The videophone, for much of the 20th century, seemed like the logical successor to the telephone. Millions were interested in buying it and using it, and there were many interested parties who wanted to see it come about from an engineer’s perspective. In actuality, however, the technological and economical barriers always kept the device one step behind mass expectations, leading to what one AT&T historian calls “the most famous failure in the history of the Bell system” (qtd. in Guernsey). The Bell Laboratories version, dubbed the Picturephone, was the most publicized incarnation of the videophone for decades.
Early Inception and Development
The idea to send pictures along with a telephone signal had been around and was being tinkered with in Bell Laboratories “as early as 1927,” at this time however, the technology was not available to be able to do so with any efficiency or reliability. For this to occur, it took until the mid-1950s. At this time, with the invention of the transistor, as well as the availability of “inexpensive and reliable camera and display tubes,” finally, “technology was beginning to catch up with the concept” (Carson 284).
Concurrently, on August 23rd 1955, across the country, two California mayors spoke to each other through a videophone from about a mile away from each other. This was the first demonstration of a videophone, which had been developed by Kay Lab in San Diego. At this time, spokesmen predicted the videophone would make a large impact on American life sometime in the 1960s, at first in factories and hospitals. At this demonstration, the device consisted of a camera and two television screens, one seven inches, used to see oneself, and the other ten inches, used to see the person one is talking to. Again, this demonstration was between subjects only a mile apart from each other. (“Gawkie-Talkie Telephone”).
Back at Bell Labs in New Jersey, in October of 1959, the Mod I Picturephone was being put into the final phases of development “specifically for trial use.” And by 1964 the Mod I was ready for testing. The equipment came in three parts: a display, a specially modified telephone, and a power source. “The display unit contained a cathode-ray picture tube, a vidicon camera tube, the scanning, synchronization and other video circuits, and a loudspeaker. The telephone unit contained a conventional telephone handset, a microphone (to permit ‘hands-free’ operation), a set of touch-tone pushbuttons, and other push buttons for video control” (Carson 284).
The “general public’s first exposure” (which could possibly be contended by the above example in ’55, although it is unclear whether or not this was a public demonstration), came at the World’s Fair in April 1964. Booths were set up at the World’s Fair in New York, as well as at Disneyland, in Anaheim California, and members of the general public were allowed, for the first time, to actually try the new technology to talk to, and see, people across the country. Opinions were generally favorable for the service, as people enjoyed the “added personal touch of face-to-face.” There were however, some complaints about the equipment itself, mostly about the size and clarity of the picture, as well as the difficulty in keeping oneself centered onscreen. These opinions on the service and equipment, as well as the public’s desire for a Picturephone were all recorded by Bell employees as a trial run for the system (Carson 284-6). Interestingly, in an article covering this event in the New York Times, a Bell spokesman is quoted to have said “the instrument would not be available to the public in the near future” (“Television Phone Used”). A quite near month later meanwhile, the following headline appears in the same newspaper: “Picture Telephone Ready Next Month; Will Link 3 Cities.” This article discusses the next faze of development for the Picturephone: booths.
In June of 1964 “exploratory commercial service” began in three US cities. Booths with Picturephones were put in at the Prudential Building in Chicago, the National Geographic Society Building in Washington, as well as Grand Central Station in New York. These booths were accessible to the major public by appointment with telephone attendants who would put through all the necessary arrangements. Interestingly, Bell Labs itself admitted just a few years later in its report that “The attractiveness of this service is limited since both parties must go to a public booth to converse. It is apparent that this type of offering does not meet the needs of our customers” (Carson 286). Additionally, the exorbitant price of $21 between Washington and Chicago, $27 between Chicago and New York, and $16 between Washington and New York, couldn’t have helped (each price was for the first three minutes with additional fees per minute afterwards, “Picture Phones Go Into Service”).
Either way, the booths were reported on, even if not used, extensively. Their installation was inaugurated with Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson making the first call to a Bell employee. The service was available from 9 AM to 10 PM, seven days a week. At this time, a spokesman reported that eventually Picturephones would “link most major cities here and abroad.” Although he gave no forecast as to when they would be available in people’s homes. The screens used on this model of the Picturephones were the size of 4 3/8 inches by 5 3/4 inches (“Picture Phones Go Into Service”).
