The most potent driver to the establishment of civilisation has been the sharing by the members of a community of an understanding that certain utterances are associated with certain objects and concepts, all the way up to some shared intellectual values. Civilisation is preserved and enhanced from generation to generation because the members of a community agree that there is a mapping between certain utterances and certain graphical signs, even though the precise meaning of the mapping may slowly change with time.
It helps to understand the process leading to the creation of writing by looking at Chinese characters: some are known to derive from a simplified drawing of an object while others, often representing concepts, contain a character indicating the category and a second character whose sound indicates the pronounciation.
Figure 1 – Some Chinese characters
Writing enables a human not only to communicate with his fellow humans in different parts of the globe but also to leave messages beyond his life span. A future generation will be able to revisit the experience of people who have departed possibly centuries or even millennia before, often with difficulty because of the mentioned drift of the mapping.
Since the earliest times Public Authorities have always had a keen interest in matters related to communication. In most civilisations priesthood have, if not developed, certainly taken over the art of writing. In historical times it is possible to trace back to the political considerations behind the adoption of the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets in Middle and Eastern Europe, the adoption of Chinese characters in Japan, Korea and Vietnam, the introduction of the hangul alphabet in Korea as a replacement of Chinese characters, the replacement of the Arabic alphabet with the Latin one in post World War I Turkey, the use of the Cyrillic alphabet in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia and its recent replacement with the Latin alphabet in Turkish-speaking former Soviet republics. Beyond writing, one can recall the policy of the daimyos in medieval Japan to foster diversity of speech in their territories so as to spot intruders more easily, or the prohibition still enforced in some multi-ethnic countries dominated by one particular ethnical group to make it a crime, sometimes even punished with the death penalty, to broadcast or even speak in a public place a language different from the “official” one.
While late 16th century Italy, with its lack of political unity (a “geographic expression” said Metternich, an Austrian foreign minister in the early 19th century), witnessed the spontaneous formation of the “Accademia della Crusca” with its self-assigned goal of preserving the Florentine language of Dante, in France the Académie française, established a few decades later by Cardinal Richelieu, is to this day the official body in charge of the definition of the French Language, whose use has been reaffirmed a few years ago by the Loi Toubon. Similarly, the German Bundestag approved a law that amended the way the German language should be written. From that time on, law-abiding Germans fond of Italian cuisine shall stop eating spaghetti and start eating Spagetti instead. In Japan the Ministry of Education publishes a list of Chinese characters (Touyou Kanji) that are taught in elementary schools and used in newspapers. These are all attempts at strengthening the ties of a community through the formal codification of verbal or written expressions. Unfortunately – or fortunately, as the case may be – sometimes the success of its implementation falls short of intentions.
From early on, technology extended peoples’ communication capabilities in ways that Public Authorities did not necessarily welcome. Regulating the use of goose pens was not easy to implement because of the large supply of “raw material”, so the goal of inhibiting the dissemination of “dangerous” ideas was effectively achieved by keeping people in ignorance. It was printing, with the greater ease for interested people to disseminate their views, which provided Public Authorities with their first technology-induced challenge. The Catholic Church wanted to retain control of orthodoxy and decided to introduce “imprimatur“, a seal of “absence of disapproval” meaning that there was no opposition (“nihil obstat”) on the part of the Church to the printing of a particular book. It did not take long for civil authorities to emulate the Church, so much so that “freedom of the press” did become one of the first claims made by the different revolutions that affected Europe in the late 18th and all of the 19th centuries, while the Americans got it earlier – but not at the very beginning of their independence – as the First Amendment to their Constitution.
The mail service is an example of Public Authorities proactively fostering communication, but mail is a communication system largely intended to be person-to-person. The mail service started in the UK in 1840 with the introduction of prepaid letters and developed quickly in all countries soon afterwards. All countries charged a uniform rate for all letters of a certain weight within their countries, regardless of the distance involved. The conflicting web of postal services and regulations linking the different countries was overcome by the General Postal Union (GPU), established in 1874 by a number of states, and renamed Universal Postal Union (UPU) in 1878, when the member states succeeded in defining a single postal territory where the principle of “freedom of transit” for letters applied and mail items could by exchanged using a single rate. This did not mean that restrictions were not applied, though. Censorship has now disappeared in most countries, but Public Authorities still retain the right, in special circumstances and subject to certain rules, to open letters.
The invention of telegraphy must have caused great concern to Public Authorities, because their citizens were suddenly given the technical means to instantly communicate with anybody, first within and later even outside of their country. But theirs was a brave reaction: after the first confused restrictions, when a telegram had to be transcribed, translated and handed over in paper at the frontier between two countries before being retransmitted over the telegraph network of the neighbouring country, Public Authorities of that time took the very forward-looking attitude of agreeing on a single “information representation” standard, i.e. a single code to represent a given character. It did take some time, but eventually they got there. All this was facilitated by the establishment in 1865 of the International Telegraph Convention, one of the first examples of sovereign states ceding part of their authority to a specific supranational organisation catering for common needs. In 1885, following the invention of the telephone and the subsequent expansion of telephony, the International Telegraph Convention began to draw up international rules for telephony as well.
