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HABEAS EPISTOLAM (or: 'You've Got Mail!').

How will you mark the millennium? One way would be to read yet another endless tract on how the Internet will change our lives and the way we communicate in the next millennium. Another would be to look at the history of communication to see how we got to where we are. I have chosen the latter. I decided to look at how people communicated around the year 01 plus or minus 100 years.

Many ancient peoples developed some rather sophisticated methods of communicating. We gain a lot from the Egyptians, Romans, Greeks and Arabs because they wrote it down. So it is not surprising that a Roman patriarch, home from a hard day at the Forum, would be told by his wife, "Habeas Espistolam."

I have come to the conclusion that we have an inability to look back and learn from history beyond the previous generation. Yet in looking at how the "ancients" handled communication in the year 01, one can only be impressed. The technology was primitive, but the organization was outstanding and the message writing precise. I think there is an inverse relationship between the ease of sending messages and their clarity. How many of us have sent e-mails in a nanosecond only to get a phone call five minutes later asking, "What did you mean by that?"

Peter James and Nick Thorpe, authors of "Ancient Inventions," aptly point out in their fascinating book that the achievements of ancient societies in communication probably bring them closer to us than their feats in any other technical field. Not only are the systems they invented remarkably similar to those of our recent past, but their obsession with preserving records of their own times provides us with an invaluable source of information about life in the ancient world.


Historians Will and Ariel Durant tell us that Romans wrote on a variety of papers: "a folded sheet of membrane, or vellum, constituted a diploma, or two fold. Usually a literary work was issued on a roll (volume, 'wound up') and was read by unrolling as the reading progressed." Anyone could publish a manuscript by hiring slaves to make copies and selling the copies. Rich men had clerks who copied any book they wished to own. And because copyists "were fed rather than paid, books were cheap."

No one knows when the first shorthand was invented, but a Roman system was developed by Tiro, a freed slave employed by Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero was longwinded, so we can see Tiro's motivation. His note taking system began in 63 B.C.; another shorthand was invented in China 1,000 years later. The first writing was on walls and later clay, then papyrus and parchment.

It was possible to send letters and messages, though wheeled messengers would have had a hard time in Rome from Caesar's day to Commodius's. You could walk or, if rich, be carried in slave-borne chairs. The public post, which worked 24 hours a day, averaged one hundred miles a day. Private persons could use it only by special permission through a government diploma. Unofficial correspondence went by special carrier or merchants' traveling friends, It was an efficient system. In 54 B.C. Caesar's letter from Britain reached Cicero in Rome in 29 days.


One of the oldest books dates back to 400 B.C. The pages were just leaves bored for binding with a cord.

In China around the same time a different bookmaking technology was used. Texts were written on rolls of wooden strips. Each strip carried a single column of writing.

Around the year 01, first "printings" usually produced a thousand copies or less. Booksellers bought wholesale from publishers and sold at retail in arcade bookstalls. No royalties were paid!

The first encyclopedia was penned by Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79). His "Natural History," completed in A.D. 77, comprised 2,500 chapters in 37 volumes. Curiosity killed this remarkable man -- he went to Pompeii to investigate Vesuvius and was suffocated by the fumes.


The Greeks and later the Romans used beacons to communicate events. With beacons using simple pre-arranged signals, the history of the telegraph began. A variation was developed by a Greek military scientist named Aeneas Tacticus.

Two army commanders who wished to communicate would first have to prepare two sets of the same equipment. Each would get a clay jar. The jar was drilled at the bottom with a hole of the same size, and a cork float just a little smaller than the neck of the jar was inserted. Each cork was pierced with a rod, clearly marked at the same intervals with messages such as "cavalry have arrived" or "grain available." The two armies or partners had signalmen. When Party A wanted to speak to Party B, a signalman waved a torch until he was acknowledged. Then each signalman allowed the water to drain out of the jar. The cork float sank until the message that signalman A wished to convey was reached. He waved his torch and then signalman B looked and read the message from the level of the cork in his jar. Messages had to be kept short and simple, and after a while, a signalman could become pretty adept at communicating.

Roman author Julius Africanus reports a further improvement on this method. He tells us, "Those who receive the signals write down the letters received in the form of fire signals and transmit them to the next station." The distance over which this system would work was limitless. It resulted in Hadrian's Wall, an impressive structure 120 miles long with stone towers every mile to serve as signal stations. The wall can still be seen in Northern England today.

Okay, this system wasn't the best, but the Campbell's Soup cans tied with string hadn't been invented yet. It worked. It had one advantage: it had an uncrackable code immune to hackers. Nobody but parties A and B could see what was on their jars. But the system was unwieldy because only one message could be sent at a time. The ancients kept tinkering, and finally something better came about, which was explained by Greek historian Polybius (203 - 120 B.C.). This was the first semaphore ever recorded.

Tablets 5.0

In a detailed analysis, Polybius said the system worked like this: The alphabet in groups of five letters was written on five tablets. Communication began when a signalman raised two torches in the air. The signalman raised his torch one to five times on the left to indicate which tablet should be read and the number of times on the right to indicate the correct letter.

