Communications Systems

Communication is the exchange of ideas and information among living things. A wolf communicates subservience by lowering its head. Many insects emit chemical substances to signal a mate. Whales communicate with gentle vocalizations.

Communication is a system that humans certainly use everyday. We speak to people, write messages, use the telephone, watch television, listen to the radio, use a computer, and more. What would your life be like if you couldn't talk to communicate how you feel, what you want, and what your plans are? Communication is sharing knowledge, telling news, expressing feelings, and being heard. It takes two to communicate--one to say it and one to listen and respond.

People have always had the need to communicate. Anciently, communication was primarily pictures painted on cave walls or other rock surfaces to tell about a successful hunt or a travel route or a spiritual belief. Oral language followed and then the written word.

Humans have been inventive in their systems of communication. Greek soldiers sent messages by turning their shields toward the sun. The flashes of reflected light could be seen several miles away. Romans built long rows of signal towers, and soldiers shouted messages from tower to tower. (This sounds like an exhausting system of communication, doesn't it?) Some Native Americans used smoke signals to send messages. Peoples from Africa sometimes sent messages by beating on a series of large drums. Each drum was kept within hearing distance of the next one. The drum beats were sent out in a special code that all the drummers understood. Though the messages were simple, they could be sent at great speed for hundreds of miles.

For most of human history, messages could only go as fast as the speed of someone walking on foot or the speed of a horse or the speed of a sailing ship. Today, advances in science and technology have revolutionized communications so that information can reach huge numbers of people in minutes. Changes in communication technology have brought the world closer together and made possible our current explosion of information.

Communication also has a creative aspect. Art has the ability to communicate feelings and ideas with a variety of media. Visual artists communicate through pictures, dancers through dance, musicians through music, and writers and poets through words.

Sample some of the following activities to learn more about systems of communications.


Places To Go    People To See    Things To Do    Teacher Resources    Bibliography

Places To Go

The following are some places to go (some real and some virtual) to find out more about systems of communication:

Local Television Stations
How about a tour of your local radio or TV station? KUTV, KSL, and KTVX television in Salt Lake City all give tours.
The Museum of Broadcast Communications
The Museum of Broadcast Communications examines popular culture and contemporary American history through the sights and sounds of television and radio.
A Virtual Tour of Southwest American Desert Petroglyphs
Virtually visit canyons, caves, and ancient thoroughfares to explore Native American petroglyphs. Ancient native peoples of theUnited States communicated through the signs and symbols that they carved into rock surfaces.

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People To See

Alexander Graham Bell
Bell has been credited with inventing the telephone. He first was a teacher of the deaf before conceiving of the idea of "electronic speech."
Ask Dr. Universe
Ask all your communication-related questions. She is very knowledgeable. You can also search through her archives of past questions and answers.
How did the Internet Get Started?
Can you believe the invention of the internet goes back to Sputnik in 1957 and President Dwight D. Eisenhower creating a group called the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in 1958 as a direct response to Sputnik's launch. This HowStuffWorks website has the rest of the story.
Mad Scientists Network
The Mad Scientists Network is a "global, collective cranium of scientists providing answers to your questions." Ask them anything.
Philo T Farnsworth
Read about the man who invented television and was born in Beaver, Utah.

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Things To Do

The Animated Sign Language Dictionary
American Sign Language is a system of communication. Learn more about it. This animated online dictionary will show you how. Learn how to sign your name or learn how to sign a simple phrase and share it with your friends.
Braille is a system of small, raised dots that blind individuals use to read and communicate.
Coat of Arms
In medieval times when knights wore helmets and full armor, it was hard to tell who was who in battle. So many knights had a coat of arms--a design which decorated his shield, his lance, and even his horse.
Come To Your Senses
We communicate and receive messages through each of our five senses. When we hear the siren of a fire engine, what is the message that we receive? When we sniff a container of milk and it has a bad smell, what is the message that we get?
Composer Biographies
Music communicates many emotions.
Crocodile Talk
According to this site, "Crocodilians are the most vocal of all reptiles, and calls vary widely depending on species, age, size and sex. Context is also very important, and some species can communicate over 20 different kinds of messages through sound alone."
Dolphin Communication
Try and communicate with the pets at your house. Do you think that humans can really understand animals? What is your cat communicating when she rubs her head against your leg? What is she communicating when she climbs your curtains? How would animals and humans benefit by learning to speak a common language?
Elephant Communication
From a zoologist who has studied elephants for 25 years, learn some of the subtle and not so subtle ways that elephants communicate. They use touch, visual signals, chemical cues, and vocalizations. This is part of the PBS series, Nature.
Graffiti is a system of communication. What kinds of messages does graffiti send? Are they all negative messages?
Homing Pigeons
Homing pigeons used to be used to carry messages. Are they still used? Find out their role in World War I. Whatever happened to carrier pigeons? According to this site, "Pigeons are more trustworthy than modern technology."
How Telephones Work
Imagine your life without a telephone. How hard would it be to keep up your present personal communications? You could still keep in touch with friends through email and chat--but would you want to email your pizza order? Find out more about the history of telephones, and learn about Alexander Graham Bell.
How TV Works
Learn about the principles of light, sound, and electromagnetic waves. AND find out how your remote control works, too.
Johannes Gutenberg
Describe how Gutenberg affected the history of communication.
Morse Code
Using the system of dots and dashes, figure out how to tap a message in Morse code--you can even hear Morse code! If you and a friend BOTH learn Morse code, you can tap out messages to each other during school, and no one will know what you are talking about! Find out more about Samuel Morse, the developer of Morse code.
Name in Hieroglyphics
The ancient Egyptians, of course, used hieroglyphics as their system of written language. This site is great fun. You can enter your name and then see what it would look like in hieroglyphics. Vikings used a written language called runes.
Find out about the technologies that go into producing a modern newspaper.
Pony Express Home Station
The Pony Express only lasted from April 1860 to October 1861, but during that time, it was the fastest way to communicate from the east coast of the United States to the west. What other new system of communication in the U.S. lessened the need for the Pony Express?
Spy Letters of the American Revolution Spy letters! Spy activities! Rachel Revere tried to send her husband, Paul, a letter with money in it after his midnight ride. A spy stole the letter and stole the money! Spies DO need a system of communication. Compare how spies communicated in the 1700's and how you think they probably communicate today.
Television History
Study the history of perhaps the most prolific communications medium of the 20th Century.
The Transistor
Celebrate more than 50 years of the transistor, the device that led to a communications revolution.
Whale Songs
Even whales have a system of communication.

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Teacher Resources

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  • Aliki. Communication. New York: Greenwillow Books, 1993.
  • Brown, Marc. Arthur Writes A Story. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.
  • Brown, Marc. Arthur Writes A Story [videorecording]; plus, Locked in the Library. New York: Random House Home Video, 1997.
  • Buller, Laura and Taylor, Ron. Science in Action. Communications: New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1990.
  • Gay, Kathlyn. Getting your Message Across. New york: New Discovery Books, 1993.
  • Jay, Michael. The History of Communications. New York: Thomson Learning, 1995.
  • Mead, Richard. I Wonder Why the Telephone Rings. New York: Kingfisher, 1996.
  • Streissguth, Thomas. Communications: Sending the Message. Minneapolis : OLiver Press, 1997.
  • Ventura, Piero. Communication: Means and Technologies for Exchanging Information. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.