The Mix

Videophones from the Future Past

Link – article by Avi Abrams

Our Phones Became Smartphones, Somehow Missing the Whole “Videophone” Stage Along the Way

“There is no telling what effect the TV telephone will have on what people say and how they do it when they call.” -AP, 1957

This wonderful experience of seeing and talking to a distant person (provided there is no lag in signal, and the picture is reasonably clear) has been the original super-science dream back from Victorian times, transformed into more refined science fiction visions in the 1920s, and finally fleshed out into working prototypes in the 1930s. Further in the 1950s we’ve seen “videophones” appearing in every near-future movie and scifi story, and even presented to government officials as the ultimate way of communication.

Then, throughout the 1960s and 1970s videophones acquired these groovy, curvaceous shapes and became certifiably “cool” (thanks to Star Trek and tons of spy B-movies), while being still unattainable to masses – and then… those who hoped to finally own this piece of future technology, got more than they bargained for – now any kid, or grandma with access to a smartphone can freely talk themselves into oblivion, if they so desire… But the gadget we have is totally different from the “videophones of the future past”.

Communications terminal from “2001, A Space Odyssey” (1968)

The following wonderful illustration is the frontpiece to Hugo Gernsback’s “Radio for All” from 1922: Mr. Gernsback of course is considered the father of modern science fiction, but he also published more down-to-earth radio and engineering magazines like “Electrical Experimenter”, which were peppered with such visionary contraptions as “the Aerophone (a name for wireless audio transmission, rather than merely telegraphic code), the Telephot (an early conceptualization of the videophone), and the Hypnobioscope (an automated thought transcription and playback machine)” – all carrying with them the sense of urgency of development and possibility of becoming reality at any moment:

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Video calling looks very attractive – and mighty important! – in the legendary German 1927 movie “Metropolis”:

This prediction was to become reality only 10 years later, when the first video-telephone service was introduced in Nazi Germany in 1936! Note, that it was not a single working videophone device, but the whole public videophone service, made part of the German Reichspost – check out the modernist Bauhaus esthetic and the clean lines of this Reichspost office building:

“Developed by Dr. Georg Schubert, the videophone connected Berlin with Leipzig and Hamburg, using broadband coaxial cable. It used 8 inches (20 cm) square displays and the video achieved a speed of 25 frames per second. In 1938 the service was broadened to connect Leipzig with Nuremburg and Munich.” The service was closed down, however, due to the war in 1940.

Skype? Smartphone? Facetime? Google Hangouts? These bulky, clunky gadgets claimed to corner this market in the 1950s-60s

Here is how video-conferencing was envisioned in the 1950s: the gadgets are now far more ubiquitous in movies and magazines, becoming a necessary part of any middle-class suburbia household in the near-future, and consumerism utopia in general:

“Buy a Hughes Tronotron, and you will be able to see over the phone”, proclaims the ad from 1957 – on the right is the outrageous shape of the 1950s TV, which would go well with any cool-shaped videophone:

This video-calling setup was presented on August 12, 1957, at a television fair in Frankfurt, Germany – it required “four televisions (one to see yourself and the other to see the person you would be conversing with) and two telephones”; certainly a whole lot more laborious arrangement than just dialing the other person’s number on your smartphone:

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1970s: already a part of the kitsch culture

The dream almost became reality in the 1970s (again) as some prototypes were being readied for mass production: these gadgets were definitely not “smartphones” we know today, but could get a job done in their primitive and cheap-to-manufacture way… While business-wise, audio and video-conferencing was still a very rudimentary experience, far removed from what modern audio conferencing companies, such as Polycom and similar firms, provide. But at least, the ads for these phones became more sophisticated, and some even claimed to put them within reach for business and home use worldwide in a few years, max.

Here is a more or less visually-appealing design of 1970 “Matra” videophone from France:

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“AT&T Picturephone Mod II” looked pretty cool for its time (especially with its cover removed):

(on the right is how we imagined videophone communication would happen in the future)

“The Future of Communications” showcased the new 1968 Toshiba videophone model… and Bell Systems came out with the “Picture Phone” in 1964:

Meanwhile in Soviet Russia in 1965 there were some gadgets tested as well: they performed reasonably well but sank without a trace after being ignored by official communication system:

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Here is the “Ericsson” videophone from the 1960s:

And finally, this cute round videophone, by AT&T engineer Harold S. Osborne, was touted in 1952 as the “Ultimate Shape of the Phone” (Apple, take note!) -

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“In the future, said Mr. Osborne, a telephone number will be given at birth to every baby in the world. It will be his for life. When he wants to call anyone, no matter where, he will merely push the buttons on his Lilliputian phone.”

Article by Avi Abrams, Dark Roasted Blend.