Optical communication, also known as optical telecommunication, is communication at a distance using light to carry information. It can be performed visually or by using electronic devices. The earliest basic forms of optical communication date back several millennia, while the earliest electrical device created to do so was the photophone, invented in 1880.
An optical communication system uses a transmitter, which encodes a message into an optical signal, a channel, which carries the signal to its destination, and a receiver, which reproduces the message from the received optical signal. When electronic equipment is not employed the 'receiver' is a person visually observing and interpreting a signal, which may be either simple (such as the presence of a beacon fire) or complex (such as lights using color codes or flashed in a Morse code sequence).
Free-space optical communication has been deployed in space, while terrestrial forms are naturally limited by geography, weather and the availability of light. This article provides a basic introduction to different forms of optical communication.
Visual techniques such as smoke signals, beacon fires, hydraulic telegraphs, ship flags and semaphore lines were the earliest forms of optical communication.Hydraulic telegraph semaphores date back to the 4th century BCE Greece. Distress flares are still used by mariners in emergencies, while lighthouses and navigation lights are used to communicate navigation hazards.
The heliograph uses a mirror to reflect sunlight to a distant observer.When a signaler tilts the mirror to reflect sunlight, the distant observer sees flashes of light that can be used to transmit a prearranged signaling code. Naval ships often use signal lamps and Morse code in a similar way.
Aircraft pilots often use visual approach slope indicator (VASI) projected light systems to land safely, especially at night. Military aircraft landing on an aircraft carrier use a similar system to land correctly on a carrier deck. The coloured light system communicates the aircraft's height relative to a standard landing glideslope. As well, airport control towers still use Aldis lamps to transmit instructions to aircraft whose radios have failed.
In the present day a variety of electronic systems optically transmit and receive information carried by pulses of light. Fiber-optic communication cables are now employed to send the great majority of the electronic data and long distance telephone calls that are not conveyed by either radio, terrestrial microwave or satellite. Free-space optical communications are also used every day in various applications.
A 'semaphore telegraph', also called a 'semaphore line', 'optical telegraph', 'shutter telegraph chain', 'Chappe telegraph', or 'Napoleonic semaphore', is a system used for conveying information by means of visual signals, using towers with pivoting arms or shutters, also known as blades or paddles. Information is encoded by the position of the mechanical elements; it is read when the shutter is in a fixed position.
Semaphore lines were a precursor of the electrical telegraph. They were far faster than post riders for conveying a message over long distances, but far more expensive and less private than the electrical telegraph lines which would later replace them. The maximum distance that a pair of semaphore telegraph stations can bridge is limited by geography, weather and the availability of light; thus, in practical use, most optical telegraphs used lines of relay stations to bridge longer distances. Each relay station would also require its complement of skilled operator-observers to convey messages back and forth across the line.
The modern design of semaphores was first foreseen by the British polymath Robert Hooke, who first gave a vivid and comprehensive outline of visual telegraphy in a 1684 submission to the Royal Society. His proposal (which was motivated by military concerns following the Battle of Vienna the preceding year) was not put into practice during his lifetime.
The first operational optical semaphore line arrived in 1792, created by the French engineer Claude Chappe and his brothers, who succeeded in covering France with a network of 556 stations stretching a total distance of 4,800 kilometres (3,000 mi). It was used for military and national communications until the 1850s.
Many national services adopted signaling systems different from the Chappe system. For example, Britain and Sweden adopted systems of shuttered panels (in contradiction to the Chappe brothers' contention that angled rods are more visible). In Spain, the engineer Agustín de Betancourt developed his own system which was adopted by that state. This system was considered by many experts in Europe better than Chappe's, even in France.
These systems were popular in the late 18th to early 19th century but could not compete with the electrical telegraph, and went completely out of service by 1880.
Semaphore Flags is the system for conveying information at a distance by means of visual signals with hand-held flags, rods, disks, paddles, or occasionally bare or gloved hands. Information is encoded by the position of the flags, objects or arms; it is read when they are in a fixed position.
