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It has been reported that we check our phones up to 150 times a day1. If a phone runs flat, people race around the office looking for a spare charger. A Telstra outage has the office panicking… what will we do?!
Earlier this year, my 10-year old daughters had a school excursion where they went to a post office and learnt how to write, address and post a letter. Heaven forbid if they tried to teach them how to use a rotary dial phone…! It prompted me to look at how they used to send messages, and even how long it took in the medieval period and before.
Relying on a messenger to deliver a message can always have its difficulties – especially if there is possibility of a political gain. As early as 175AD, messengers would be sent from the battle lines to Rome by horseback, taking up to a week to deliver a message and often getting it wrong. According to some historical sources, a false message of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ death reached his wife Faustina, who was then said to run to the arms of Avidius Cassius, prompting him to become the next self-proclaimed Emperor of Rome. All because the messenger got it wrong… and you thought sending that email by mistake was bad!
In the medieval era, messages were sent regularly amongst Royalty, mainly because they had the means to do so. Remember, there was no postal service or established postal routes, so people needed to send messages using a servant if they had one to spare, a paid messenger if one was available, or with other deliveries to an area, if there were deliveries to be made. This meant people had to wait until someone was heading somewhere until their mail could even get underway.
Remember too that even when the message could get sent, it was by foot or using horse and carriage – so took days or even weeks, depending on how far it had to go, and by which means.
Finally, a regulated postal service started to emerge. In 1635, Charles I of England made the Royal Mail service available for public use. Before then, routes were established, but for use by Royalty only.
As travel became more common, people would use stagecoaches that would cover distances between ‘posts’, where horses could be switched – allowing the horses to rest between trips and swap for fresher horses, so long distances could be covered. It was at these ‘posts’ that any mail delivered by coach or horseback could be collected for the local area, then sorted, and delivered.
Once the letter had actually been delivered, a person really had to write back straight away, hoping the messenger was planning on a return trip, and the process would start again. Considering coaches often travelled just two leagues per hour (around 11km), a message could only travel as far as those horses could each day. A trip from Cannes to Paris, for example, could easily take 12 days, but only if there were enough horses at each ‘post’ to keep the travellers and messages moving. Sometimes, horses weren’t rested to be switched, or carriages did not have occupants… so the letters would wait until they did.
From there, we really started to get better at this communication thing.
In 1830, a telegraph could be transmitted using Morse code. In 1840, they evolved to using electrical telegraphs to transmit actual messages fast.
I’m old enough to remember having a pen-pal where we’d write (by hand) and post letters to each other. Occasionally, if we were really prepared, we’d even have some polaroids or photos to send. Then in my first job, the fastest way to send and receive messages was using a fax. Remember those beeps and pings and the soft silky rolls of paper where you dare not rub the message as the letters would come off?
Then we could scan. A big improvement on the fax – at least the message wouldn’t fade over time as you could print it onto real paper!
Suddenly there was this thing called the world wide web (www.), and you could send electronic mail (e-mail), if your recipient had an address and a desk top computer with dial-up modem connection.
It did not take long until we reached the constant connectivity of the phones we have today and social media. Could you imagine what would happen if we had to go back to the ways of the past?
My kids are lost if they ever lose signal, but I remember the days when waiting two weeks to hear from your pen-pal was the norm. Could you imagine our teenagers of today waiting that long for a ‘like’?
1 Research reported in The Daily Mail: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2276752/Mobile-users-leave-phone-minutes-check-150-times-day.html