Getting the Message: A History of Communications

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9780198503330: Getting the Message: A History of Communications
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The past century has seen developments in communications technology probably unrivalled in any other field of human activity. Significant advances are made every year, and both our work and leisure activities are critically influenced by these developments. Getting the message explores the fascinating history of communications, starting with ancient civilisations, the Greeks and Romans, then leading through the development of the electric telegraph, and up to the present day with email and cellular phones. The technology is explained in a particularly simple and accessible way, and themes from politics, economics, and society weave in and out of the scientific ideas. The book concludes with a look at the possible future of communications, the new developments to come, and the implications these will have for our everyday lives. Lavishly illustrated, and including many original illustrations that show just how these new developments were received in their time, the book presents an informative and highly entertaining introduction to the field of communications.

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Getting The Message: A History of Communication is a strange book. Is it a present for someone's coffee-table, or a school textbook, or serious history? Laszlo Solymar's quirky commentary mixes colourful character studies with social criticism, technical explanation with personal prejudice. It starts with fire signals and ends with Internet "firewalls". He tells us that he would join a Campaign for Curbing the Spread of Acronyms. He regrets that e-mail means you get contacted by forgotten acquaintances sending you details of their offspring. He points out that Dudayev, the Chechen rebel leader, was blown to smithereens because he was too fond of his mobile phone, and all this is mixed in with explanations of "The principles of a triode amplifier".

The narrative is brisk and there are an amazing number of illustrations and cartoons, which make Solymar's points perfectly. For example a prescient Punch cartoon from 1879 shows two people videoconferencing, and there's a picture of an eavesdropping device used by Alexander the Great.

Solymar, an Oxford Professor of Engineering, mentions his debt to his fellow dons in the dedication. The exchange of academic ideas has enriched his text. His mind reaches beyond the scientific: he seems perfectly at ease as a historian describing how, during the Russian Revolution, Kerensky and Kornilov had to communicate using the telegraph. Had Russia been less backward, they would have used the telephone. Had they been even more backward, they would have met in person. But they used the telegraph, misunderstood each other, and thus set in motion the October Revolution.

This book sets out to be technical, polemical, historical, analytical and readable. With the exception of a few longueurs, the author, through his breadth of reference and determination to be accessible, has succeeded. --Brian Jenner

Review:

The delight of 'Getting the Message' is Laszlo Solymar's deft and illuminating interweaving of the human and the technological sides of communications. He puts each major innovation in the context of its times, so you understand its impact. His explanations are lucid, and his stories both thought-provoking and fun. Solymar has reached the writer's hardest goal, combining sharp insight with clear and entertaining prose in a book readers will treasure. Jeff Hecht, author of 'City of Light: The Story of Fiber Optics' and of 'Understanding Fiber Optics'

With Laszlo Solymar's meticulous (and highly singular) account we gain a real understanding of from where we have come. In a world where unimaginable amounts of dense data flow through a strand of dark fibre, a book that so clearly explains sheds its own luminous light for lay reader and expert alike. David Edmonds, Director General of the Office of Telecommunications (Oftel)

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