World Futures Institute: Communication And Information Part 2

Los Alamos World Futures Institute

In Part One of this series we ended with Guillermo Marconi and his 1896 patent of what we call the radio. This was 41 years after the telegraph. The timeline is more complicated because in 1976 Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone which allowed voice communication.

On the same day that he filed in February, Elisha Gray filed for a similar patent, but Bell filed earlier in the day. Obviously, the telephone caught on. In 1892, Bell opened the telephone line connecting Chicago and New York. People could orally communicate over long distances by using human code called voice language and carry on a conversation.

One can argue that two-way communication began with language and the ability of people to talk with one another, write and exchange “documents,” and so forth. But the telegraph, telephone, and radio increased the speed and distance of communication. It is important to note, however, that some communication was two-way, some was one-way, and the size of the message was affected by the mechanics of the medium.

Then in the January 1910 issue, Scientific American published “The Rignoux-Fourier System of Television.” In 1909, Rignoux and Fourier had transmitted live images. In 1911, images were transmitted to a cathode ray tube (CRT) in a receiver and in 1921, Edouard Belin sent the first image via radio waves. Then in 1928, WRGB became the first television station, located in Schenectady, N.Y.

But how many viewers were there for this new one-way communication? To get an intuitive feel for the number, in 1939, RCA TV put a TV set on the market for $600. The price dropped to $395 in 1940 or the equivalent of about $4,650 in 2020. And World War Two was on the horizon.

While television was emerging, so was the computer as we know it. While reference is often made to English mathematician Charles Babbage and his work in 1822, it did not result in a number crunching machine. In 1936, Alan Turing put forth the notion of a machine that could compute anything computable. And in 1943-1944, the first “super computer” ENIAC, or Electronic, Numerical Integrator and Calculator, was built. The machine had 18,000 vacuum tubes. Imaging the time and effort to sort out and solder the connections and components. This suggests that it was essential for humans to communicate with the machine and give it orders or instructions. Enter machine language. ENIAC first started practical work on Dec.10, 1945.

As humans we communicate via sound, printed words, and some signals including pictures. With a computer, the language used is binary. In the morning you see someone you know and say “Good Morning,” a three syllable sound. Translated to binary format this becomes  01000111  01101111  01101111  01100100  01001101  01101111  01110010  01101110  01101001  01101110  01100111. Yet we must communicate with computers. Fortunately we have mechanical translators such as keyboards that we take for granted. “Wait a minute,” you say, “we can talk to the computer using the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII). “Good Morning” in ASCII is 117 111 111 100   077 111 114 110 105 110 103.

The ENIAC could store 20 ten digit numbers and sped up the calculation of artillery firing tables for the U.S. Army’s Ballistic Lab. But it also covered 1,800 square feet, weighed about 30 tons, and consumed 150 kilowatts of electricity. If another device had not been discovered (invented?) in December 1947, we might still be totally reliant on vacuum tubes. Obviously this device was the transistor. The words “discovered” and “invented” are used because patent documents suggest an October 1925 or a 1934 date. But John Bardeen, Walter Brattain, and William Shockley created the first working transistors at Bell Labs in 1947. Twelve years later, the metal-oxide-semiconductor field-effect transistor (MOSFET) was created at Bell Labs. The foundation was set for a revolution in communication.

In 1960, I left home to enter the U.S. Military Academy. While there, my uncle gave me a solar powered AM radio that also ran on a battery. Since I could not afford batteries, I had to hang it below a light bulb in order to hear WABC. Contact with family was by letter in the mail or long distance telephone. I had to make all of my calls from a payphone and collect. At the more local level we interacted with faculty, upper and under classmen, and classmates. Mail was slow but only four cents for a letter of less than one ounce. Obviously, local interaction was easier even if it was not always pleasant. But it was networking.

The term “networking” applies to many interactions but generally is lumped into social and mechanical. With the advance of technology, especially the transistor and the computer, a human desire was to improve networking – the sharing of information. Obviously, the transfer or sharing and exchanging of information was highly desired and perceived as a need. So in 1966, the Advanced Research Project Agency NETwork (ARPANET) was started.

Til next time…

The Los Alamos World Futures Institute website is at Feedback, volunteers and donations (501.c.3) are welcome. Email or Previously published columns can be found at or

LOS ALAMOS website support locally by OviNuppi Systems