Telecommuting Technology History

The printing press changed the world in the 13th century by spreading the word, but the telephone was the first technology that made working together at a distance possible in real time. Telegraph and semaphore flags, you might argue, made that possible too; but you’ll have to admit the bandwidth was pretty low. The bits per second transmitted were just that, bits per second; but it wasn’t long until engineers figured out how to send thousands of bits for sounds and then millions for pictures.

Edison’s 1872 Automatic Telegraph

In 1831 Michael Faraday proved that vibrations of metal could be converted to electrical impulses, but it was forty-five years before Alexander Graham Bell applied the discovery and was issued a patent for the telephone. The following year he formed the Bell Telephone Company, and installed the first city exchange in Hartford, Connecticut.

In 1878 the world’s first telephone directory was published, no mammoth tome suitable for use as a kid’s booster chair, it was a single sheet of only fifty names (numbers weren’t used yet). That year President Hayes installed the first telephone in the White House. The first outgoing call went to Alexander Graham Bell himself, who had to be told to speak more slowly. It was six years, 1883, before you could talk to someone in another city–The Big Apple and Bean Town were the first to be connected.

In 1912 the Navy experimented with air to ground radio using Morse code. In 1921 the Detroit Police Department, began experimentation with one-way mobile voice service, so-called radio-telephone communication, and in 1933 the Bayonne, NJ Police Department made it possible to call “Car 54 where are you?” and expect an answer over the first two-way system. In 1946 a driver in St. Louis, Mo., placed the first mobile telephone call, and within two years wireless telephone service was available (at a high price) in almost 100 cities and highway corridors.

An engineer by the name of Ring (yes, really) at Bell Labs dreamed up the idea for cell phones, but in 1947 the technology to do it didn’t exist. In fact, it wasn’t until 1973, when Martin Cooper of Motorola made the first cellphone call–to his rival Joe Engel of AT&T Bell Labs–using a phone about the size and weight of a brick. Ten years later the first commercial cellular service was launched ushering in the era of “can you hear me now?”

Bell Lab’s PicturePhone was test marketed in the early 60’s, a big hit at the Seattle World’s Fair, and commercial service debuted in Pittsburgh in 1970; but it was a resounding flop because of steep price and poor picture quality. Still, it did presage the day when you could visually bring people together.

High-end teleconference centers were built, and executives across the country and around the world could meet eye-to-eye, if not face-to-face. If wasn’t long until web-based conferencing systems allowed one-to-many presentations, albeit without any facility for interaction and exchange.

Other systems designed to allow collaboration came along, but were often hard to use because they weren’t intuitive–designed for geeks by geeks–and in many cases they were more limited than the technology they tried to replicate. Online whiteboards, for example, cost tens of thousands of dollars, but had all of the limitations of real whiteboards and none of the advantages that could have been added such as highlighting, or presentation and mark-up of existing content.

Meanwhile, computers and networks were evolving from centralized systems with dedicated terminals to distributed networks of personal computers. Mobile workers, otherwise know as road warriors, with laptop computers began to make hotel reservations based on the availability of internet access. Marriott responded to the demand and now has over 100,000 wired rooms. Even airlines are investigating airborne internet access, with Luftansa and American leading they way.

One reason telework is coming into its own, is that all this and more is now available at affordable prices, and even free. Today Apple ships their Macintosh ® computers with built in webcams and free iChat software, for example, so people can videoconference while sharing photos, documents and presentations. Google, some believe, is preparing to blanket the U.S. with free Wi-Fi to make access to their click-though ads more ubiquitous.

When sharing information from anywhere is as easy as meeting face-to-face telework will become the standard way of working

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