Long-distance communication: From fire beacons to ósanwe in Middle Earth


The Lord of the Rings movies are classics for the holiday season. The mythological past of J.R.R. Tolkien is so influential that it even inspired a Dutch town, Geldrop, to name streets after the inhabitants of Middle Earth. As Tolkien fans know, there are many ways in Middle Earth for different beings to communicate over long distances. The fire beacons of Gondor, the horn of Boromir, the eagles of Manwë, and the war drums of Orcs are among some fantastic examples. Yet even fans may not know that they are quite in tune with the factual past. Long-distance communication has been critical throughout the history of humanity and is obviously not a modern era phenomenon. But how did people communicate at a distance before the arrival of smartphones?

Smokey stuff
Thousands of years ago, long-distance communication was a matter of survival, maybe more so than today. Under constant threat of attack, humankind invented visual messaging systems, so-called semaphores. These systems made use of smoke, lights, flags, and anything visible at a distance. From indigenous tribes of North America to Ancient Greeks, people utilised puffs of smoke to communicate simple messages but above all to signal danger. Smoke signals are even still used today, for example when white smoke billows out of the chimney on top of the Sistine chapel to signal a new Pope has been elected.

While smoke signals were useful, the number of messages they could convey was quite limited. For this reason, people developed various semaphoric alphabets. Flag semaphore, for instance, denotes letters by waving flags in a specific pattern, and can convey arbitrary messages. France was the first country to introduce a large-scale semaphore network, which once connected Paris to Amsterdam, and used it throughout the Napoleonic wars. Ironically enough, the semaphore signals that were mainly used on battlefields became a symbol for peace. The universally known peace symbol is a graphic representation of the semaphoric letters N and D, denoting ‘nuclear disarmament’.

Aside from visual methods for long-distance communication, people throughout time also developed systems to overcome long distances with sound, using anything that would reach further than the human voice. Bells, horns, whistles and drums are just a few. Horns were, for instance, crucial tools for Roman armies to communicate attacks on the battlefield and were used by post riders to alert villagers of their arrival. Modern date descendants of horns are still used, mostly for ceremonial purposes, and many countries have horns as a logo for their national postal services. In contrast to semaphore systems, though, these auditory systems did not immediately jump to an alphabetical code, but instead used drums and whistles to imitate the language itself (Read more about drum- and whistled languages in this blog and this blog)

Passed from one village to another, visual and auditory signals could carry messages across hundreds of kilometres in a matter of hours, and were much faster than horse riders or homing pigeons. But they had one large drawback; they were limited by the terrain and the weather. In dense forests, high mountains, and in thunderstorms, seeing smoke signals or hearing drums was very difficult. For more stable communication, a different system was developed in the early 19th century: An electrical telegraph.

The telegraph used bursts of current to send messages over a wire, and eventually replaced most existing long-distance communication systems. Employing a standardised code called morse code, electrical signals were converted to dots and dashes, encoding letter sequences. The international distress signal SOS is, for instance, made up of the morse code sequence (… – – – …). Electrical telegraphs made communication faster and more efficient, and came with another great benefit: privacy. But as technology advanced, even they were replaced – first with telephones, radios, and television; and now with mobile phones and the internet, which have ushered in a completely new level of global communication.

To the future… and beyond?
The last century has witnessed huge technological advances in a massively short space of time evolutionary speaking. With this speed, smartphones might soon be exhibited as curiosities in museums. What will modern technology and scientific development offer us in the following decades? Take for instance brain-to-brain interface, a technology that enables direct transmission of brain activity. Although early in development, it has the potential to change the way we communicate in the future (whether we want it or not; see this essay. If Tolkien’s fantasies come true, we may at some point even have (synthetic) telepathic communications, like the ósanwe between Galadriel and Elrond…

Sources and further reading

  • Dilhac, J-D. (2001). The Telegraph of Claude Chappe: An optical telecommunication network for the 18th century. IEEE Conference on the History of Telecommunications.
  • Gleick, J. (2011). The information: A history, a theory, a flood. Pantheon: Random House.
  • Grau, C. et al (2014). Conscious brain-to-brain communication in humans using non-invasive technologies. PLOS ONE 9, 1–6.
  • Holzmann, G.J, & Pehrson, B. (1994). The Early History of Data Networks. Wiley.
  • Huurdeman, A. A. (2003). The Worldwide History of Telecommunications. Wiley.
  • Jiang, L. et al. (2019). BrainNet: A Multi-Person Brain-to-Brain Interface for Direct Collaboration Between Brains. Sci Rep 9, 6115.

Writer: Hatice Zora
Editor: Sophie Slaats, Eva Poort
Dutch translation: Lynn Eekhof
German translation: Barbara Molz