A Brief History of the Videophone That Almost Was

The videophone is one of those technologies that more or less snuck up on us. Promises that one day you'd not only be able to hear but see a person through your telephone are nearly as old as the telephone itself. The videophone spent nearly a century as every bit as much a "technology of the future" as the flying car and the jetpack. We were always this close to making our picturephone dreams come true. And then we did, in a way no one expected.

Communications companies, sci-fi authors, and popular futurists assured half a dozen generations of Americans that the videophone would soon be a reality at their homes, in their offices, and even in public places like airports or on the street next to those old fashioned payphones that only carried voices. The 1920s would see earnest prognosticators heralding videophone as being just over the horizon. The Germans even successfully tried a primitive public videophone service in the late 1930s, only to have it shuttered by the Nazis in 1940. An influx of cash for consumer goods and communications infrastructure during American postwar development in the 1950s would again make the videophone feel so close to reality. But despite commercial availability of the videophone in various iterations since the '70s, it never broke out of its very small niche. And then, one day, it was everywhere.


We were promised and were expecting the videophone to arrive as a standalone device—an appliance like a TV or a toaster or a blender that was dedicated to one purpose: Allowing us to see and hear the person we were talking to from any distance. Instead, we got videophone technology as part of our desktops, our tablets, and our phones. Rather than a dedicated machine, the videophone snuck in through the back door by attaching itself to nearly every multimedia gadget in our lives. But it was a long, tough slog to get there.

In 1969 Bell Labs had already done over a decade of serious postwar research on how to get the videophone into every American's home. And in the spring of that year the company devoted the entirety of its internal company magazine to the history and future of research in videophone (sometimes called "picturephone") technology. The future was almost here. Again.

The May/June 1969 issue of Bell Laboratories' Record included a look back at the technology that had been developed by the research lab since 1956 in its quest to make a practical videophone. One of the biggest challenges was getting a videophone to work within existing infrastructure. The telephone companies (or company, if you prefer, since Ma Bell had quite the monopoly until the early 1980s) had already laid out telephone lines to homes and offices across the U.S. There was no desire to roll out any new infrastructure, so the goal was to use those existing lines and supply each home and exchange with new hardware for sending and receiving video messages in real time.


From the mid-1950s until the early 1970s Bell would reportedly spend over $500 million on research and development for their videophone system. Below is the story of how that money was spent, as it was told in that issue of Record to the employees of Bell; the people who were building the videophone of tomorrow.

1956: Strange Experiments With Tomorrow

By this time, Bell Labs scientists had developed several experimental "video telephone" systems of varying size and appearance which offered commercial possibilities. The one shown here was demonstrated before the Institute of Radio Engineers on August 23. This was the first system to transmit and receive recognizable pictures over ordinary telephone wires.


1957: Early Trials Developing Standards

Studies and experiments continued at Bell Labs to develop an economically feasible videotelephone system. Experiments similar to the one shown here helped engineers establish such picture standards as resolution, contrast, and other features. By 1959, plans were made to develop a videotelephone system specifically for the purpose of conducting trials.


1963: The Complete System Emerges

A complete experimental Picturephone system had been developed. The station set included the camera-receiver-loudspeaker unit and the separate combination telephone set-video control unit.


1964: Videophone's Coming Out Party

The first public exposure of Picturephone service was made at the New York World's Fair. Visitors, selected at random, tried the service for about 10 minutes each. Results of interviews conducted at the conclusion of each trial provided valuable information on early public reactions to the service.


1964: Limited Public Trials Begin

Limited commercial Picturephone service between public locations in three cities-New York, Chicago, and Washington, D. C. began on June 25. The service was inaugurated with a call from Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson in Washington to Bell Laboratories scientist Dr. Elizabeth A. Wood, at the Picturephone center in Grand Central Terminal, New York. Robert F. Wagner, then mayor of New York, is seated at right.


1965: Learning From the Real World

As a result of earlier trials, significant equipment and operational changes were made in the Picturephone system. The modified equipment was used in a product trial begun in July 1965, in cooperation with Union Carbide Corporation. In December of the same year an experimental trial began at AT&T headquarters in New York City. In June, 1967, the trial was expanded to include three Bell Labs locations. This trial integrated Picturephone service with normal telephone service. This "corporate network" offered an opportunity to explore additional uses for the system, such as the feasibility of using the Picturephone set as an interface between man and computer (shown here). The computer is interrogated from a Touch-Tone® dial, and results are displayed on the screen.


1968: Developing the Mod II

The Bell System's Picturephone "see-while-you-talk" set has been redesigned to incorporate additional features as a result of the extensive trials. The improved "Mod II" set shown here is itself now the subject of further trials as the evolution of Picturephone service continues.


Of course, despite the promises of the good people at Bell Labs, the 1970s would not see broad adoption of the videophone. Service was expensive (about $169 per month, or almost $1000 adjusted for inflation) and by 1973 Bell only had 100 subscribers in the entire United States. By 1977, that number had dwindled to just nine.

Here in the year 2013 the vast majority of people still don't interact with the videophone as a standalone device. Sure, it's much more common in business settings at large corporations, but for the most part our experience with the videophone is much more micro. We may Skype with relatives on a holiday or use FaceTime when you're meeting with a new employer that allows you to work remotely (as I did when I joined Gizmodo). But most people seem to save videochats for special occasions. Other means of communicating work just as well for our day-to-day activities. Because even with its broad proliferation, the videophone still suffers from the hardest question you can ask any technology: Why?


Images: from the May/June 1969 issue of Bell Labs' Record magazine hosted at long-lines.net

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