At this time, there are some interesting ideas in usage that appear in the New York Times for these Picturephone booths. In one, a couple from New Jersey, shop for a house in Chicago, from the booth in Grand Central. How the couple is shown these houses through a booth is unexplained, (perhaps with pictures of the homes), however it is one way, among many that the booth was used (“N.J. Couple Selects Home by ‘Picturephone’”). Another interesting application was that used by businessmen to make sales of products, without having to leave their respective cities of operations. This gives the opportunity for ‘face-to-face’ contact, as well as demonstration of the product without cost (both of time and money) or travel. Although it might have been costly to use the booths, it made sense for businessmen, as they could make the money back from the sale, and also save money that would have been spent on traveling (Sloane). At this time then, the Picturephone was used mostly for businesses and corporations. This is where Bell would expend much of their efforts for now.
At this time, (April 1965), another test was started among the actual Bell Labs managerial staff. This would allow for greater critical interest among the participants, as well as greater freedom in making modifications to the equipment as the testing was done in-house. Next, trials were conducted within various other business settings to understand how the system could be used in a business environment. The trial involved employees both in New York and Chicago. Finally, more testing was done in various other corporate settings using variations on the older model, which resulted in the creation of the Mod II (Carson 286-91). The difference between the older Mod I and the Mod II include a larger screen, a better camera tube, as well as a separate control unit, unattached to the display, which can zoom in and out (“Westinghouse Tests New Phone Units”). These corporate settings within which the Picturephone was used was only within the realm of the trials thus far; corporations could not yet buy the systems.
Commercial Rollout and Hype
On June 30, 1970 the Bell Telephone System rolled out a commercial Picturephone service in Pittsburgh. Again, initially this service was used only by businesses, however even still, one executive from the Bell Company stated his view “that the economic and social impact of electronic face-to-face communication would equal that made by the introduction of telephonic voice conversation in New Haven in 1878.” Additionally estimates were made that rates would be low enough to make Picturephones feasible in homes by the 1980s. This network only worked intra-Pittsburgh, however even still, the article goes on to praise the Picturephone and its capabilities for the future. The Picturephone will be able to dial up computers and be used as a computer display to show balance sheets, stock market prices, and inventories. Long distance job interviews, facsimile capabilities, as well as long distance contract signings were all promised by the article. In addition: “Home users will be able to shop by Picturephone, visit a library or hospital, hold family reunion or attend a lecture…. The police can display photographs or sketches of wanted persons. A salesman can call his office computer for information to answer a customer’s questions or to find out what is in stock.” These are all the future uses that this new technology, finally available commercially promised. Finally, versions that could handle color and three-dimensional pictures were being worked on for rollout in the future (Janson).
Additionally, within the business world, in 1966 (when booths had been the sole availability of Picturephones) it had already been speculated by Eastern Airlines that Picturephones might help the travel industry, with the need for business trips being negated and runways being less congested (Video Phone Held an Aid to Transit”). In December of 1970, it had been announced that Picturephones were placed in many of the offices of the President’s top aids. (“Picturephones Placed in Offices of Tope Aides at White House”). In 1975, a court case was tried with the use of Picturephones. The lawyers were in New York, while the judges were in Washington (“TV Phone to Link Lawyers in City to Judges in Capital”). These are just a few examples of the ways people were using, and aspired to use, the Picturephone in the late 60s and early 70s. There was also talk of the device being used in hospitals and in education.
Usage For Deaf Individuals
One of the more interesting ways that the Picturephone was supposed to have been able to be used was for deaf people. Because of the sight capabilities of the device, Deaf Individuals could communicate through sign language and lip reading. In fact, two deaf teenagers took part in the inauguration of the Booth system in 1964 (“Picture Phones Go Into Service”).
One of the most interesting ways the Picturephone was described though, was in how futuristic it was. This can be seen in some of the myriad uses given in articles about the device, simple speculation on how it could possibly be used once it is universally accepted. It was seen as the way of the future to have cheap Picturephone service, and be able to have this infrastructure as the main system of telephony in America. This is the sum of these articles. Every single one seems to yearn for the time in which we can all see each other whenever we want regardless of distance. And yet the technology just seemed to fade away as time moved on. As though the way of the Jetsons wasn’t meant to be for us.
