ANNI MIRABILES: 1791

What was the most important year ever? Andrew Marr suggests it was probably 1776, but Tom Standage, The Economist's digital editor, recalls the first time information could be transmitted faster than a letter

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2009

It was the year Claude Chappe and his brothers first demonstrated their new invention for sending messages rapidly over long distances, using a system of telescopes and movable panels mounted on towers. For the first time information could be transmitted faster than a letter could be carried by horse or ship. Chappe’s invention, the “télégraphe”, was swiftly adopted by the French state, which built a nationwide network.

1791 also saw the birth of Samuel Morse, the American artist and inventor who developed an improved version of the telegraph based on sending electrical impulses along wires. The telegraph transformed commerce, politics and social relations, as did its successors: the telephone, the telex, and eventually the internet and mobile phones. More than half the world’s population now has a mobile. The process of building a global telecommunications network linking everyone on earth, which seems likely to be completed in the next few years, began in 1791. It has changed the world.

Tom Standage is The Economist's digital editor. He writes A Game, a Gadget and an App for Intelligent Life and is the author of "An Edible History of Humanity" and "Writing on the Wall"

Picture Alan Kitching