Having More Video Chats These Days? They’re Nothing New

With the Coronavirus pandemic bringing much of the civilized world to its very knees, and keeping untold numbers of us indoors nearly 24/7, many have turned to conducting video chats for both personal and business purposes, to maintain some semblance of face-to-face interaction with loved ones and colleagues. In recent weeks, the more creative among us — both professionals and amateurs — have been offering all manner of make-shift entertainment in the form of musical performances, Easter and Passover observances, and multi-remote reunions among former TV show cast members, all with the participants staying put in their own homes. It’s reasonable to thank “modern technology” for the ability to do this, via Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, and other means.

It may come as a surprise to you, then, to know that the first long-distance video chat between two people, separated by considerable distance yet communicating with each other face-to-face, took place over 90 years ago.

How is this possible?

To begin with, a step back into history reveals that the idea of having a long-distance conversation with a friend, seeing their image and hearing their voice transmitted from another location, began to make the rounds as a practical possibility not long after Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone. Bell himself once predicted, during the earliest days of experimental television, that “the day would come when the man at the telephone would be able to see the distant person to whom he was speaking.”

As early as October of 1906, The New York Times reported that two American inventors, William Thompson and J.B. Fowler, working independently, had each invented an apparatus that could supposedly transmit both sound and images simultaneously. Each man even called his own device a “televue,” but details were not released pending their applications for patents. Ultimately, their work on their respective devices did not come to fruition. The public had to settle for using the simple telephone for long-distance conversations.

Indeed, in 1910 (several years before the Spanish Influenza pandemic killed as many as 25 million people worldwide), Bell telephone encouraged its customers to keep in touch with the world while quarantined due to illness.

Years later, however, the growth of radio and the early development of television in the 1920s and ’30s gave new life to the idea of a combination telephone and video device. Indeed, various early experiments with television (the father of which being Scottish inventor John Logie Baird) could also be counted as tests for primitive versions of the videophone, especially with sound and images transmitted together between laboratories.

A major step forward took place in 1927, when a television experiment achieved what might be considered three-quarters of a successful videophone transmission. In Washington, D.C., Secretary of Commerce (and future president) Herbert Hoover sat before an apparatus to deliver a brief speech to a small group at the Bell Telephone laboratory in New York. After Hoover spoke, others in the room in Washington, including AT& T Vice President J.J. Carty, took turns in front of the transmitter, and carried on their own two-way conversations with the participants in New York. However, the New York group could only receive the images, not send their own. “The speaker on the New York end looked the Washington man in the eye as he talked to him. On the small screen before him appeared the living face of the man to whom he was talking.”

In April of 1930, it was announced that AT&T and Bell engineers in New York City successfully conducted an experiment with 2-way television, and what we would now refer to as the first ever two-way video chat. A participant in each lab — one at the AT&T building in mid-town, the other in lower Manhattan — sat in a small booth directly facing the camera behind a glass plate, which also served as a viewing screen. Each was able to see and hear his counterpart in the lab elsewhere in the city.

Fannie Hurst.

A year later, a two-way video transmission between novelist Fannie Hurst and her husband also took place at the AT&T building and Bell laboratories. It was not reported at the time whether or not there was an audio component to the connection (if so, it would have been via telephone line), but the spouses, at the very least, were able to smile and wave to each other for the duration of the transmission. Hurst described it as “the greatest thrill of an eventful life.”

Experiments also took place in England and Germany throughout the 1930s, as part of each country’s efforts to create a fully functioning electronic television system.

But the first era of the videophone, such as it was, began in August of 1956, when Bell Laboratories announced the development of the “Picturephone” and demonstrated the invention with a link-up between New York and Los Angeles. Bell technicians reported the results of their successful experiments at a joint meeting of the Institute of Radio Engineers and the West Coast Electronic Manufacturers Association. The system, they said, was designed to use regular phone lines for the audio portion of the calls, but users of the 2" x 3" screen would need an extra wire installed for the video portion. However, unlike television, which transmits images at 30 frames per second, the device could send only one picture every 2 seconds. The development team freely admitted that many technical obstacles needed to be overcome before the Picturephone could enjoy widespread use.

On April 20, 1964, the Picturephone was demonstrated for the public for the first time at the Bell pavilion of the World’s Fair in New York. The first conversation took place between William Laurence, science consultant to the Fair and former science editor of the New York Times, and Donald Shaffer, managing editor of the Anaheim Bulletin, who was at the Bell exhibit in Disneyland. Visitors to each exhibit on opposite ends of the country were encouraged to have their own video conversations with whoever happened to be on the other end at any given time.

