The Secret History of the Videophone

By the year 2001, phones like this will be common.Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

When I was a boy, I was puzzled by a page in the World Book Encyclopedia. The entry for "Telephone" included a sequence of 14 photos of phones through the years, ending with a videophone—one of those great near-future science-fiction concepts that I couldn't wait for someone to create in the real world, like the hovercar or the space colony. And there, next to that picture of the videophone of tomorrow, was the word "1970."

This was the 1977 edition of the encyclopedia. Apparently, the phone of the future already existed. So why didn't anybody I knew have one?

Matt Novak delves into that dead end of tech history in great post at Gizmodo. Here's an excerpt:

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.

We live in a Chester Gould world, not a Stanley Kubrick world.Chester GouldCommunications 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.

This is, among other things, a useful lesson in the limits of planning, and in the way innovation depends on a mix of trial, error, and serendipity. Bell correctly saw that this technology was possible, but it failed completely to anticipate whether anyone actually wanted a stand-alone picturephone enough to pay for it. "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," Novak notes. "By 1977, that number had dwindled to just nine." For 12,000 bucks a year, you could call eight people. What's the opposite of a network effect?

It was a costly misstep—one of the many failures you'll find in the ongoing churn of the marketplace, though this one's lifespan perhaps was extended by the fact that Bell Labs had a government-protected monopoly for a parent company. Skype and FaceTime, by contrast, were free add-ons to technologies that had been developed without much thought for their picturephone possibilities. The future always gets here, but not always through the door you were expecting.

[Via Rob MacDougall, whose own book on telephone history is reviewed in the upcoming August/September issue of Reason. MacDougall also tweets his favorite videophone photo.]

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  • sarcasmic||

    You didn't build that!

  • db||

    I was.never.excited.about the.idea of.videophones, and I.don't use Skype or.face time or any other video chat applications. I.don't spend a.lot of.time.catching up.with.people.over the phone--I see it as more.of a tool up meatspace meetings.

  • Tommy_Grand||

    Turing test fail.

  • UnCivilServant||

    The people I regularly interact with over phone live several hours away at least. When we've got a half an hour of things to say to each other, someone driving a few hours doesn't make sense.

  • Jordan||

    I'm not a fan of video chat either. Then again, I'm pretty introverted. Maybe extroverts like it. I do plan to use Skype to let my parents see my daughter on a routine basis when she is born, though.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    You know who else didn't like videophones?

  • db||

    George Jetson?

  • JWatts||

    Medusa's friends and family?

  • EDG reppin' LBC||

    The Radio Starphone?

  • MJGreen||

    I don't know why anyone would want to see my mug when talking to me, nor do I want to see their poorly lit faces and whatever shit they have in their room. That said, Skype has been awesome ever since my brother had a kid. My nephew's a big fan of me even though we've only spent a few hours together in real life.

  • Tonio||

    ^This. Keeping in-touch with friends an family who are located inconveniently far away is the killer video phone app.

    Business meetings...meh.

  • ||

    Yes, every Sunday, my kid spends an hour videophoning his grandparents on Skype who live 8 time zones away. Otherwise I just use Skype to chat or occasionally phone my friends in various countries.

  • Florida Man||

    I thought the point of a phone is so you could lie to people. "I'm at the office." "I'm in the car." "That club music is coming from a minority street youth's boom box."
    Video ruins the whole concept.

  • DJF||

    But then you get the software package which puts a picture of your office or car behind you when in fact you are at the beach.

    And then of course that software can probably also make you look like someone else. That will be good for fun, laughter and lawsuits

  • Florida Man||

    My wife video chats with her friends. The software gave her a monocle and a top hat. I though it was funny she chose that being she doesn't read h&r.

  • All-Seeing Monocle||


  • Drake||

    Fine, whatever. Where are the fucking flying cars? And I we were supposed to have nuclear power generators down the street.

  • WTF||

    Where are the fucking flying cars?

    Think of all the thousands of morons you see in rush hour traffic. Now picture them all in the air.

  • JWatts||

    Well, now that's the very definition of a short term problem.

  • UnCivilServant||

    Think of all the thousands of morons you see in rush hour traffic. Now picture them all in the air.

    That problem will solve itself in a few weeks.

  • Tonio||

    Yes, but unfortunately at the expense of many non-morons.

  • UnCivilServant||

    It's the price the survivors pay for flying cars.

  • IceTrey||

    Uh, obviously they would be computer controlled.

  • JW||

    great post at Gizmodo

    These are mutually exclusive concepts.

    Gawker is where good ideas go to be violently sacrificed through drunken, clumsy anal vivisection.

  • Tonio||

    Is Sug ghost-writing your posts, or vice versa?

  • JW||

    It would be a lie to deny the horrific influence he's had on all of us.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Novak's Paleofuture blog is pretty consistently excellent, whatever you think of the rest of the Gawker network.

  • JW||

    OK, that he moved there makes sense, as to how it could be above the Gawker norm.

    I hadn't seen this one before, so I'll check it out. Thanks Jesse.


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