The history of the videophone – the invention that failed to take off as expected

In the 1960s, there were expectations that standalone videophone units would be in homes across the US by the turn of the century.

The success of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone invention led to speculation video telephones would be the next big move in communication innovation.

However, price and inconvenience prevented the videophone’s popularity and today the technology is embedded into other devices rather than as a separate unit.

We take a look back through the evolution of the videophone.

[Read more: Discover more about the telephone’s controversial patent history]

Victorian video phones

During Queen Victoria’s reign, after Bell’s telephone had been invented and had entered public consciousness, cartoonists picked up on the idea of a type of video telephone.

One example this cartoon from Punch which shows parents speaking to their daughter via a screen in what was called a telephonoscope.

punch

This example is from 1878, just two years after Bell applied for his telephone patent.

German pre-war innovation

The world’s first public videophone service was courtesy of Germany from 1936 to 1940, after which World War Two stopped the Gegensehn-Freisprechanlage (visual telephone system).

The service linked Berlin with Leipzig, a city 100 miles away, and used broadband coaxial cable.

Invented by Dr Georg Schubert, an engineer working for the German post office, it was an expensive way to communicate and did not become popular. 

BT’s contribution – a ‘viewphone’

viewphone

In the engineer-in-chief’s annual report in 1966-67, you can see the results and development of a so-called ‘viewphone’ which allowed users to see each other during a call.

The document even had a copy of the image seen during the trial, as you can see below.

bt archive

 

If you watch the below video from 2:35 you can see BT’s videophone in action with a call to Australia. The film is called 'Telecommunications Services for the 1990s', and was made in 1969 about what the future of phones would look like. 

See more at BT’s archives here.

American misplaced confidence

American telecommunication companies thought videophones would be the next big thing and bet big.

Bell Labs, now owned by Nokia, has a history of invention in the United States. It was a branch of the American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) company, and its internal magazine in 1969 prophesied big things for the videophone.

“I predict that before the turn of the century Picturephone will similarly displace today’s means of communication, and in addition will make many of today’s trips unnecessary.”

Read the full magazine here.

However, public videophone booths put into stations in New York, Washington and Chicago did not prove popular due to the cost and having to reserve your spot. It cost $16 to $27 for three minutes. After four years, they were closed in 1968.

Videophones today

modern

Gilbert Grosvenor, the great grandson of telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell (right) talks on the latest video phone from his office at the National Geographic Society in Washington DC.

Today the ability to make a videocall is easy whether its on a tablet, desktop or mobile phone after the disappointment of the 1970s.

Skype, FaceTime or other apps mean that people regularly communicate with each other in a way far different from what the cartoonists of Punch lampooned nearly 150 years ago.

To find more about the UK's communication history and BT's role, visit BT Archives

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