Semaphores were adopted and widely used (with hand-held flags replacing the mechanical arms of shutter semaphores) in the maritime world in the 19th century. They are still used during underway replenishment at sea and are acceptable for emergency communication in daylight or, using lighted wands instead of flags, at night.
The newer flag semaphore system uses two short poles with square flags, which a signaler holds in different positions to convey letters of the alphabet and numbers. The transmitter holds one pole in each hand, and extends each arm in one of eight possible directions. Except for in the rest position, the flags cannot overlap. The flags are colored differently based on whether the signals are sent by sea or by land. At sea, the flags are colored red and yellow (the Oscar flags), while on land, they are white and blue (the Papa flags). Flags are not required, they just make the characters more obvious.
Optical fiber is the most common type of channel for optical communications. The transmitters in optical fiber links are generally light-emitting diodes (LEDs) or laser diodes. Infrared light, rather than visible light is used more commonly, because optical fibers transmit infrared wavelengths with less attenuation and dispersion. The signal encoding is typically simple intensity modulation, although historically optical phase and frequency modulation have been demonstrated in the lab. The need for periodic signal regeneration was largely superseded by the introduction of the erbium-doped fiber amplifier, which extended link distances at significantly lower cost.
Signal lamps (such as Aldis lamps), are visual signaling devices for optical communication (typically using Morse code). Modern signal lamps are a focused lamp which can produce a pulse of light. In large versions this pulse is achieved by opening and closing shutters mounted in front of the lamp, either via a manually operated pressure switch or, in later versions, automatically.
With hand held lamps, a concave mirror is tilted by a trigger to focus the light into pulses. The lamps are usually equipped with some form of optical sight, and are most commonly deployed on naval vessels and also used in airport control towers with coded aviation light signals.
Aviation light signals are used in the case of a radio failure, an aircraft not equipped with a radio, or in the case of a hearing-impaired pilot. Air traffic controllers have long used signal light guns to direct such aircraft. The light gun's lamp has a focused bright beam capable of emitting three different colors: red, white and green. These colors may be flashing or steady, and provide different instructions to aircraft in flight or on the ground (for example, "cleared to land" or "cleared for takeoff"). Pilots can acknowledge the instructions by wiggling their plane's wings, moving their ailerons if they are on the ground, or by flashing their landing or navigation lights during night time. Only 12 simple standardized instructions are directed at aircraft using signal light guns as the system is not utilized with Morse code.
The photophone (originally given an alternate name, radiophone) is a communication device which allowed for the transmission of speech on a beam of light. It was invented jointly by Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Charles Sumner Tainter on February 19, 1880, at Bell's 1325 'L' Street laboratory in Washington, D.C.Both were later to become full associates in the Volta Laboratory Association, created and financed by Bell.
On June 21, 1880, Bell's assistant transmitted a wireless voice telephone message of considerable distance, from the roof of the Franklin School to the window of Bell's laboratory, some 213 meters (about 700 ft.) away.
Bell believed the photophone was his most important invention. Of the 18 patents granted in Bell's name alone, and the 12 he shared with his collaborators, four were for the photophone, which Bell referred to as his 'greatest achievement', telling a reporter shortly before his death that the photophone was "the greatest invention [I have] ever made, greater than the telephone".
The photophone was a precursor to the fiber-optic communication systems which achieved popular worldwide usage starting in the 1980s. U.S. Patent 235,199 Apparatus for Signalling and Communicating, called Photophone), was issued in December 1880, many decades before its principles came to have practical applications.The master patent for the photophone (
Free-space optics (FSO) systems are employed for 'last mile' telecommunications and can function over distances of several kilometers as long as there is a clear line of sight between the source and the destination, and the optical receiver can reliably decode the transmitted information.Other free-space systems can provide high-data-rate, long-range links using small, low-mass, low-power-consumption subsystems which make them suitable for communications in space. Various planned satellite constellations intended to provide global broadband coverage take advantage of these benefits and employ laser communication for inter-satellite links between the several hundred to thousand satellites effectively creating a space-based optical mesh network.