In the Americas, the North American Indians used smoke signals. Besides varying the number of puffs, signalmen added different substances to the fire to convey a message according to color. Is this really much different from the flashing red light of a fire engine telling us to get out of the way? Finally, we shouldn't overlook the vocal "telegraphy" of the ancient Gauls in what is now France. The Romans were really impressed when they encountered the system. Julius Caesar described it after his Gallic campaign in 52 B.C., when a tribe had just broken into rebellion: "The news spread swiftly to all tribes of Gaul. For when anything special or remarkable occurs, the people shout the news from one field to the next, and from farm to farm; step by step the message is received and passed on." In this event, what happened at Genabum at dawn was known before eight o'clock in the country of the Arverni, about 150 miles away. Thus the speed of the shouting telegraph was nearly 12.5 miles per hour. In 1999, the average speed of a New York City taxicab is about eight miles per hour.

Too Much John Wayne

Many Americans believe that a postal system based on horses (the Pony Express) was an American idea. The fact is, the Persians set up the first postal system more than 2,500 years ago. By 550 B.C. Cyrus the Great had perfected it. He built a "Royal Road" (the first interstate!) between Sardis in Turkey and Susa, the capital of Persia. Postal stations holding fresh supplies of horses and riders were set up along the road a day's ride apart. The entire 1,600-mile route from Sardis to Susa could be covered in nine days. Sometimes letters I send today from Minneapolis to San Francisco, about the same distance, take just as long.

Ever wonder where the U.S. Postal Service got that ditty to describe today's postman (Neither cold nor rain nor snow...)? Read what Herodotus said in the fifth century B.C.: "Nothing in the world can travel as fast as these Persian couriers... nothing puts them off accomplishing at top speed the distance which they have to go, not snow, rain, heat, nor darkness. The first rider delivers his dispatch to the second, and the second passes it on to the third; and so on from hand to hand along the whole line, like the light in the Greek torch race." Later the caliphs of Baghdad would set up postal stations throughout their empire at an average of every 7.5 miles apart within Iraq and every 15 miles in the provinces.

The Roman system was equally marvelous for its day. The Roman post known as cursus publicus was first organized by the emperor Augustus (27 B.C. -- A.D. 4). An impressive network of couriers, staging posts and ships was the means of welding the empire together. It was the Roman LAN or intranet. So it was not AT&T, Sprint or WorldCom that organized the world's best communication system!


The Romans were obsessed by many things -- not the least of which were pigeons. Pliny, writing in the first century A.D., noted, "Pigeon fancying is carried to insane lengths by some people: they build towers on their roofs for these birds, and tell stories of the high breeding and pedigrees of particular herds [sic]."

But the Romans merely improved airmail service using pigeons. The Egyptians were the first to regularly use pigeons, when they discovered that a pigeon or dove will unerringly return to its nest, however far or long it is separated from home. A good racing pigeon can fly at speeds of 90 miles an hour, so news could travel fast. Brutus was besieged by Mark Antony (Cleopatra's boyfriend), yet managed to communicate with his allies by carrier pigeon. Pliny noted, "What use to Mark Antony were his rampart and besieging force and even the barriers of nets that stretched across the river when the message went by air?"

Local postal centers were stocked with pigeons for different destinations. One could attach a note and pay a fee, and the FeatherEx message was off. The Greeks were using pigeons for similar purposes, from sending love letters to reporting winners of Olympic games.

Apart from their important military and government uses, Pliny also notes that birds were used by upper-class gamblers. One Roman oligarch who was fond of chariot racing would catch swallows from a nest at his home and take them to the races in Rome. To give his friends advance results, he would paint the birds with the color of the winning team.

Although this falls outside the time frame we are looking at, the first parcel post involving pigeons occurred in A.D. 975. Aziz, the caliph of North Africa, arranged for six hundred pigeons to be dispatched from Baalbek, in what is now Lebanon, each with a silk bag containing a cherry attached to it. The cherries were safely delivered to Cairo.

Italian Interstates

The Romans built the first interstate highway system to aid communication. Highways ran everywhere with beautiful bridges crossing rivers. At every mile on the consular roads, stone markers gave the distance to the next town; 4,000 of these still survive. At intervals seats were placed for tired travelers. The roads were so good that flocks of geese were driven from Belgium all the way to Italy to supply goose livers for aristocratic bellies. At every tenth mile a station offered fresh horses for hire and at every 30 miles was a mansion, an inn that included a store, a saloon and a brothel.

Communication also went by sea combined with ships usually hugging the coast of the Mediterranean. Passenger schedules, however, were determined by weather and commercial convenience.

All of this communication made Rome hop with visitors and goods from all over the world. The historian Aelius Aristides wrote, "Whoever wishes to sell all the goods of the world must either journey throughout the world or stay in Rome."

The world is full of Internet entrepreneurs today promising ever-new transparent and efficient portals. It's neat to consider where the technology is taking us, but it is all built on what the ancients did. And you know? -- I miss getting letters, as do others.

To make a point these days, I go back to writing and addressing a letter by hand and putting a stamp -- not meter marking, on it. And if I could use a chisel, I would be happy to write on a tablet and send a clay "Happy Millenium Everyone!"

John Freivalds is principal, ifa, Minneapolis, Minn.
COPYRIGHT 1999 International Association of Business Communicators
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Title Annotation:the history of communication systems
Author:Freivalds, John
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 1999
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