Top 10 innovations in human communication

From cave paintings to the internet, homo sapiens—and our thick-browed forebears—have worked to develop new means of conveying information and opinions.

Top 10 communication innovations

Communication predates human speech, and our early ancestors found ways to land their message.

Over the millennia, grunting and pointing have evolved—for the most part, anyway—into more sophisticated modes of expression.

Along the way, inventions and innovations have sprouted in fertile minds.

Here, then, is a completely subjective—yet excruciatingly authoritative—list of the top 10 advances in human (or Cro-Magnon) communication, and how their relatives live on today:

10. Pantomime. Acting out the pursuit of or by other animals was essential to pre-verbal communication, as it enabled Gronk and his immediate family to gain sustenance and avoid danger. It developed into such forms as theater, ballet and silent films, as well as the artistry of Marcel Marceau. It also gave rise to lesser-talented street mimes and the party game of Charades.

9. Pens and pencils. Gronk’s descendants discerned that charred wood could leave a mark, even a straight or curved line. That discovery would later come in handy. Its progeny, pencils and pens—quills, fountain pens, ballpoints and so on—provided precision in conveying ideas to help deepen our understanding of the world. (That is, until a Sharpie fell into the wrong hands.)

8. Paper/papyrus. Of course, writing implements serve no purpose without a surface upon which to scrawl. As paper proliferated, ideas could be written down and transported. Scrolls and books helped with the latter endeavor.

7. Alphabet/cuneiform. To ensure such scrawl was intelligible, a system of symbols was needed to codify the grunts that had become refined into words. These collections of characters varied by culture, of course, but the organizing principle was in place. Consider the various alphabets we use today: Braille, Morse code, semaphore, sign language and more.

6. Cave paintings. These early visuals had the advantage (over pantomime) of permanence. Some exist to this day, offering a glimpse into the lives—and demises—of cave-dwellers. They are also the forerunners of other visual forms, including frescoes, watercolors, finger painting, PowerPoint and TikTok.

5. Typewriter. Imagine the acceleration of ideas that this 19th-century marvel made possible. Key jams and uncooperative ribbons aside, the utility of this complex machine revolutionized how writers put their thoughts down on paper. Yes, to this day many prefer a pen and a yellow pad for a closer connection to their writing, but journalists, corporate communicators and others writing on deadline will make a vehement case for the merits of the typewriter and its offspring: the word processor and the computer keyboard.

4. Radio/television. Thank you, Guglielmo Marconi. His pioneering work applied the principle of radio waves to telegraphic messaging and made the transmission of sound—and later images—possible across great distances. Satellites, of course, expanded the reach of Earth-bound transmission towers.

3. Printing press. Johannes Gutenberg’s invention made mass production and distribution of printed works possible, helping to educate huge swaths of the world population. Books, magazines and newspapers all were made possible by this brilliant invention.

2. Internet. Even with all its flaws, where would we be without the worldwide interwebs? We have ever-expanding stores of information (including the citations in this article) at our fingertips. We can send emails or text messages halfway around the world in an instant. We can swiftly spread news or warnings of potential disaster to broad or micro-targeted audiences. Plus, we have 24/7 access to otter videos.

1. Delete key. Without rigorous editing, writing can devolve into blather. The delete key is the modern great-grandchild of the eraser, the scratch-out, and the crumpled page hurled furiously across the room. Whether you collaborate with a professional editor—as you should—or hand off your work to someone for an objective assessment (and pruning), a second set of eyes is essential. If you must edit your own stuff, wait awhile after you’ve finished the writing phase, come back at it objectively, and, when possible, cut it in half.

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