More generally, transmission of unguided optical signals is known as optical wireless communications (OWC). Examples include medium-range visible light communication and short-distance IrDA, using infrared LEDs.
A heliograph (Greek : Ἥλιος helios , meaning "sun", and γραφειν graphein , meaning "write") is a wireless solar telegraph that signals by flashes of sunlight (generally using Morse code) reflected by a mirror. The flashes are produced by momentarily pivoting the mirror, or by interrupting the beam with a shutter.
The heliograph was a simple but effective instrument for instantaneous optical communication over long distances during the late 19th and early 20th century. Its main uses were in military, surveys and forest protection work. They were standard issue in the British and Australian armies until the 1960s, and were used by the Pakistani army as late as 1975.
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An electrical telegraph was a point-to-point text messaging system, used from the 1840s until better systems became widespread. It used coded pulses of electric current through dedicated wires to transmit information over long distances. It was the first electrical telecommunications system, the most widely used of a number of early messaging systems called telegraphs, devised to send text messages more rapidly than written messages could be sent.
Telegraphy is the long-distance transmission of textual messages where the sender uses symbolic codes, known to the recipient, rather than a physical exchange of an object bearing the message. Thus flag semaphore is a method of telegraphy, whereas pigeon post is not. Ancient signalling systems, although sometimes quite extensive and sophisticated as in China, were generally not capable of transmitting arbitrary text messages. Possible messages were fixed and predetermined and such systems are thus not true telegraphs.
In telecommunications, a repeater is an electronic device that receives a signal and retransmits it. Repeaters are used to extend transmissions so that the signal can cover longer distances or be received on the other side of an obstruction. Some types of repeaters broadcast an identical signal, but alter its method of transmission, for example, on another frequency or baud rate.
A transmission medium is something that can mediate the propagation of signals for the purposes of telecommunication.
The photophone is a telecommunications device that allows transmission of speech on a beam of light. It was invented jointly by Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Charles Sumner Tainter on February 19, 1880, at Bell's laboratory at 1325 L Street in Washington, D.C. Both were later to become full associates in the Volta Laboratory Association, created and financed by Bell.
Free-space optical communication (FSO) is an optical communication technology that uses light propagating in free space to wirelessly transmit data for telecommunications or computer networking. "Free space" means air, outer space, vacuum, or something similar. This contrasts with using solids such as optical fiber cable.
An optical telegraph is a line of stations, typically towers, for the purpose of conveying textual information by means of visual signals. There are two main types of such systems; the semaphore telegraph which uses pivoted indicator arms and conveys information according to the direction the indicators point, and the shutter telegraph which uses panels that can be rotated to block or pass the light from the sky behind to convey information.
A continuous wave or continuous waveform (CW) is an electromagnetic wave of constant amplitude and frequency, typically a sine wave, that for mathematical analysis is considered to be of infinite duration. Continuous wave is also the name given to an early method of radio transmission, in which a sinusoidal carrier wave is switched on and off. Information is carried in the varying duration of the on and off periods of the signal, for example by Morse code in early radio. In early wireless telegraphy radio transmission, CW waves were also known as "undamped waves", to distinguish this method from damped wave signals produced by earlier spark gap type transmitters.
A telegraph code is one of the character encodings used to transmit information by telegraphy. Morse code is the most well known such code. Telegraphy usually refers to the electrical telegraph, but telegraph systems using the optical telegraph were in use before that. A code consists of a number of code points, each corresponding to a letter of the alphabet, a numeral, or some other character. In codes intended for machines rather than humans, code points for control characters, such as carriage return, are required to control the operation of the mechanism. Each code point is made up of a number of elements arranged in a unique way for that character. There are usually two types of element, but more element types were employed in some codes not intended for machines. For instance, American Morse code had about five elements, rather than the two of International Morse Code.
