Communication begins with language, the distinctive ability which has made possible the evolution of human society. With language any message, no matter how complex, can be conveyed between people over a limited distance – within a room or place of assembly, or across a short open space. In modern times ‘town criers’ hold an annual contest to discover which of them can shout a comprehensible message over the greatest distance. The world record is less than 100 metres. Already, at that short range, a more practical alternative is to run with the message.
The history of communication is mankind’s search for ways to improve upon shouting.
When running with a message, to convey it in spoken form, it is safer to do it oneself. Sending anyone else is unreliable, as the game of Chinese whispers demonstrates. So another requirement for efficient communication is a system of writing.
Messages carved on stone pillars communicate very well across time, down through the centuries, but they are an inefficient method of communicating across space. The message reads only within reading range; its recipients must travel to receive it. The system is altogether more efficient if it is the message which travels. This requires yet another ingredient in the communication package – a portable writing material such as papyrus.
There are forms of long-distance communication not based on words. The smoke signals used by American Indians (above all perhaps in westerns) are of this kind. So are bonfires lit in succession on a line of hilltops. But such devices are only capable of conveying very limited pre-arranged signals, such as ‘danger’ or ‘victory’.
Some non-verbal systems are more sophisticated. The whistled language of Gomera, in the Canary islands, is used to communicate across deep valleys. It is well adapated to the islanders’ immediate needs, but would be incapable of sending this paragraph as an accurate message. For communication of this kind writing remains indispensable.
Post haste: 6th century BC
The sending of written messages is a standard feature of government in early civilizations. Much of our knowledge of those times derives from archives of such messages, discovered by archaeologists.
There is great advantage to a ruler who can send or receive a message quicker than his rivals. In the estimation of the ancient world the most efficient postal service is that of the Persians. Put in place by Cyrus in about 540 BC to control his new empire, the largest yet known, it is much improved upon by Darius a generation later.
Imperial communication: 522-486 BC
Darius extends the network of roads across the Persian empire, to enable both troops and information to move with startling speed. At the centre of the system is the royal road from Susa to Sardis, a distance of some 2000 miles (3200 km). At intervals of a day’s ride there are posting stations, where new men and fresh horses will be available at any moment to carry a document on through the next day’s journey. The Greek historian Herodotus marvels at these Persian couriers.
By this method a message can travel the full distance of the road in ten days, at a speed of about 200 miles a day. A similar road goes down through Syria to the Mediterranean coast and Egypt. Another goes east to India.
Many different tongues are spoken in the Persian empire, from Egypt to India. But all the official messages travelling on the imperial roads are in one language, Aramaic. This Semitic tongue, deriving from a tribe in northern Syria, first spreads through Assyria. Then Babylonian merchants carry it further afield until, by the 6th century, it is in general use as a Lingua franca throughout Mesopotamia.
As a language for the Persian civil service, Aramaic also has a practical advantage. It uses the Phoenician alphabet, a language to which it is related. So its letters can be written on papyrus (easily portable) instead of needing to be pressed with a cuneiform stylus into wet clay.
Speeding up the messenger: 2nd – 11th century AD
Until recent centuries, the only way to increase the speed of communication has been to improve the speed of the messenger. This depends on good roads, fast riders and well provisioned staging posts at which fresh men and horses are always available. The network of Roman roads makes communication steady and reliable, but it is unlikely that it is faster than the delivery system perfected by the Persians – on the terrain of steppe and plateau, across which horsemen can gallop with fine abandon.
However one major improvement in the speed of communication is recorded in the Middle East, where in certain circumstances a simpler messenger is substituted for the horse and rider.
Pigeon post: from the 11th century
Domesticated pigeons are first developed in ancient Egypt, and the pigeon loft or dovecote subsequently becomes a living larder for many communities – such as medieval monasteries. In Baghdad, in the 11th century, the idea first occurs of making use of the tendency of certain pigeons to fly straight home from wherever they may be.
A rapid one-way postal service (always back to base) becomes possible. By selective breeding of suitable birds, the homing pigeon is developed. The swiftest and most wide-ranging conqueror of medieval history, Genghis Khan, sees the obvious potential. Pigeons carry swift news of each new conquest to his homeland in Mongolia.
