Two videophones from the early 1970s that were produced by AT&T/Bell Labs and the now-defunct Western Electric will go up for auction this month. And while they might not seem very special to kids of the 21st century, these videophones were the most futuristic things around for people who grew up watching movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey and eventually Back to the Future: Part II.
Today, anyone can use technologies like Skype or FaceTime to connect with family, friends, and coworkers around the world. But in the early 1970s, it was an incredibly rare privilege to not only hear but see who you were speaking with from a distance. First, you needed to own a videophone (more commonly called a “picturephone” in the 1970s) and not only were the devices expensive, the cost of a call was quite spendy as well.
From the 1950s until the early 1970s, Bell Labs (formerly owned by AT&T) spent over $500 million on research and development for videophone technology. The design of Bell’s videophone saw different iterations in the mid-1960s, but by 1968 they had developed the Mod II, which is the model that will go up for auction at Bonhams on March 12, 2019.
AT&T has uploaded an old film from 1970 showing the first public demonstration of the Mod II between then-Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty and John Harper, the former chairman of Alcoa. The two men were just a block away from each other at the time, but that didn’t make it any less cool for people who were convinced that the future was just around the corner.
“This picturephone is just as much an amazing innovation today as the telephone was when your father participated back there in Tennessee,” Mayor Flaherty tells Harper on the call.
One of the big selling points for the videophone at the time was that you’d be able to share documents with other people. Harper tries his hand at that by pointing Alcoa’s logo at the camera and the mayor jokes with him, “is that what they call a commercial, John?”
“Nice to be with you, and here’s looking at you,” the mayor says as he signs off with laughter from those in attendance. The entire thing really feels quaint and almost hopeful from the perspective of the 21st century.
But the videophones of the 1970s didn’t sell very well, as Bonhams notes in its description for the auction:
AT&T finally launched a commercial Picturephone service in Pittsburgh on July 1, 1970, with prices at $160 per month for equipment and service (today’s prices $950), plus extra costs per minute for use. In 1971 the service was introduced into Chicago. The response was very poor, just 32 sets sold in 1972 in Pittsburgh and less the previous years. The Chicago sales peaked at 453 in early 1973. When AT&T got a new CEO in mid 1973, the plug was pulled on the Picturephone project. It seemed that people did not want their picture to be seen by a caller and liked the anonymity. AT&T tried again in 1992 with the Videophone 2500 in color, but that too failed to attract serious usage.
Where did these two videophones that are up for sale actually come from? They were originally owned by an unnamed engineer at Bell Labs who has since passed away.
“After his death they were purchased by an inventor (of wireless picture and video messaging technology) and collector called Mr. Henderson, and he used them for his own research,” Tom Lamb, the Director of Books at Bonhams, told Gizmodo over email.
“We are not certain if they work but given they were used by Mr. Henderson and the pair of videophones were in their original boxes and packing there is no reason to think they won’t work if properly connected to a power supply.”
The two videophones are being sold as a pair and are expected to fetch anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000. And if that’s not too rich for your blood, you can register over at Bonhams before the auction starts.
The full specs from the auction house appear below:
A matching pair of picturephone consoles, each with a box-like plastic case with screen at one end, the display measuring 135 x 128 mm, with silicon photodiode array camera and zoom lens, the box mounted on a stylish aluminum stand with a circular base. Both consoles in their original boxes, with Styrofoam padding and original Western Electric cardboard delivery boxes with a stencil label addressed to “W B Cage Tel Labs NJ”. and marked 700000339 and 71000139. The consoles 311 x 191 x 235 mm; circular base 265 mm diameter, boxes 236 x 310 x 305 mm.
Today you don’t need a videophone to be a standalone device, of course, because we’re all carrying around internet-connected smartphones equipped with cameras and screens. But that hasn’t stopped even modern-day companies from trying their hand at standalone videophone devices. Facebook, for example, recently launched the Portal, which has a decidedly retro feel.
My birthday isn’t coming up or anything, but if I wouldn’t say no to these videophones as a gift. I’m just saying. They’re really damn cool, even if they’d be next to impossible to actually use for any practical purpose.