Several weeks later, Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson, helped inaugurate regular Picturephone service between New York, Washington, and Chicago. For the event, she conducted a conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Wood, a scientist with Bell Labs. Wood spoke from a specially-constructed booth for the videophone, located in the Grand Central Station terminal. Two other identical booths were installed, one at the Prudential Insurance building, and one in the National Geographic Society building in Washington, D.C.

Also present at the event were two teenagers, both born deaf — Howard Mann in Chicago, and Laura Rabinowitz of Queens, New York. They demonstrated one truly profound use for the device, which enabled them to see each other from a thousand miles away and have a conversation with each other, using sign language.

1964 Picturephone ad.
1964 Picturephone ad.

But the service heralded on that day was limited to those three public Picturephone booths. Each booth was big enough to hold five people. At a cost of $16 to $27 for three minutes, however, demand was limited.

Another possible use suggested for the Picturephone system involved stay-at-home shopping. A 1966 Time magazine essay, predicting what daily life would be like in the year 2000, spoke of how “the housewife should be able to switch on to the local supermarket on the video phone, examine grapefruit and price them, all without stirring from her living room.” However, skeptics warned that “remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop — because women like to get out of the house, like to handle the merchandise, like to be able to change their minds.”

In 1970, an improved version of the Picturephone was introduced for office and home use. The system still needed 3 pairs of wires to connect both sound and picture, as well as an amplifier every mile along the way to boost the signal. Long distance service would still not be available just yet, either.

AT&T company officials remained relentless in their optimism, despite a still wary public. In 1970, using the city of Pittsburgh as its guinea pig, the company announced in an ad that “Picture-phone service is a reality in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By the middle of 1971, it will be in Chicago and Washington, D.C. By 1976 it will be established in 27 cities around the country.” But the video component still offered only black & white video at 250 lines of resolution, and a screen five inches square. Moreover, the voice and image of a transmission were not in total sync.

The ad pressed on, with an almost unnervingly honest assessment of its own product’s shortcomings:

“Unfortunately, Picturephone service can’t be everywhere at once. Because to prepare for it means building and installing a new kind of network over the framework of the existing one. And it means creating a different kind of telephone circuit (transmitting a picture over phone wires requires a circuit capacity 300 times wider than the one that carries a voice).” But it promised a big payoff: “As facilities grow, users will find countless new possibilities for Picturephone service. Discussing layouts, viewing charts, and getting computer information via a picture phone /computer hookup are just a few of the areas being pursued right now.”

A Bell official that year kept himself perched firmly on the fence, by speculating that “Picturephone will either be a large success, and growing, or it will have flopped” by the end of the decade. Some engineers (not employed by Bell) suggested the fanciful possibility that two-way phone conversations would ultimately use the television set itself, rather than a separate device for its videophone function.

In theory, the Picturephone system was to have 100,000 subscribers nationwide by 1975, 1,000,000 by 1980, and 3,000,000 by the mid -’80s. But a year after its installation in Pittsburgh, only 33 picture phones were in use in the entire city, and, by 1973, the effort to market Picturephone nationwide was abandoned — but not forever.

In 1992, AT&T tried again, unveiling a color Picturephone, and then tried yet again in 2000, with a wireless version. The concept still failed to catch on with the public. As tech writer Frederic D. Schwarz wrote in an issue of American Heritage Invention and Technology, “Picturephone remains one of technology’s most prominent examples of an elaborate solution in search of a problem.”

But the story wasn’t over yet. As has been the case with so many aspects of modern life, the rise of the Internet at the close of the 20th century brought with it new possibilities for communication, unforeseen just a decade earlier. The free Skype service, founded in Sweden in 2003, and owned and operated by Microsoft since 2011, along with other head-spinning advances in consumer technology and software, made video chats not only possible again, but far easier and more common than in the struggling Picturephone days. Apple’s FaceTime became available in 2011 as well. Skype in particular has become a common means not only for friends and relatives to video chat, but has also enabled miliary servicemen connect with their loved ones from half a world away. Expectant wives of those in service have been able to have their far-off spouses “present” in hospital delivery rooms. The simple placement of a laptop or smartphone beside a bed has allowed many military fathers stationed overseas to witness the arrival of their newborns in real time.

And now, with millions of us self-isolating from those we would normally see in person on a regular basis, the once-rejected convenience of interacting via the illuminated screen has found a new appreciation. Zoom, introduced in 2013, has suddenly seen an explosion of use during the pandemic, becoming the most popular app of all for remote video calls.

The original incarnation of the video phone may have failed to catch on with the public in the 1960s, but the concept returned and has virtually crept up on us in the 21st century, and has become commonplace without the fanfare and almost desperate pleas for acceptance that accompanied the original Picturephone’s troubled existence.

Until next time…stay safe.


Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store