But the rapid and widespread dissemination of a message must await the development of printing.
Scholars in the east have had the benefit of printing for many centuries, enabling holy and learned texts to be more widely possessed. But the very late arrival of printing in the west proves to be of much greater significance. The development by Gutenberg in Germany of movable type happens to coincide with the Renaissance, a time of great vigour in European culture.
Gutenberg and western printing: AD 1439 – 1457
The name of Gutenberg first appears, in connection with printing, in a law case in Strasbourg in 1439. He is being sued by two of his business partners. Witnesses, asked about Gutenberg’s stock, describe a press and a supply of metal type. It sounds as though he is already capable of printing small items of text from movable type, and it seems likely that he must have done so in Strasbourg. But nothing from this period survives.
By the time he is next heard of in connection with printing, he is in Mainz. He borrows 800 guilders in 1450 from Johann Fust with his printing equipment as security. The resulting story of Gutenberg and Fust is a saga in itself.
No date appears in the Gutenberg Bible (known technically as the 42-line Bible), which was printed simultaneously on six presses during the mid-1450s. But at least one copy is known to have been completed, with its initial letters coloured red by hand, by 24 August 1456. The first dated book from these same presses, in 1457, is even more impressive. Known as the Mainz psalter, it achieves outstanding colour printing in its two-colour initial letters.
These first two publications from Germany’s presses are of an extraordinary standard, caused no doubt by the commercial need to compete with manuscripts. The new technology, so brilliantly launched, spreads rapidly.
The spread of printing: AD 1457-1500
An invention as useful as printing, in a Europe of increasing prosperity, readily finds new customers.
The first Italian press is founded in 1464, at the Benedictine town of Subiaco in the papal states. Switzerland has a press in the following year. Printing begins in Venice, Paris and Utrecht in 1470, in Spain and Hungary in 1473, in Bruges in 1474 (on a press owned by Caxton, who moves it to London in 1476), in Sweden in 1483. By the end of the century the craft is well established in every European kingdom except Russia.
From incunabula to mass communication: 1457 – 1525
In the first half-century of European printing the book rapidly displaces the the manuscript of earlier generations, providing equal elegance at less cost. Printed books of the 15th century are known as incunabula (Latin for the ‘cradle’ of printing). Though very rare now, incunabula were surprisingly numerous then; 1700 presses in some 300 towns are estimated to have produced about 15 million volumes by 1500.
Even in their own time these incunabula are special and expensive objects. But printing has another trick up its sleeve – in the long run one which is much more significant.
The profusion of presses in Europe by the early 16th century means that the machinery is in place for a different and entirely new form of production – the rapid printing of pamphlets, or even single sheets, which can be used in a war of propaganda.
This potential lies dormant until an unexpected opportunity arises. It comes through an intellectual controversy of unprecedented violence – the Reformation. After Luther’s challenge to the Roman Catholic church, the printing presses feed and fan the flames. Pamphlets fly in all directions. The printed page finds a new role as an arena of almost instant debate. The ‘press’ acquires a new and significant meaning.
First with the news: AD 1609-1690
If the 16th century is the first age of the pamphlet, the 17th fills the same role in relation to the newspaper. The turmoil in Europe in the first half of the century, particularly during the violent and complex Thirty Years’ War, makes people eager for information about the latest events. The printers and newsgatherers move rapidly to satisfy this need.
The Germans, as with earlier stages in the development of printing, are first in the field. Both Augsburg and Strasbourg have news sheets during 1609. Occasional sheets are known in several European cities during the late 16th century, but these two Germany papers seem to be the first published on a regular basis.
During the next two decades newspapers are published in Basel, Vienna, Amsterdam, Antwerp and London – where the title of the earliest news sheet in 1621 (Corante, or, Newes from Italy, Germany, Hungarie, Spaine and France) suggests the strongly European flavour of this thirst for information.
France follows in 1631, when the Gazette de France is established with official encouragement from Cardinal Richelieu. Newspapers are soon known in Denmark (1634), Florence (1636), Sweden (1645) and Poland (1661). The earliest American newspaper is published in Boston in 1690 under the title Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick.