrect capabilities that make it easier than ever to communicate.