Long distance communication didn’t start until the 19th century, right? Actually there has been effective, instantaneous long distance communication for thousands of years. It wasn’t as complex as it was today, but smoke signals have been an effective way of instantly communicating for cultures all around the world, and, as we all saw with the recent news from the Vatican, are still used today.

The technology was simple. By burning wet grass, a column of smoke formed. The smoke could be seen for dozens of miles, giving news far faster than it could travel by horse or person.

At first smoke signals were a simple binary form of communication. You see smoke, that means danger. No smoke, no danger. But some cultures developed amazingly complex smoke languages based on multiple fires and covering up the fire momentarily with a blanket to cause the smoke to billow in distinct streams. Two thousand years ago, the Greeks were using smoke signals to send whole sentences, rather slowly.

Make fun of smoke signals all you like, but they were effective line-of-sight communication that worked (unless it was raining or foggy.) in the days before electricity they worked astoundingly well, could be operated with only a minimum of training, and never required rebooting.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.