Article - Issue 15, February/March 2003

Innovation and the Communications Revolution

By Dr John Bray (published by IEE)

Perhaps no area of human endeavour has benefited quite so strongly from the technological advances of the past two centuries as that of telecommunications. Starting with the earliest discoveries in electricity and electromagnetism, and ending with the effects of the information revolution, Dr Bray gives us a colourful picture of the individuals whose contributions have resulted in the modern, ubiquitous communication and information systems that have transformed business and personal life over the past 50 years.

The early chapters are based around short biographies of the key innovators, together with a summary of their technological contributions. Volta, Ampere, Ohm, Faraday and Oersted are all here, and the interlinking of these discoveries with the later telecommunication innovators is described in a compelling narrative style. These early chapters would make an excellent introduction to any course in telecommunications or electronics by setting recent developments in context. It might also surprise many engineers to realise the antiquity of much telecommunication technology. The French, for example, installed a facsimile system in 1851, but Dr Bray is careful to give credit to a Scottish engineer, Alexander Bain, for the invention on which this was based.

Innovation in specific telecommunication technologies is reviewed in some detail, and the major contributions of Bell, Edison, Morse, Marconi and many others are covered, providing a useful description of the basics of line and radio communication.

In describing more recent developments in this field, individual innovators become more difficult to identify. Modern development teams comprise dozens or hundreds of engineers, often working on parallel paths in different countries and organisations. There is rarely a commercial advantage to be gained by publicising the contribution of an individual, and it is only by the detailed perusal of published reports and patent applications that the names of the key innovators can be determined. Dr Bray therefore provides a valuable contribution to the history of technology by identifying many of these individual innovators, who are otherwise unknown outside their own organisations. It is perhaps inevitable that many of those he identifies worked in the British Post Office research department and its successor companies. Dr Bray had a long and distinguished career in this institution, finally as Director of Research, and it is to his considerable credit that he is able to mark the contributions of his former colleagues in this way. The choice of individuals to name from other organisations is perhaps more controversial. Some would see Bill Gates and Alan Sugar as aggressive exploiters of technology rather than innovators, and the inclusion of John Logie Baird will raise the blood pressure of many.

The later chapters recognise the difficulty of naming individuals, and abandon the attempt, but still provide a good coverage of all the relevant technologies, concluding with a good description of modern cellular telephone systems (by David Cheesman), and a glimpse at possible future developments of the coalescence of telecommunications and information technology. All the chapters provide a range of references and recommendations for further reading.

This is a book that should be in every secondary school library, and would make an excellent introductory text for many undergraduate courses in many branches of engineering. It deserves a wide audience.

Colin Gaskell – December 2002

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