These days, video calls are so ubiquitous that we can get tired of them. But not so long ago, the idea of seeing someone you’re calling was mainly science fiction—even as real world engineers worked to make videophones a reality.
Shortly after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1875, science fiction writers began promoting the idea of a kind of telephone/videophone/television device. Images of such a thing appeared in periodicals such as Punch, in cartoons by George du Maurier, and in science fiction novels such as Le Vingtième siècle. La vie électrique.
In fact, the idea that famous inventers such as Bell or Thomas Edison had invented a videophone was frequently promoted in the late nineteenth century. The hoax was mainly promoted by conmen looking to raise funds for videophone companies, and Bell himself denounced the videophone as a fairy tale.
Interestingly, Bell thought that a videophone would one day be possible. He called it “seeing by electricity.”
The first functional videophone was created by Bell Labs in the 1920s. It operated at 18 frames per second and used a full room of equipment. In 1927, Bell Labs demonstrated the technology by having Herbert Hoover in Washington, DC, address an audience in New York. The audio was two-way, but video only went from DC to New York.
In the 1930s, the Germans built a functional videophone network. You had to visit the post office and sit in a booth, but for the scant price of about a fifteenth of a week’s salary, you could make a three-minute call. The network was limited to major cities and the video was 180p at 25 frames per second, but that was good enough to make out the minute hand on a wristwatch. For the era, this was considered incredible and was even featured in propaganda of the era. With that said, the network was expensive to operate and didn’t last long.
Bell Labs never gave up on the idea of a videophone, and at the 1964 World’s Fair they unveiled the Picturephone. Guests could sit down at a booth and make a call to a similar booth over at Disney World. However, a fifteen-minute phone call cost something like $600, so Picturephone was never released to a wide audience.
In the 1960s, the videophone was a well-established fixture in pop culture. It famously featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where a character places a video call to his daughter (for the price of a dollar and seventy cents).
At the same time, the videophone was a fixture on the animated series The Jetsons. Samsonite was promoting a portable phone and screen in an attaché case—an invention that never actually seems to have been made. And Star Trek wouldn’t have been possible without the bridge screen which doubled as a videophone. Go ahead and tell a trekkie that the 1982 movie Wrath of Khan is basically an extended Zoom call—they may explode in rage.
Bell Labs never gave up on the idea of a consumer videophone. After spending more than $500 million, they released the Mod II. In 1973, when it was first offered, they only had 100 customers in the entire USA. Possibly because it cost $169 a month (that’s a cool grand in today’s money), that number was down to just nine customers by 1977.
Maybe because of this perpetual gap between the ubiquity of videophones in science fiction and the expensive stupidity of videophones in real life, videophones became something of a punchline. In fact, in 2000, the New York Times wrote an article on videophones called “Cautionary Tale; The Perpetual Next Big Thing.” For decades, videophones were the next big thing. No wonder people were jaded and skeptical.
We can’t help but notice that the products that successfully take our video calls are not dedicated videophones. Instead of using an inexpensive and convenient videophone from Bell Labs, we’re using computers (or smartphones, aka tiny computers) to make our calls—and do all the other things we expect from computers and communication. What would those early Bell Labs engineers say if they knew our video calling devices were also for office work, games, news, and so much more? Hopefully, they’d be happy that their vision of the future—with ubiquitous video calls—was right. We just didn’t get there in the way they expected.
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