A heliograph is a wireless telegraph that signals by flashes of sunlight reflected by a mirror. The flashes are produced by momentarily pivoting the mirror, or by interrupting the beam with a shutter. The heliograph was a simple but effective instrument for instantaneous optical communication over long distances during the late 19th and early 20th century. Its main uses were military, survey and forest protection work. Heliographs were standard issue in the British and Australian armies until the 1960s, and were used by the Pakistani army as late as 1975.
A signaller, signalman, colloquially referred to as a radioman in the armed forces is a specialist soldier, seaman or airman responsible for military communications. Signallers, a.k.a. Combat Signallers or signalmen or women, are commonly employed as radio or telephone operators, relaying messages for field commanders at the front line, through a chain of command which includes field headquarters and ultimately governments and non governmental organisations (NGOs). Messages are transmitted and received via a communications infrastructure comprising fixed and mobile installations.
Military communications or military signals involve all aspects of communications, or conveyance of information, by armed forces. Military communications span from pre-history to the present. The earliest military communications were delivered by runners. Later, communications progressed to visual and audible signals, and then advanced into the electronic age. Examples from Jane's Military Communications include text, audio, facsimile, [[Military tactics|tactical ground-based communications, terrestrial microwave, tropospheric scatter, naval, satellite communications systems and equipment, surveillance and signal analysis, encryption and security and direction-finding and jamming.
A signal lamp is a visual signaling device for optical communication, typically using Morse code. Modern signal lamps are focused lamps which can produce a pulse of light. In large versions, this pulse is achieved by opening and closing shutters mounted in front of the lamp, either via a manually operated pressure switch, or, in later versions, automatically. With hand held lamps, a concave mirror is tilted by a trigger to focus the light into pulses. The lamps were usually equipped with some form of optical sight, and were most commonly used on naval vessels and in airport control towers. In manual signaling, a signalman would aim the light at the recipient ship and turn a lever, opening and closing the shutter over the lamp, to emit flashes of light to spell out text messages in Morse code. On the recipient ship, a signalman would observe the blinking light, often with binoculars, and translate the code into text.
The history of telecommunication began with the use of smoke signals and drums in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. In the 1790s, the first fixed semaphore systems emerged in Europe. However, it was not until the 1830s that electrical telecommunication systems started to appear. This article details the history of telecommunication and the individuals who helped make telecommunication systems what they are today. The history of telecommunication is an important part of the larger history of communication.
Signalman was a U.S. Navy rating for sailors that specialized in visual communication. See Signaller for more about the roles of Signalmen.
Fiber-optic communication is a method of transmitting information from one place to another by sending pulses of infrared light through an optical fiber. The light forms an electromagnetic carrier wave that is modulated to carry information. Fiber is preferred over electrical cabling when high bandwidth, long distance, or immunity to electromagnetic interference are required. This type of communication can transmit voice, video, and telemetry through local area networks, computer networks, or across long distances.
A hydraulic telegraph is either of two different hydraulic-telegraph telecommunication systems. The earliest one was developed in 4th-century BC Greece, while the other was developed in 19th-century AD Britain. The Greek system was deployed in combination with semaphoric fires, while the latter British system was operated purely by hydraulic fluid pressure.
Flag semaphore is the telegraphy system conveying information at a distance by means of visual signals with hand-held flags, rods, disks, paddles, or occasionally bare or gloved hands. Information is encoded by the position of the flags; it is read when the flag is in a fixed position. Semaphores were adopted and widely used in the maritime world in the 19th century. It is still used during underway replenishment at sea and is acceptable for emergency communication in daylight or using lighted wands instead of flags, at night.
Optical wireless communications (OWC) is a form of optical communication in which unguided visible, infrared (IR), or ultraviolet (UV) light is used to carry a signal.
Wigwag is an historical form of flag signaling that passes messages by waving a single flag. It differs from flag semaphore in that it uses one flag rather than two, and the symbols for each letter are represented by the motion of the flag rather than its position. The larger flag and its motion allow messages to be read over greater distances than semaphore. Messages could be sent at night using torches instead of flags.