Science & Technology

The Secret History of the Videophone

The future's not what it used to be.


By the year 2001, phones like this will be common.

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 Gould

Communications 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.]