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How do we communicate with people who aren’t nearby? Today we can simply reach into our pockets, grab our mobile phone, and dial a number. But 130 years ago there were no phones to be had (except for the experimental one in Alexander Graham Bell’s workshop). But there was still an urgent need to communicate with people far away, even then!
Vital Stats:
Associated Subjects: History, Social Studies, Science
Grade Levels: 4-6
Time Required: one class period, maybe two
Skills Used: critical thinking, discussion skills, essay writing, reading, working collaboratively
CO Curriculum Standards Addressed: History 1, 2, 4; Science 1, 5; Reading & Writing 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

This lesson explores the ways in which people communicated without telephones, the limitations of these methods, and thus the reasons for the invention of the telephone.

Guiding Questions:
Suggested Activities:
Before doing any reading or research, ask students how they would communicate with one another without the use of their phones (and without computers!). Would they send messengers? Would they use the post office to send letters?

Next read and discuss the various methods that were used historically to communicate: smoke signals, couriers, and, finally, telegraphs. Ask students to list (either on their own or as a group) the advantages and limitations of each, and discuss these in class. For instance, smoke signals are limited in terms of how much information they can get across and the environment in which they can operate; couriers can get very specific information across (through letters, etc.) but are hampered by distance (taking days or weeks to reach their destinations); the telegraph overcame these distance and time limitations, but still needed to have an encoder on one end and a decoder on the other.

Use the information in “Smoke Signals” to have the pairs of students create and “send” messages to one another (not, obviously, using real smoke, but just describing the “puffs” of smoke through gestures and working out a code between them). Demonstrate how intervening terrain (e.g., other students) can block the signal.

If you have time, you can also demonstrate how a telegraph works and discuss Morse code with the students. Have them use Morse code to write letters to one another. Then discuss the ways in which this is still more difficult than simply talking over the telephone.

This lesson can be evaluated strictly on class participation and the ideas discussed. You can also have the students write an essay after the lesson comparing the telephone with the other communication methods discussed and discussing the ways in which the telephone is better (or worse!).

Extension: How has email and instant messaging changed the way we communicate (from, for instance, just using the telephone)? Is something lost in not being able to hear a person’s voice? Are emoticons a good substitute or indicator of how a person feels? What about the effect of cell phones on family life (e.g., parents always on the phone to work, less time for kids), friendships, health, etc.?

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