Mapping Communication - From Morse Code to Cell Towers

August 17, 2022

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Every generation has something that the previous generation never had. My grandparents had “party lines.” They shared their phone line with another household, and the type of ring — one long one or two short ones — indicated which party the call was for. And not every home had a phone. My parents’ generation never knew life without a private phone line. As a GenXer, I saw the transition from landlines and pay phones to the now ubiquitous personal mobile phones.

Most of my students, and many of my colleagues, have never known life without the internet or mobile phones. Communication is one of the essential elements that have defined and enabled human civilization for millions of years. The many types of communication, both human and animal, are the subject of this article. And obviously, if you’re reading this, you are using some kind of communication device.

How Did Communication Begin?

Communication as we know it began with writing, as early as 3400 BCE. Many ancient civilizations developed methods of recording words on various media, such as the clay tablets of the Sumerians, which, along with administrative records, also included maps of landholdings and water access.

On the other side of the world, the Incan civilization in the Andes Mountains of South America developed a different method. Without writing nor the wheel, they used human runners to carry messages using knotted strings called quipus. The Andes are the second highest mountain range in the world, after the Himalayas in Asia, but unlike their Asian counterparts, the Andes are narrow in longitude, and extensive in latitude; thus, the running was quite a feat! There is a great lesson plan on the Incan communications system from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Hopefully none of our readers will have to use that Morse code, which is SOS, a globally recognized signal for distress and a call for help. (But you should know it, just in case.) The telegraph was the first electrical means of long-distance communication. The power of Morse code is its simplicity: it is a binary system of dots and dashes, analogous to the binary language that lies beneath everything we do in the digital world. Making a telegraph simply requires wires, some metal and a magnet. My brother and his buddies made one for a fourth grade science fair project using tin cans.

Although seldom used in the 21st century, the telegraph was instrumental in the exploration of, and Euro-American expansion into, North America, and there were hundreds of them from Alexandria, Virginia to Zanesville, Ohio, as illustrated in this map from the Library of Congress.

The telegraph, with its binary code, was a tremendous advancement, used by many nations in both peace and war. Once submarine cables were laid (see below), the telegraph became a ubiquitous tool for both intra- and international communication.

Other efforts during the same historic period weren’t as successful. The pony express, established in 1860, was a quixotic endeavor to expedite mail delivery from St. Louis, Missouri to Sacramento, California during the gold rush. Young men would ride horses or mules at high speed, then pass the mail to the next rider. The National Park Service has a site describing this with an interactive map.

However, by the end of October, 1861, San Francisco was in direct contact with New York City by telegraph. Adventurous and bold as it was, the pony express didn’t really accomplish much, but for the riders, it must have been quite a life experience.

Another low-tech but effective (and fictional) method of communication is Gondor’s network of beacons. Gondor is one of the kingdoms in JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Stone towers filled with wood would be lit in times of crisis, and when the next tower saw the flames, they would light their own, and so on.

A real 20th century analog to this system is how fire lookouts, search and rescue teams, and other field crews communicate in the vast lands of the West and Alaska. Individual crew members carry handheld radios, but they are fairly short range and often subject to interference from terrain, just like GPS. Therefore, we have a network of repeaters, which take the radio signals and rebroadcast them. At Crater Lake National Park we have two, located on high peaks on opposite ends of the park.

Amateur radio (aka ham radio) operators are critical resources during emergencies, such as wildland fires, hurricanes and floods. While the official first responders are overwhelmed with radio traffic, the ham radio serves as a network for distributing vital information. As freelancers, many operators have made their own interactive maps of coverage, such as this one in southwest Missouri, an area subject to floods and tornadoes.

Above Us and Below Us

For most of human history, communication was conducted either on the ground or on the ocean, whether by telegraph or radio. Then, in 1847, the first submarine cable was laid under the Rhine River in Prussia, now Germany. Since then, tens of thousands of miles of cables have been laid under every ocean, connecting all continents. When we access the internet, as you are doing right now, most likely the signal is coming from a submarine cable.

Or it may be coming from a satellite. In some remote areas, satellite phones may offer better coverage than cell towers. However, they have the same limitations as GPS and imaging satellites. They require direct lines of sight, and are subject to atmospheric interference factors.

The Internet Is Everywhere

Or is it? An interesting map shows the spread of the internet across the world. Although outdated (2012) and in a very strange projection, it illustrates an unsurprising pattern. The first-world countries of North America and Western Europe have the most lines, and the rest of the world has fewer, even Australia.

The site has built a heat map showing the various areas of coverage, as well as the types. Again, the patterns are not surprising. Populated regions such as western Europe, and the east coasts of the U.S., China and India have the most coverage, while rural areas lag far behind. This is an excellent example of the digital divide.

Hoots and Hollers and Dances, Oh My!

We’re not the only species that communicates. For thousands of years, animals, from ants to zebras, have communicated by many means. Some use scent; others use noises, body language, flashing plumage, and hypersonic and subsonic calls to send messages of warning and attraction to potential mates. Honeybees are famous for dances that describe pollination places, and there is an interactive map to help beekeepers find the best locations for their apiaries.

While skiing in the Cascades of Southern Oregon, we heard a herd of cow elk calling to each other. Although I didn’t have a GPS, I used my map and compass to determine their general location, which was in a meadowed area in the mountains. I spoke with a wildlife biologist a few weeks later, and she said, “Oh, yes. That’s a perennial calving area.”

Cetaceans — oceanic, finned mammals such as whales and dolphins — have developed sophisticated methods of communication over their centuries of evolution. The NOAA Northeast Fisheries Science Center built the Passive Acoustic Cetacean Map, showing whale calls across the Atlantic Seaboard of the U.S. Many other maps of whale calls have been created, along with peer-reviewed analysis and infographics. Additionally, researchers have used fin whale calls as an additional resource for mapping the ocean floor.

Living and working in the forest for decades, I’ve learned to recognize many animal calls. Along with the elk I mentioned above, we have eagles, ravens, falcons, squirrels and owls, among many other critters. In the fall, we hear the saw-whet owl hooting for a mate. There are worse ways to wake up at 3 a.m.

As I mentioned in my article, “Mapping the Resources of Absence,” acoustic monitoring stations have been, and are being, deployed across the world to monitor animal communication, both terrestrial and aquatic.

Talk to Me

All life depends upon communication. Whether it is hummingbirds pollinating, politicians and diplomats making decisions about the world’s future in multiple languages, or discussing dinner plans with your partner, we all need to communicate with each other. Whether it is verbal, electronic, semaphore, sign language, auditory or olfactory, there is always a way to send a message, and more importantly, to receive a message. We have two ears, two eyes and one mouth for a reason.


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