Communication Devices: History, Timeline & Impact

Instructor: Mary Matthiesen-Jones

Mary has worked around the world for over 30 years in international business, advertising, and market research. She has a Master's degree in International Management and has taught University undergraduate and graduate level courses .

Written communication remains an essential part of business and personal communications. Learn how communications technology has evolved to make it faster and easier for everyone.

From Stone Tablets to Electronic Tablets

Writing has been around for tens of thousands of years. About 5,000 years ago, a form of writing developed where specific characters represented concepts and even actual words, allowing people to communicate more efficiently. But there was one disadvantage: everything had to be written or drawn by hand, whether it was ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics carved in stone or Medieval monks copying manuscripts by hand. It was time-consuming and expensive. Even with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, the actual type, or the individual letters, had to be laid out by hand before printing.

An Ancient Tablet
Writing in Stone

Whether for business or personal correspondence, writing books, or printing newspapers, written communications continued to be done by hand.


In the 1700s, inventors began experimenting with a machine that could impress letters sequentially on a piece of paper. This is what we now know as the typewriter. These machines meant that documents could be created much faster and in a consistently legible printed form.


The first commercially successful typewriter appeared in the 1870s. Now, documents could be created as quickly as someone could type. At that same time, the QWERTY keyboard, the keyboard still used today and named for the first six letters on the top row starting at the left, came into use. There was also a logic behind the organization of the keys. The QWERTY keyboard separated pairs of letters that were frequently used together so that the bars with the letters on them, or the typebars, would not get stuck together.

An Early Typewriter
An Early Typewriter

For the next hundred years, technology focused on improving the typewriter to make it faster and quieter. The first electric typewriters appeared in the 1930s. But the font, or size and style of the typeface, and the available characters themselves were limited to what was on the machine. They could not be changed, so letters typed in 1950 often resembled typed letters from the 1800s.


In 1961, IBM introduced the IBM Selectric. It revolutionized typewritten letters because it replaced the typebars that were fixed in place with a typeball, a replaceable rotating golf ball like device. Want another font or even characters from another language? Just swap out the typeball.


Magnetic tape typewriters appear. Up until the mid-1960s, all typewriters had one problem: if things needed to be edited, the entire document had to be retyped. With the introduction of magnetic tape, the manipulation of typed text, or word processing, was possible. Text could be typed and easily edited. Different types of storage media were developed from tape cassettes to floppy disks, and each development allowed for storage of more and more text.


Along with the rapid development of increasingly sophisticated machines, computer programs specifically for word processing were also developed. Using devices that now had a screen and keyboards that more closely resembled today's computer keyboards, text could be typed, edited, and stored in large quantities for later printing.


As the development of desktop computers began to grow, use of stand-alone word processors began to decline. Not only could the new computers type and print text, the addition of programs for other applications such as bookkeeping made them more versatile and efficient for personal and professional use.


The worlds of word processing and desktop computing merged as companies like Apple and Microsoft developed word processing software for computers. Later versions of these early programs are still used today on computers, tablets, and even smartphones.


IBM introduces the first smartphone, the 'Simon', which included basic programs for taking notes, sending emails, a touchscreen, and of course, a phone. It was ahead of its time, and it had limited appeal as well as a very high price of $599. It was followed by later versions from European and Japanese companies but none took hold.

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