The evolution of a connected world

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Editor’s Note: How did we get to this point in which cell phones are ubiquitous and dominate our lives? Here, Peter McKenzie-Brown reminds us that there are some downsides to constant cell phone use and then reviews for us the fascinating history of how we have become progressively “wired.”

The Canadian city I live in, Calgary, got top marks in the last report from The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which ranked it as the most liveable city in North America, and number five in the world – after Vienna, Austria; Sidney and Melbourne, Australia; and Osaka, Japan. Two other Canadian cities, Vancouver and Toronto, were also in the top ten.

The EIU index ranks the world’s 140 largest cities on 30 factors bunched into five categories. These include political and economic stability, for example, health care, culture and environment, education and infrastructure. In the most recent report, Vienna topped the list. It ranked ahead perfect 99.1 out of 100, putting it just ahead of Melbourne. Sydney and Osaka. Then came Calgary. According to the EIU report, “higher crime rates and ropey infrastructure pull some bigger cities like London, New York and Paris down the league table, despite their cultural and culinary attractions.”

Yet as I walk the streets of this city, or get on public transit, I’m always amazed to observe that endless majorities of people on sidewalks, on trains and buses, in restaurants, and even in parks seem to spend endless hours on the communication devices that seem to dominate their lives. Personally, I can’t imagine spending a walk in my favourite park staring at an iPhone – in my case, a device I parked some years ago. The more I watched this behaviour, the odder it seemed. I quickly found a great deal of online research that worried about our collective online obsession.

Sure, it’s easy to pass a cell phone addiction off as something that comes with the technological advances of the last 20 years; however, with cell phones come real risks. For example, a study at Temple University’s College of Health Professions and Social Work compared the volume of text messages college students with the amount of neck and shoulder pain they experienced. The result was no surprise: The more you text, the more pain you are likely to experience.

There’s also the matter of dangerous driving. America’s Insurance Institute for Highway Safety not surprisingly found that drivers who use cell phones while behind the wheel were four times more likely to have an accident than those who did not. What’s more, using a hands-free device instead of a hand-held phone doesn’t improve safety.

 Finally, there are sleep disturbances. Using a cell phone before bed can keep you awake, according to a study conducted by Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit and researchers in Sweden. Conducted over an 18-month period, the study involved 35 men and 36 women between the ages of 18 and 45. Their conclusion? The radiation emitted by cell phones disrupts sleep patterns.

I’ve always been interested in how things develop, so I started investigating the origins of today’s intensely interconnected world – one that hosts both promise and risk. The balance of this paper shows how this took place nearly two centuries to evolve.

How did this begin?

The world began to get wired with the invention (in present-day Germany in the 1840s) of the electrical telegraph. These point-to-point text messaging systems used coded pulses of electric current to transmit text messages over ever-longer distances.

Albeit brief and ineffectual, the first scientific attempt to illustrate the speed and power of electricity dates back to a 1764 experiment by Jean-Antoine Nollet. A French physicist during the Enlightenment, he had also been a deacon in the Catholic church and was thus able to call on former colleagues to help him with his work.

To test the speed of electrical transmission, Nollet gathered hundreds of lengths of iron wire, roughly two hundred monks, and an array of Leyden jars. These primitive devices, which stored static electricity, were the discovery of a Dutch physicist at the University of Leiden in 1746 – hence the name. (Independently, German inventor Ewald Georg von Kleist had developed a similar device the year before.) The French monks distributed themselves in a circle a mile or so in circumference, each holding a length of wire in each hand to link himself to compatriots on his right and left. Without a word of warning, Nollet discharged the contents of the batteries into the wire, sending an electric shock through the chain of monks.

Nollet was unable to successfully measure the actual speed of electricity with the experiment since all the monks reacted to the electric shock simultaneously. His notes recorded that transmission speed of electricity was extremely high and appeared to transverse the circle of monks almost instantaneously. To entertain the king of France, he later conducted the same “experiment” on 180 French soldiers.


The Nollet experiment may have planted the seed for the concept of telegraphy—the transmission of data over long lengths of wires using only electrical impulses. However, it has nothing to do with the origin of the word “telegraph,” which originally did not involve wires at all. The term originated with Frenchman Claude Chappe, but the system he developed was mechanical rather than electrical. His invention was a system of semaphores, with people signaling with flags from tower to tower. Napoléon used the system to coordinate his empire and army, and other European states copied the system.