As early as 1956 editorials appeared that eschewed the up and coming technology. This is before the technology was even revealed to the public. John Gould, in his article, states “I can’t help asking why the Bell Boys spend so much time and energy, not to mention expense, to develop the picture-phone when there are still so many bugs still to be ferreted out of the talking kind.” He continues to assert (in highly purposeful hyperbole) that soon after the Picturephone is introduced for widespread use “Pool rooms will close, rush-hour transportation will be even more inadequate, the birthrate will go up, we’ll need more and more schools, the tax rate will climb to hardship heights, financing will fail, the steel industry will go into a decline and we’ll have a depression.” All this because some guy called home to say he’d be late on a Picturephone (as opposed to a regular phone), saw his wife, and decided he had to get home immediately. He concludes, that even if the Picturephone is horrible, the novelty will amaze everyone, and “the more I think about it, the more I’d like to have one.” Thus, even in this entirely scathing and facetious article, he concludes that even he wants one, and the novelty wears on.
In another editorial, “Technology: Miracles Aren’t Enough,” the Picturephone is written off as an old trick: “Picturephone service is old hat; it has been demonstrated to work, and will be offered commercially in selected areas next year” (Pierce). This as early as 1970, when the service isn’t even yet offered commercially, much less in people’s homes and it is already considered by some to be old technology. The next day, another editorial appears, “The Burdens of Technology,” that warns of new technologies: “Young and old people are questioning the values of technological progress; the accusation is that technology deals only with material values and pays no attention to other values and pays no attention to other values that have to do with peace of mind, love, happiness, even contemplation.” Later in this same editorial the author discusses the Picturephone that will change the way we live (Fubini). He does not address whether this device will help any of the earlier problems that technology has failed to. We can only assume that he does not believe so. These issues though, along with the unbearably high expectations that the idea of futurology had ascribed to the device can perhaps help elucidate as to why the device failed so miserably, without ever really getting off the ground in the consumer market.
In July of 1971, a full year after the Picturephone service went commercial, an article appears in the NY Times that describes its slow growth as disappointing to the Bell company. They had predicted that along with the 25 Picturephones ordered at the time the service was released, 150 more would be ordered within the year. In actuality, since its release, 16 had been installed and 8 disconnected. Of those, only 12 are even able to dial outside the building, the others merely being used for in-house intercoms. One user called it an impersonal form of communication, as both you and the person you’re talking to show up grey. This comes less than a decade after its premier at the World’s Fair where the Picturephone had been described as more personal than the telephone. In this same article, another Bell spokesman guesses that they would not be available for use in residences until the 1990s (Rensberger). The date had gotten pushed back again.
An article looking back, in April of 2000, suggests that the main testament to the failure of this product was a “gap between what can be created and what people actually want” (Guernsey). There are many issues involved in this, most pervasively that of privacy. Because the phone can ring at any given time, would people want to be seen at any given time? Another issue could be that of inattentiveness, While on the telephone, one can many do many other things without the person on the other line realizing, whereas a videophone would require one’s full attention.
Nonetheless, “in1972, AT&T pulled the plug.” In addition to the reasons above, this may have been due to facts like the high cost of the product, as well as the low acceptance level (as one can only use the product if the recipient of the call has one too), however, one AT&T historian says it may be much simpler: “It turned out that it wasn’t entirely clear that people wanted to be seen on a telephone” (qtd. in Guernsey).
For years, indeed decades after, new types of technologies were rolled out along the same lines. Many different teleconferencing technologies had been adopted, although none that really changed the face of business, as they were slow to be accepted by many. Many different telephone add-ons that would enable video to be transmitted in addition to audio were rolled out, but not accepted by most. The only vastly successful technology to really take hold and penetrate into the homes of many has been the web cam. These Internet cameras are now built into monitors, and can be purchased separately, relatively inexpensively, and are used through high-speed Internet to connect people thousands of miles away. The reason for their success is, perhaps, because of the low price of the camera, as well as the lack of price for service, since they work through the Internet many people have anyway. For now, this is the best choice many have of actually seeing their loved ones from a distance, and the Picturephone remains a distant memory.
Carson, D.N. “The Evolution of Picturephone Service.” The Telephone: An Historical Anthology Ed. George Shiers 1977. Reprinted from Bell Laboratories Record,Vol. 46, October 1968. Pp.282-291
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