“Communications : An International History of the Formative Years” book review by Kevin Eghrari

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“Communications : An International History of the Formative Years” written by R.W. Burns is an educational book written in chapter sequence that describes important mediums of communication. It analyzes how each medium was created, why it was created, and how it affected society in a unique way. I can easily see this book used for an undergraduate class or even a high school class about technological advancements. Before diving into the content of the book, I think it is equally important to examine the author, R.W. Burns. Burns has written a number of books under the Institution of Electrical Engineers titled “An International History of the Formative Years” with high praise, so it is no surprise that this one upholds the standard. Christopher H. Sterling, a professor at George Washington University comments on Burns’ writing style stating, “Burns writes clearly, with a contextual approach, stressing the influence of one discipline upon others over time”(Sterling). Now that we have established that Burns is a widely accredited and experienced writer in the field, we can move onto the content of the book.

com·mu·ni·ca·tion noun; the imparting or exchanging of information. Communication has been around as long as life itself. From cells exchanging DNA to the local news, communication is the backbone of living things. However, Burns does not concern himself with any standard means of communication. Instead, he focuses on technological mediums that greatly impacted society. “Communications : An International History of the Formative Years” starts a chronological summary of the evolution of effective communication as it applies to humans. Starting with ancient war signals to HD television and even future technological advancements. Burns writes a scholarly book, clearly outlining and explaining these different mediums in technology, with each new chapter able to stand on its own as an informative piece.

Burns explains that warfare was the driving force behind the first new mediums of communication. According to Burns, signaling was the first true innovation of information communication. Signaling is able to “provide the means for transmitting information from reconnaissance and other units in contact with an enemy, and the means for exercising command by transmitting the orders and instructions of commanders to their subordinates.” (Burns 1).   The process of sharing information during warfare is the most important resource.  This claim by Burns is easily backed up by the invention of the telegraph, which allowed army generals to communicate via Morse code and the invention of the first computer by Alan Turring, which was used to break Nazi code and win the war.  Technology was so important during warfare in fact that a special committee was constituted, under the chairmanship of Sir Henry Norman to help the Royal Navy implement technological mediums of communication.  “The committee held 24 meetings, examined 27 witnesses, studied various catalogues and other documents, inventions and systems, witnessed four practical demonstrations and sought evidence from various persons” (Burns 403).

Burns states, “it was only as recently as the end of the 18th century that an effective long range system of communications, able to transmit any message without the dispatch of runners or riders, was invented” (Burns 1). Burns distinguishes between effective communication and standard communication in the first page of the book reminds the reader of this when he skips from ancient communication to 18th century communication.  In the mind of Burns, it was not until the 18th century that truly innovative mediums of communication were invented such as telegraphy, telephones, computers, wireless developments, broadcasts, and finally possible new innovations.

Although at times Burns goes into too much detail about the physical creation of these technologies, his attention to detail is also helpful in understanding the evolution of these technologies.  For example,  Burns goes into detail about the Poulsen system (a system of telegraph) and why it was beneficial over the previous generation of telegraphs.  Stating, “The Poulsen system had a number of advantages [11] including: ‘[the] considerable possibilities of immunity from interference especially in combination with the heterodyne receiver; [the] immediate change to any one of a great number of wavelengths, including very long ones, far longer than could be produced with a spark set with a given aerial, which facilitate[d] working over mountainous country, and render[ed] tapping by the enemy more difficult’.” (Burns 404).  Making the benefits of the new systems clear, Burns also makes it important to understand why the change was made from the previous generation to the Poulsen system by explaining the inefficiency of the petrol engines which drove the previous generation.

The book is written in such a way that the reader is able to understand the original purpose of technological advancements while considering how the technology is used now. As a result, Burns does a great job of putting new innovations into perspective by showing their origins.  Published in 2004, under the Institution of Electrical Engineers, this book is extremely effective in examining communications technology and can be bought on Amazon.com for $95.00 hardcover and $74.00 softcover.

Bibliography:

Burns, R. W. “Communications : An International History of the Formative Years.” N.p., 2004. Web.

Alan Turing: Codebreaker and Computer Pioneer.” Alan Turing: Codebreaker and Computer Pioneer. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2015.

Signal Corps Association- TELEGRAPH SERVICE HOME PAGE.” Signal Corps Association- TELEGRAPH SERVICE HOME PAGE. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2015.

Sterling, Christopher H. “Book Review Television: An International History of the Formative Years.” N.p., n.d. Web.

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