Today, the word telegraph suggests dots and dashes transmitted by Morse code over long-distance cables which ultimately yield telegrams. But the word was originally a reference to Chappe’s semaphore system and used no electricity at all. There were moveable arms on the top of the towers and operators could use telescopes to read these mechanical messages from other towers. Thus, these towers could be quite a distance apart. This system could transmit messages quickly and efficiently, so the French government built a national network. The French word télégraphe comes from the French télé (at a distance) and graphe (writing) – thus, “far writer.”

Before moving on to electrical message transmission, it is worth noting that the Leyden jar did contribute significantly to serious science. Around the time American was gaining independence, American rebel and diplomat Benjamin Franklin used one to show that lightning is an electrical discharge.

Franklin called a series of linked Leyden jars, which can store greater electric charges, a “battery.” Unlike modern-day batteries, no matter how many of these devices were linked together, they released all their energy in a single burst.

That said, this early electrical storage system did not entirely end up on history’s junk heap. In miniaturized form, a descendent of the Leyden jar is hard at work in most of today’s electronic products. Today, it’s called a capacitor. Charged by an electrical current, these devices still release their charge all at once. Their instant charge/discharge operates the flash attachments on cameras, for example, and tuning dials on radios. They also control loudspeakers, making music audible and measured, rather than an incomprehensible burst of sound.

Electrical Telegraphy

In the 1790s, at the tail end of the Enlightenment, an argument about electricity between two Italian scientists—Luigi Galvani and Alessandro Volta—led to Volta inventing the first true battery. For the first time, electricity could be put to continuous work. This led to experiments using steady electrical currents for message transmission.

As we have seen, the Napoleonic empire desperately needed a new, high-speed communications system – preferably one that used wires and could instantly reach places that were beyond line of sight. These systems did not develop until Volta’s battery became widely known, however – well after the war was over.

Inventors came up with many schemes for encoding information electrically. As is often the case, the most successful approach was the simplest. The telegraph code still bears the last name of its American inventor, Samuel Morse, who developed the system in 1838. The system required a single wire, which made the system simple and less expensive than others. In addition, Morse’s approach reduced the complexity of the technology by putting it into the hands – literally – of the operator, who needed to learn to both send and receive Morse code.

In the beginning, there was a widespread view that the dot-and-dash system would be too difficult, but it turned out to be a bit like learning to play a musical instrument. Not everybody, but some became quite skilled. Once they mastered the system, they could quickly and easily send and receive messages.

By the second half of the nineteenth century, nations across the world had created commercial telegraph networks, with local telegraph offices in most cities and towns. These systems enabled people to send messages telegrams to anyone, for a fee. Although an 1854 attempt failed, telegraph companies were ultimately successful in laying submarine telegraph cables, which created a system of rapid communication between continents. By 1865, the Morse system was becoming the standard for domestic and international communications in Europe and much of the Americas, and in distant parts of the European empires.

These networks permitted people and businesses to transmit messages across continents and oceans almost instantly, with widespread social and economic impacts. Telegraphs are still in use, although teletype networks have been replacing them for a hundred years.

Canada’s Telephone?

Did Canada really invent the telephone? We Canucks think so, and the first long-distance tests certainly took place on Canadian soil. That said, inventor Alexander Graham Bell – a Scot who had migrated to Canada with his family as a child – did his work in Boston, became an American citizen and was one of the founders of media giant American Telephone and Telegraph, now known as AT&T.

It was in Boston that the telephone – it did not yet have a name – first showed signs of life. On March 10, 1876, Bell used the instrument in Boston to call his colleague, Thomas Watson who was in another room and out of earshot. He famously said, “Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you” and Watson soon appeared at his side.

Continuing his experiments during a visit to the Bell homestead in Brantford, Bell brought home a working model of the device. On August 3, 1876, from the telegraph office in Brantford, Ontario, Bell sent a tentative telegram to the village of Mount Pleasant six kilometres distant, indicating that he was ready. He then made a telephone call via telegraph wires and heard faint voices replying.

The following night, he amazed guests as well as his family with a call from his parents’ home to the office of the Dominion Telegraph Company in Brantford along an improvised wire strung up along telegraph lines and fences and laid through a tunnel. This time, guests at the household distinctly heard people in Brantford reading and singing. The third test on August 10, 1876, was made via the telegraph line between Brantford and Paris, a town in Ontario thirteen kilometers distant. Often called the world’s first long distance call, this test demonstrated that the telephone could work over long distances, and Canada now recognizes the Bell homestead as a national historic site.

Commercialization of the telephone soon began. In the earliest days, instruments were paired for private use between two locations. Users who wanted to communicate with persons at multiple locations had as many telephones as necessary for the purpose.

