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The Evolution of Storytelling Technology

From cave art to virtual reality, a timeline of communication methods.
French Minister for Culture Andre Malraux (L) looks at the prehistoric paintings during his visits at the Lascaux caves, on March 13th, 1967.

French Minister for Culture Andre Malraux (L) looks at the prehistoric paintings during his visits at the Lascaux caves, on March 13th, 1967.

Cave Art ~35,000 Years Ago

The French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argued that early human art depicted animals "not because they are 'good to eat' but because they are 'good to think.'"

Cuneiform ~5,000 to 6,000 Years Ago

One of the earliest forms of written communication, cuneiform's wedge-shaped and linear characters developed over centuries in ancient Mesopotamia, eventually becoming sophisticated enough to convey fictional and non-fictional narratives. Over 300,000 inscribed clay tablets survive to this day.

Library ~3,000 to 5,000 Years Ago

By about 3000 B.C.E., carefully organized libraries had been built to hold hundreds of thousands of tablets inscribed with government, business, and temple records. Hammurabi's Code of Laws, inscribed in tiny cuneiform script on a seven-foot basalt stele, details one of the most elaborate early law systems, including around 30 different crimes that garnered the death penalty.

Alphabet ~2,800 to 3,200 Years Ago

Though the Phoenicians of present-day Egypt are thought to have introduced the alphabet concept to the Greeks sometime around the eighth century B.C.E., the Greek alphabet was more advanced, and was written with a more cursive flourish. Scholars credit the innovation—using a consistent set of shapes that can be combined and rearranged into different words—with democratizing knowledge, a revolution on par with the printing press.

Printing Press 1440s

In the half-century following Johannes Gutenberg's invention, 10 million books were printed, and the price of a book fell by two-thirds. Industrial-scale printing united once-disparate academic disciplines, turning the print shop into a cultural center. Centuries later, myths swirled that Johann Fust, financier for Gutenberg's original press, had been working for the devil, probably a consequence of the similarities between his surname and that of the blasphemous and morally bankrupt Dr. Faust from German lore.

Typewriter 1714

Although a commercially successful typewriter wasn't created until the early 1870s, in 1714 an Englishman named Henry Mill received a patent for a machine capable of the "impressing or transcribing of letters, one after another, as in writing." Several early "writing machine" prototypes were created to help the blind write.

Moving Pictures 1878

In 1878, the British photographer Eadweard Muybridge captured a series of photographs of a galloping racehorse to prove that all of a horse's hooves are simultaneously aloft mid-gallop. He then projected the images onto a screen in quick succession with a device he called a zoopraxiscope, which, in turn, inspired the moving-picture camera that Thomas Edison's laboratories developed a decade later.

Television 1927

Philo T. Farnsworth, who spent much of his childhood on a farm without electricity, invented the first working electronic television in 1927 at the age of 21. He only once appeared on TV—on the quiz show I've Got a Secret. None of the contestants had any idea who he was.

Virtual Reality 1980s

Virtual reality has been around since at least the 1980s, and the United States military has utilized it for combat simulation for nearly as long. Recently, it has been used—with preliminary success—to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder. The market for consumer-side virtual- and augmented-reality video games and mental-health services is expected to reach $162 billion by 2020.

A version of this story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Pacific Standard as a sidebar to "Revising the Bible."