From telephone and telex to email and instant messaging, we look at the business benefits technological progress has brought
In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell patented a simple receiver that could turn electricity into sound, but some argue that Italian-American Antonio Meucci really invented the telephone. It was the first device to let people speak over long distances almost in real time. Most early users were businesses that had previously relied on telegrams, post or messenger, but telephones speeded things up significantly and made communication more personal.
Business phones and growth
As networks grew, some businesses became much more profitable by setting up offices in other parts of the country and world, using telephones to communicate with colleagues and customers. The freestanding rotary dial desktop telephone became more widely used in offices from the 1920s.
The telex and 24-hour comms
Those who remember telex might be surprised to learn it survives (used mainly in the maritime industry), although the rise of faxing in the 1980s and email in the 1990s would largely kill off telex communication. The first telex services were used in Britain and Germany in the 1930s. It soon became an international system of sending and receiving typed messages, transmitted via teletypewriters linked by a public telecom network. Data could cost-effectively be transmitted over very long distances quicker than telegram, round the clock.
Rise and fall of the fax
Faxing’s origins date back to Scottish inventor Alexander Bain’s groundbreaking work of in the 1840s. Fax is short for facsimile or telefax, and faxing was hugely popular in UK offices until the early 21st century. For the benefit of young viewers, faxing involved using a fax machine to scan printed or written material, which was then sent via the telecom network to another fax machine, which would then automatically print off the incoming fax.
Now, entire documents could rapidly be sent almost anywhere in the world. New technology had again made business communication more immediate, convenient and cost-effective, although not using the right number could inflict irritating fax noises on unsuspecting recipients answering their telephones.
The @ system: quieter, yet busier
In 1971, American programmer Ray Tomlinson created an email system much as we know it today, including using the @ symbol to distinguish user addresses. Email was being more widely used by UK businesses from the early 1990s. It was quicker, cheaper and easier than faxing, and attachments could also be sent. Email reduced costs by saving paper and toner, while boosting productivity because less time had to be spent talking to colleagues, suppliers and customers by phone.
How is email affecting our communication habits?
Email probably made many workplaces quieter (as has instant messaging, which can be traced back to the mid 1960s, although more widespread use came in the 1990s), but probably busier too. Research published in 2013 by Warwick Business School (WBS) found that the average UK office worker sends and receives 10,000 emails a year. A fifth of office workers now never put pen to paper, while one in ten never makes phone calls at work and almost half never post a letter.
WBS researcher Will Skillman commented, ‘Since the 1950s, workplace technology has changed dramatically from telephones and typewriters to advanced personal computers, mobile communications equipment and tablet devices.
‘What isn’t clear is whether it is directly helping to improve how we work or if we’re just replacing old technologies with new. Certainly the rise of the mobile office means workers can stay plugged in on the move and for longer periods of time, but whether this has resulted in a more productive workforce remains to be seen.’
Many more types of workers are now using technology and many of us can work remotely some or all of the time. The WBS study found that 58 per cent of UK workers believe that computers, tablets and mobile phones have made them more hardworking and productive.
Do you find that technology helps you work ‘better’ – or simply harder? Join the discussion on LinkedIn or Google+.