Town criers, drums, semaphore systems, instructional hymns, and heliographs. Let’s take a look at how modern technology has been influenced by and what we can continue to learn from these five forgotten, yet fascinating, forms of communication!
1- The King’s Town Crier
Coming from the French verb that means to listen, the town crier was a common sight (and sound) on the streets of medieval England. While ringing his bell, he would loudly inform the townspeople of news, proclamations, and other important information.
Since the dispelling of information was a very important task, the town crier had to be literate, an uncommon skill at the time. He also had to be loud and have an air of authority about him. Since announced messages were often negative and unwelcome (such as in the event of a tax increase), town criers were protected by law. In fact, that’s where the saying “Don’t shoot the messenger!” originates.
Although traditional town criers no longer exist professionally, there are many who put on the garb for festivals and fun. That is, except for Alan Myatt who is a two-time Guinness Book of World Records winner. At 112.8 decibels (as loud as a riveting machine!), he holds the record for vocal endurance by issuing a one-hundred-word proclamation every 15 minutes for a period of 48 hours.
2- The Semaphore Flag Signalling System
A fascinating way of disseminating information, the semaphore tower was first implemented in 1792 at 556 stations over France for the primary source of communication for military and national applications.
The structure’s design had two large towers with a single crossbar between them on which were two pivoting arms. The combination of positions between the crossbar and arms equaled 196 characters. Those characters could be combined to created thousands of codes.
This method eventually evolved to the positioning of smaller flags and was used for communication between naval vessels for hundreds of years (even Napoleon used one version).
There were two critical downfalls of the semaphore system. First, it offered no secrecy. Second, it was practically invisible at night or during heavy fog and rain.
3- The Heliograph Device
One device that saw prominent military use in the southwest during the late 1800s was the heliograph. By redirecting beams of sunlight (sometimes moonlight) at distant points using mirrors and a keying system to interrupt the signal, flashes corresponding to the Morse Code could be sent at 12-15 words a minute. The greatest distance ever recorded between receiving stations utilizing the device was 183 miles but stations were typically placed 25 miles apart.
Though most notably used during the Spanish-American War, handheld helios were still used during World War II by downed flyers to signal their position to rescuers. Also, during the first half of the 20th century, the U.S. Forest Service equipped its remote lookout stations with heliographs to relay wildfire reports.
4- The Drum Beat
Based on natural languages and speech patterns, drum beats have been used as a means of communication by many civilizations throughout the history of the world.
For ceremonies and rituals, drum rhythms can get the adrenaline pumping for expressing the joy of life with celebratory dance…or as the driving force behind war with its sound of thunderous terror.
In ancient villages, drummers sent messages, poems, and gossip because it was much faster to relay this way than it was for a person to run the same distance. They communicated details by changing the beats’ speed, pitch, and timbre.
5- The Instructional Hymn
Many experts, including Charles Darwin, believe that singing evolved well before articulated language did and that it has always played an important role in human communication.
Communicating via vocalizing music and lyrics has been an important tradition and every culture on earth has its history deeply rooted in some form of song.
Take, for example, African American spirituals. Typically sung in a call and response form, it makes sense that spirituals were used as codified escape songs for slaves trying to flee northward during the 19th century. Examples of such songs include “Wade in the Water”, “The Gospel Train”, and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.
What We Can Learn
So how have our modern-day business communications technology been influenced by these various styles of the past?
- In the case of town crier, today’s equivalent would be online news aggregators or even your Twitter feed.
- The semaphore train system of a hundred years ago (when a train must wait before entering a single track until the semaphore permits travel) might sound similar to semaphores in multithreaded computer programming in which a thread waits for permission to proceed and then signals that it has proceeded by performing an operation on the semaphore.
- The heliograph device (which used light signals) is the past’s version of fiber optics. These cables now carry communication signals using pulses of light, traveling long distances at the speed of light.
- The concept of beating a drum or singing instructions can be considered the more personal, emotional side of communication in which the written word either isn’t functional or brings about the desired result.
What we can continue to learn from these five forgotten forms of communication is that we are ever-evolving as a world-wide society. Some may think that having the ability to communicate instantaneously with anyone on the other side of the world is an incredible feat. But at the same time, we may be forgetting how to communicate one-on-one and face-to-face with the person in the next room.
By honoring our communication skills of the past and honing our communication skills of the present, both in business and in our personal lives, both over great distances and small, we will all be better heard and understood.