Did you know that Bell (now AT&T) had video telephone service in 1964?

Did you know that Bell (now AT&T) had video telephone service in 1964?
Not long ago, we passed along the story of the first videophone service, which was launched in 1936 in Germany only to be shut down a few years later. Today, we're sharing another bit of telecommunications history – how Bell (now AT&T) launched its video telephone service and along with it a revolutionary (for the time) device called the PicturePhone. This happened in the distant 1964 – exactly 50 years ago.

The PicturePhone was, basically, a device combining a camera, a screen, a speaker, and a microphone. It was used together with a standard, 12-button telephone to allow video calls to be made over the existing landline network. The display measured 5.5 by 5 inches and displayed black-and-white video at 30 frames per second and resolution of about 250 or 280 horizontal lines. Simply put, the PicturePhone was like something out of a sci-fi movie!

But the PicturePhone didn't take the country by storm. In fact, very few people ever used the device, let alone subscribe to Bell's videophone service. The reasons? Well, price was one of them. The company charged a ridiculous amount of money – $160 per month, or about a thousand in today's money – for PicturePhone service. In hopes of generating hype and consumer interest in the device, Bell installed calling booths in major U.S. cities – New York, Chicago, and Washington D.C. – where one could have a 3-minute video call for a price of between $18 and $27 (the equivalent of $120 to $200 today). This, however, didn't help much as only about 70 people gave the PicturePhone a try over the first six months. By 1968, the PicturePhone booths were removed due to the absolute lack of customers.

Bell was hoping to have 100,000 PicturePhone units in use on its network by 1975, but in reality, only a fraction of this estimate was reached by that time. The subscriber base consisted of 500 or so subscribers at its peak, most of which resided in Chicago. Needless to say, Bell didn't make much money out of its creation. In fact, it lost half a billion dollars, having invested tremendous amounts of time and resources in the device. PicturePhone service was discontinued in the late '70s. 



references: Engineer Guy (YouTube), Long Lines (PDF), Videophone (Wikipedia)

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11 Comments

1. strangeprotocol

Posts: 16; Member since: Aug 15, 2014

Lol, Apples patented FaceTime

2. 0xFFFF

Posts: 3806; Member since: Apr 16, 2014

Bell Labs turned out some amazing inventions in their golden years. Like many have said before me, much technology we see today is a "new old thing".

5. Droid_X_Doug

Posts: 5993; Member since: Dec 22, 2010

It ultimately comes down to bandwidth and compression technology. Without the combination of radically higher bandwidth and compression technology, video calls still would not be ready for prime time. Remember how fast dial-up connections were when they first became commercially available? 300 b/s!!!! Then they quadrupled to 1,200 b/s. Nowadays, if your cable provider isn't putting out 8+ Mb/s, you are screaming at them. Add in video compression technology, and all-of-a-sudden, real time video is everywhere. Even on mobile devices.

6. 0xFFFF

Posts: 3806; Member since: Apr 16, 2014

The Bell system was analog. In many ways, we "lost" a lot of interesting analog technology due to the advent of digital systems.

9. GalaxyS5

Posts: 430; Member since: Aug 05, 2014

yeah, craappy tv sets, terrible phone lines, bad unsafe cars. what the hll man?

11. JC557

Posts: 1919; Member since: Dec 07, 2011

Even before that was the German video calling system back in the 40s. Of course it was prohibitively expensive and required an appointment and special kiosks of sorts.

3. Slammer

Posts: 1515; Member since: Jun 03, 2010

I wish I could've remembered this thing. I was only 3yrs old at that time and my parents had a party line right up until I was 8. We then switched to a private line but still had a black rotary phone. It wasn't until I was around 12 that we got a push button phone then to a cordless with an antenna 6 feet long (lol). It's amazing how fast technology grew to where it is today. Then an expensive concept only the wealthy could afford. Now everyone including as young as 7 and 8 are video chatting. John B.

4. downphoenix

Posts: 3165; Member since: Jun 19, 2010

Given how expensive it was, it was just too soon to release this. If they would have waited for costs to go down before implementing it, it could have taken off like they wanted. Heck, it's 2014 and we're still awaiting a standard for video calling, there's no interoperability because the video calling services we have now.

7. HildyJ

Posts: 338; Member since: Aug 11, 2012

I actually remember using an AT&T Videophone. They had a demonstration set up in the Bell Systems Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York and I made my parents stand in line so we could try it. At 13, I couldn't understand why we didn't buy one on the spot.

8. Miracles

Posts: 560; Member since: Aug 31, 2013

This article is familiar.....something about the Germans having this before anyone.

10. techie_cat

Posts: 9; Member since: Aug 16, 2014

I Like Taco Bell

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