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Communications

Background

Important inventions and innovations throughout the history of mass communication include printing, television and radio, computers and mobile devices, and the Internet and social media. The printing press was invented around 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg, which allowed for more printed materials to reach large numbers of people. Prior to this, materials were written by hand, books were expensive, and only the select few had access to education. The printing press gave the general public access to information, news, and ideas. The industrial revolution brought about steam- and machine-operated printing presses. In the early 20th century, printing machines such as the monotype and linotype set the type mechanically, which sped up the printing process and allowed for more pages to be printed faster than when the type was set by hand. The magazine, newspaper, and book publishing industry thrived during this time.

Radio broadcasting brought up-to-the-minute news, along with entertainment and information, into people’s homes and workplaces. Guglielmo Marconi made the first radio transmission with Morse Code in 1895. During World War I, ships out at sea used radios to send and receive messages. In the 1920s, radios became popular with civilians, and commercial radio stations such as KDKA in Philadelphia and the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) in England were introduced. Starting in the late 1930s, radio shows included news programs as well as entertainment, such as adventure shows, dramas, comedies, mysteries, thrillers, romance, and musical varieties.

Television was invented in the 1920s but didn’t become popular until the late 1940s and early 1950s, when mass-production made it possible for more people to afford TV sets. Television programming borrowed from radio programming, including news, dramas, comedies, variety shows, musical acts, and quiz shows. Radio and TV shows included advertisements for products, and in the early days most broadcast programs were sponsored by companies as a way to promote their products. The content of the shows and messages to viewers and listeners were often controlled by the sponsoring companies.

Cable TV emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, offering a wider selection of programs and channels and service reception to rural areas that had poor reception from regular TV. As cable TV became more popular, especially in urban areas, local TV networks were threatened by the growth and had the Federal Communications Commission step in to institute restrictions. The Cable Act of 1984 loosened these restrictions and by the end of the 1980s, millions of U.S. households subscribed to cable TV. In 2009, digital television replaced the traditional analog TV system.

The 1970s and 1980s also brought about the introduction of the computer as a tool for mass communication. Like the TV and radio, the computer emerged after decades of various inventions and innovations that contributed to the computer as a whole, from Charles Babbage’s invention of the analytical engine in the 1800s, to the development of the transistor in the 1950s, the improvement to integrated circuits in the 1960s, and the microprocessor in the early ‘70s. Starting in the 1980s, companies such as Apple, IBM, and Packard Bell mass-produced computers. Lower prices meant that more people could afford to buy computers for personal as well as business use. Since then, computers have become smaller and faster, and have more capabilities. Mobile devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones make it possible to receive information and communicate at any time and practically anywhere.

The Internet got its start via the U.S. Department of Defense when it needed to create an effective computer network in the 1960s that could communicate even when under enemy attack. The ARPANET, which was a network of networks, was created to meet these goals but it only connected to local networks and only military and defense contractors, universities, science agencies, and other organizations could connect to this internetwork. In 1989, physicist Tim Berners-Lee used hypertext to link portions of documents to one another in a logical fashion, dubbing it the World Wide Web. By the 1990s, the Internet expanded widely with the introduction of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser. Many companies now offer Internet service, and people around the world have access to information, news, videos, music, blogs, podcasts, television and radio shows, and live broadcasts. In the 2000s, social media networks emerged and have since grown, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and LinkedIn, offering people opportunities to have online dialogues with individuals as well as communicate with the masses around the world.

In ancient times, the Greeks were interested in learning more about the power of communication. They practiced and studied rhetoric, which is the art of persuading people through public speaking and discourse. The Greeks laid the foundation for rhetoric study in the centuries that followed. According to the National Communication Association, the Communications discipline was first introduced as an academic discipline in November 1914, when a group of teachers in Chicago declared the study and teaching of Communications was distinct from other disciplines and deserved “its own institutional and intellectual legitimacy as a discipline within the context of American higher education.” Since then, colleges and universities in America and around the world have included Communications as an undergraduate and graduate field of study. As the NCA describes, “Communication focuses on how people use messages to generate meanings within and across various contexts…[it’s] the discipline that studies all forms, modes, media, and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific, and aesthetic inquiry.”