In 1906, after the invention of radio, the first International Radiotelegraph Convention was signed. The International Telephone Consultative Committee (CCIF), set up in 1924, the International Telegraph Consultative Committee (CCIT), set up in 1925, and the International Radio Consultative Committee (CCIR), set up in 1927 were made responsible for drawing up international standards. In 1927, the Convention allocated frequency bands to the various radio services existing at the time (fixed, maritime and aeronautical mobile, broadcasting, amateur, and experimental). In 1934 the International Telegraph Convention of 1865 and the International Radiotelegraph Convention of 1906 were merged and became the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). In 1956, the CCIT and the CCIF were amalgamated to give rise to the International Telephone and Telegraph Consultative Committee (CCITT). Today the CCITT is called ITU-T and the CCIR is called ITU-R. We now take it for granted that we can make fixed-line telephone calls and listen to analogue radio everywhere in the world, but this is the result of decades of efforts by the people who have worked in these international committees to make this happen – a unique achievement if one thinks of the belligerent attitude of countries of those times.
In the 1930s, the UK started a television broadcasting system, with 405 horizontal scanning lines and 25 interlaced frames/second. The USA did the same in 1942 but with a system that had 525 lines and 30 interlaced frames/second. After the end of World War II and each at different times, the other European countries introduced their television systems – all with 625 horizontal scanning lines and 25 interlaced frames/second and were followed by the UK that had to manage a dual system (405 and 625 lines) for several decades. Maybe because the ravages of World War II were still so vivid in people’s minds, the same system was adopted over all of Europe, possibly the only example of such a large-scale agreement on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
A complex tug-of-war started when progress in pick up tubes, displays and electronics in general made colour television possible. The United States extended their system and defined a nation-wide television standard defined by and known as National Television System Committee (NTSC). In doing so they had to change the original frame frequency of 30.00 Hz to 29.97 Hz (Americans call it trial and error, and they claim it works). Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, and most countries in the American continent that had already adopted the 525-line 30 Hz television standard soon adopted NTSC.
A few years later Europe witnessed the competition between the German-originated system called Phase Alternating Lines (PAL) and the French-originated system Séquentiel à Mémoire (SECAM) that spread across countries and continents, a fact reminiscent of battles of yore but, thanks God, less bloody this time. PAL and SECAM extended their influence also to the American continent, the Monroe doctrine notwithstanding. Two of the three Guyanas use PAL, but the French Guyana uses SECAM, Argentina chose PAL but with a different colour subcarrier and Brazil decided to add its own indigenous version of PAL on top of the original American 525 lines 30.00 Hz TV system.
This bifurcation – the first major split in international telecommunication standards – was justified because the Very High Frequency (VHF) radio band – around 100 MHz – and later of the Ultra High Frequency (UHF) radio band – a few 100s MHz – did not allow propagation beyond line of sight. While Short Wave (SW) and Medium Wave (MW) radio that could propagate for thousands of kilometres, television could be made a strictly “national business” and managed accordingly – a blessing of God for the local Public Authorities. The CCIR became a place where countries would come and inform the body of their decisions and the CCIR, much as a Notary Public, dutifully recorded the information provided. The result is that ITU-R Recommendation 624 “Television systems”, is a document with over thirty pages, full of tables where minuscule and large countries alike competing in footnotes stating that they reserve the right to adopt, say, a different frequency tolerance compared to the value adopted by other countries. This is clearly not because, all of a sudden, the Maxwell equations governing propagation of radio waves start behaving differently when a border is crossed, but because of a conscious policy decision driven by the desire to protect the national manufacturing industry or to keep foreign television programs out of the national market, or both. Interestingly, though, Frequency Modulation (FM) radio that uses the same frequency band as television, and has accordingly the same propagation constraints, is the same all over the world.
All colour television systems are based on the idea of filling in some “holes” in the spectrum of the monochrome TV signal – called Y signal – with the spectrum of two colour difference signals, U = R-Y and V = B-Y. From these 3 signals a receiver can recover the three RGB colour primaries and drive the flying spot with the right colour information to the corresponding phosphors.
Interestingly, Public Authorities had little concern of communication means other than telecommunication and broadcasting. For instance formats for tapes, cassettes and discs have consistently and independently been defined by private enterprises, as shown by the cases of the Compact Disc (CD) or the Vertical Helix Scan (VHS) format for video cassette recording universally adopted after the market has issued its verdict between competing technologies. The International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), in charge of international standards for all electrical, electronic, and related technologies, has a role similar to the one played by ITU-R for television systems.
The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) deals with such communication standards as photography, cinematography and Information Technology (IT). The ISO work on photography and cinematography has ensured that anybody could buy a camera anywhere in the world and a film anywhere else in the world – choosing among a small number of formats – and be sure that there is a film that fits in the camera. Examples of IT standards produced or ratified by ISO are character set codes, such as the 7-bit American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII), also known as (aka) ISO/IEC 646, 8-bit Latin 1 (ISO/IEC 8859-1) and the 16-bit Unicode (part of ISO/IEC 10646).