Later telephones took advantage of the exchange principle which developed for telegraph networks. Each telephone was wired to a telephone exchange established for a town or area. For communications outside this exchange area, trunks were installed between exchanges. Networks were designed in a hierarchical manner until they spanned cities, countries, continents and oceans.

Going Wireless

These developments were soon superseded by other technologies that transformed human connectivity. Known to our grandparents and as “the wireless,” the radio transmitted signals through the transmission of signals by the modulation of electromagnetic waves.

In 1895, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi became the first person to “cut the cord” of electronic communications, sending wireless signals across the Italian countryside. In 1900 he patented this invention, calling it tuned, or syntonic, telegraphy. We call it the radio, and it quickly broke new ground.

Italian-born Marconi studied physics and became interested in the transmission of radio waves after learning of the experiments of the German physicist Heinrich Hertz. He began his own experiments in Bologna in 1894 and soon succeeded in transmitting a radio signal which he could receive three kilometres away.

Receiving little encouragement for his experiments in Italy, he went to England two years later. He formed a wireless telegraph company and was soon sending transmissions from distances 15 kilometers and more. In 1899, he transmitted a signal across the English Channel. That year, he also equipped two U.S. ships to report to New York newspapers on the progress of the America’s Cup yacht race. That successful endeavour aroused widespread interest in Marconi and his wireless company.

To put the wireless in perspective, electrical telegraphy had sped up the spread of information from a few days or weeks or months to a few hours. Reporters could receive the news, write it up, send it to print in a newspaper, and people would read about it, perhaps, half a day later. As the radio developed, numerous people could hear news broadcasts at the same time. As radio networks developed their programming, it became the most powerful medium yet invented for spreading information and shaping public opinion.

Marconi’s greatest achievement came on December 12, 1901, when one of his wireless systems at Cornwall, England, successfully transmitted a message (simply the Morse-code signal for the letter “s”) across the Atlantic to St. John’s, Newfoundland – then, a British colony; today, a Canadian province. That transatlantic transmission won him worldwide fame.

Ironically, detractors of the project had been correct when they declared that radio waves would not follow the curvature of the earth: Marconi’s transatlantic radio signal had indeed been headed into space but bounced off ionosphere and back toward Earth. Much remained to be learned about the laws of the radio wave and the role of the atmosphere in radio transmissions, and Marconi played a leading role in radio development and innovations for three more decades.

Experiments in television development began in the 1920s, but The Great Depression and World War II slowed development. Once the war was over television ownership exploded.

From Miniaturization to Wi-Fi

In the post-war world, Japan led the miniaturization of electronics, and in the mid-1950s created tiny, wireless radios as small as your hand. Bearing the word “transistorized” on their body, they were the first electronic devices in North America to also bear a Sony logo.

By an odd series of coincidences, these devices were first exported to Canada in the summer of 1955, and there they created quite a stir. They amazed their new owners, who were accustomed to furniture-sized radios plugged into an outlet. North America learned about them from the excitement of those lucky enough to own one.

From those days on, miniaturization has been the trend for communications devices – a trend that began to accelerate in the 1990s, with the rapid growth of the World Wide Web. Today our iPods and other devices fit easily into our pockets, and they make functions available that once required a telephone, a camera, a movie camera, a television, paper calendars, accounting spreadsheets, books, publishing houses – the list goes on, and on, and on. The social media that are part of this panoply are relatively new phenomena; to have a post go viral is many a player’s ultimate dream.

A family of wireless networking technologies commonly used for local area networking of devices and Internet access, Wi‑Fi is a trademark of the non-profit Wi-Fi Alliance, which restricts the use of the term to products that meet its technical protocol.

From the beginning, the primary goal of this organization was that Wi-Fi devices work across all vendors and, as new devices become available, be “backward compatible” in the sense that they would continue to work with older devices – including the original devices made according to this protocol. In this way, the alliance responded to growing demand for Wi-Fi with new technologies and programs that increase connectivity, enhance roaming, and – the organization’s wording – “improve the user experience.” Members of the Wi-Fi alliance now produce desktop and laptop computers, smartphones and tablets, smart TVs, printers, digital audio players, automobile scanners, automobiles, monitors, drones, facial recognition cameras and countless other devices that would have been largely unimaginable at the beginning of this millennium.

In the years since the Enlightenment, electrical devices from telegraphy through radio and radar have played key roles in every aspect of our lives, both during times of peace and war. As I write these words, Wi-Fi devices are moving into a fifth generation of development. The lesson from that reality, perhaps, is that electrical devices are playing ever-more-subtle roles in an electrifyingly complex new world.

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