When we were kids there was a joke about the three fastest forms of communication -- "Telephone, telegraph, tell-a-woman." Groan. Just as we have seen changes in forms of humor over the last half-century, we have seen great changes in forms of communication. Many children of today would not even know what the 'telegraph' was were it not for old Western movies on television. Most may never have reason to send or receive a telegram. The new technologies that have evolved make communications systems a more important design component than ever before. Their value for making person-to-person contact, exchange of information and conduct of research is unsurpassed. Most designs will incorporate one or more of the interconnected systems discussed below.


While being the 'oldest' of the modern systems of communication, the telephone has maintained its place of importance because of its immediacy of personal contact, reliability, universality, innovations and adaptability. With the evolution of the cellular phone and satellite-transmitted connections, the phone has become unfettered from location and users are theoretically always within reach of each other. However, the telephone's most important characteristic is that it provides the platform and infrastructure for many other communications technologies.


"What's your FAX number?" Many assume that if one has a phone one also has access to a FAX machine, a technology that sends the printed word or graphics over the phone lines by breaking the image down into digital bits and reassembling them at the receiving end into a facsimile image. It is a quick and effective way of transferring information.


The personal computer, connected to the phone lines through a modem, has become a powerful communications and information access interface. Users may connect to another personal computer, a server computer on a local bulletin board system, a national commercial server such as America Online or Compuserve, or into the Internet, a worldwide mesh of computer networks, using a local service. Communications choices consist of electronic mail, discussion groups, and research and information retrieval.

•Electronic Mail

E-mail works much like regular mail (now called snail-mail or s-mail) in that one sends messages to another person and gets messages back in return. The mail is sent through a computer server that forwards the mail to a destination address where it is held until the receiver retrieves it. Messages may be forwarded, sent to more than one person at a time, and may have text files attached to them.

•Discussion Groups

Discussion groups are of two main types -- Mailing Lists and News Groups. There are thousands of these subject-oriented forums available. To receive discussion material one must specifically subscribe to the forum in which one is interested. If one joins a mailing list every message sent to that list will be sent to the subscriber automatically. If one subscribes to a news group the discussions (threads) are stored in a central computer and may be accessed at the user's discretion. In both cases, the user may just read messages or participate fully in the discussion by typing in messages. A third type of discussion group allows users to have interactive, real-time chats either one-on-one or as a member of a larger 'room' full of participants.

•Research and Information Retrieval

There are several services for retrieval of information. File Transfer Protocol (FTP) allows material to be downloaded from computers around the world. Archie, WAIS, Gopher and Veronica have search and find functions that work on keyword clues from the user and assist in finding relevant FTP files for transfer. World Wide Web (WWW) is the most user-friendly of the electronic services. It incorporates global hypertext allowing a 'web' page to have text, graphics and the links to an infinite number of associated pages on other computers around the world.