See the revolutionary Picturephone – an early version of Zoom (yes, you could actually video chat in the 1960s!)

Picturephone---1960s-video-chat

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You might think the first video chat application ever was Skype (buffer buffer buffer) in the 2000s, well after the internet was established.

But that’s because you don’t know about Bell’s Picturephone! In the 60s, it was considered the next logical innovation in mid-century telecommunications.

The Picturephone, which debuted in the late 60s, allowed you to make a video call long before the internet, and WAY before Zoom, Google Meet, Facetime and anything that involved webcams

You can be forgiven for not knowing about this super-early video phone technology, since the concept never really took off. There were a few iterations after this one, but by the early 70s, the idea had all but fizzled out… for a few decades, anyhow.

As miraculous and sci-fi as it must have seemed, it was extremely expensive to set up and to use, and only worked if both parties had the device.

And, as it turns out, motivation was a factor: Polls at the time showed that people didn’t really like being seen on a video chat — just as much as we do nowadays… 🙈 – BB

Vintage Picturephone video calling like early Zoom-Skype (1960s)

First video phone: Bell System introduces Picturephone service (1967)

A logical extension of today’s telephone service…

Bell System Picturephone service now lets callers see as well as talk on the telephone. And “hands-free” if they wish.

For the first time, people can make a visual telephone call to another city — the latest example of the research, invention, and development that are constantly improving the communications we provide.

The new service is being offered in the cities listed: New York, Chicago, and Washington. Bell System attendants at each local center help callers enjoy pre-arranged face-to-face visits with friends or relatives in either of the other cities.

Further development of Picturephone service is still in the future. But the service is another step toward our goal of providing you with better, warmer, more nearly complete communication by telephone.

Vintage Bell System introduces Picturephone service (1967)


Video chat miracle: Developing the Picturephone service

By Arthur D. Hall, Head, Television Engineering Department, Bell Telephone Laboratories (1965)

Imagine, if you will, a service that permits you to have a face-to-face conversation with a person who may be many miles away — a telephone conversation in which you can see every expression of the distant person.

Think for a moment what this might mean in terms of a “reunion” with a friend or relative in a faraway city. Consider the advantage of being able to show or be shown an object difficult to describe in words and consider, too, the possibility of a person with a hearing defect being able to read the lips of the person at the other end of the line.

Vintage Bell ATT Picturephones - early video chat - Click Americana (2)

These are just a few of the intriguing prospects of Picturephone service which was demonstrated for the first time on April 20 with a transcontinental call between Bell System exhibits at the New York World’s Fair and Disneyland.

Visitors to the Bell System exhibits at the New York World’s Fair and at Disneyland are trying it out now. It features a simultaneous telephone conversation and picture, both of which are switched through conventional telephone central office equipment.

Those who try Picturephone service will have a novel personal experience. For the first time, they will encounter a new dimension in telephoning — the ability to use the sense of sight as well as of hearing.

ALSO SEE: Telephone history, plus see 50 old phones, like early rotary-dial models

But at the World’s Fair, the Picturephone system is far more than a novelty. Its purpose is not entertainment alone. It is actually a part of a carefully planned experiment designed by Bell Laboratories’ engineers to make this new concept as useful and valuable as possible to customers at the time when it can be offered commercially.

The basic idea is not new. Indeed, if you are a science fiction fan you may be somewhat surprised to learn that Picturephone service is just now an accomplished fact.

As far as the pages of fiction are concerned, it has been a familiar prop for some time. Certainly in the Bell Laboratories, it has been a subject of experiments and development work for many years.

From the technical point of view, we know, today, how to provide such a service. Indeed, the present setup at the World’s Fair is evidence that it is quite possible without going beyond today’s technology.

Vintage Bell ATT Picturephones - early video chat - Click Americana (3)

What will customers need and want?

Nevertheless, before a complete system can be successfully designed and built there is much more that we need to know. All of the potential uses of the Picturephone service depend on which specific characteristics and capabilities are built into a system.

Before we can determine these, we need to know what potential customers will need and want from such a system after the novelty has worn off. Such information is basic of course. In fact, customers’ needs largely determine the fundamental technical and economic requirements of any system.

But in a service as new as Picturephone, an understanding of the customer’s point of view is essential.

Vintage Picturephone from Bell Telephone (1960s)

What specific uses will a customer consider most important? What quality of picture will best serve these uses? Which features will he prefer, and what controls will he need to activate them? How often would the typical customer use Picturephone service, at what times of day, and for how long?

We need detailed answers to such questions as these so that systems engineers can make realistic assumptions about what compromise a customer would make if he had to choose between a system’s features, its performance, and its cost.

This kind of information is now being compiled in a program of studies and experiments. A vital part of this program consists of observing how people use and react to experimental systems complete with Picturephone sets, transmission and switching facilities.

Fortunately, many devices and techniques currently in use are readily adaptable to experimental Picturephone systems. Solid-state electronics make possible Picturephone sets that are small and highly reliable; that operate on low power and that produce good pictures without studio lighting.

Visitors at New York World’s Fair are now trying the experimental Picturephone system installed there.

Vintage Bell ATT Picturephones - early video chat - Click Americana (1)
L A Meacham at his desk at Bell Laboratories talks with and views author A D Hall on an experimental Picturephone set. Both engineers helped develop the visual telephone system.
Video call design objectives

The general objectives of the Picturephone design included an attractively styled set, that would be small enough to be used on a desk or tabletop and with as few controls as possible to make it easy to use. It also had to be low in power consumption and heat dissipation, reliable, and stable in its performance.

These demands were satisfied through a design that uses solid-state devices exclusively except for the pick-up and display tubes. The set consists of three equipment packages: a display unit, a control unit and a power supply. The first two are in reach of the user; the power supply is out of sight.

The largest of the packages is the display unit which contains a picture tube, camera, the scanning, synchronization and other video circuits and a loudspeaker. The control unit has a telephone handset, a Speakerphone, and a set of Touchtone telephone push buttons.

ALSO SEE: See some vintage touch-tone phones with old-fashioned push buttons

One objective of the experiment is to observe the relative use given to the telephone handset and the Speakerphone.

The audio line connects through relays to the Picturephone switching system as well as to the standard telephone switching systems so that both conventional telephone and Speakerphone services are provided on the same instrument. The user controls the system with push buttons and makes calls by means of the Touchtone telephone set.

There are push buttons to select either of two modes of viewing: one-way video in which the user receives an incoming picture but does not transmit his own, and two-way video.

Another push button controls a “self-view” feature that allows the user to see himself on his own viewing screen. This feature helps him to position himself with respect to the focus and field-of-view of the camera lens.

A lamp is provided for use if room lighting is poor. It can be switched on and off manually or be set to light automatically when the set is turned on. Novel circuits used in it do make important contributions to the economy.

Picturephone meeting service price list - 1960s 1970s Bell Telephone
Picturephone meeting service price list – cost per minute (Late 1960s/early 1970s, bia Bell Telephone)

Business experiments with Picturephone service

By Eugene Lapé (AT&T) Bell Telephone magazine (August 1965)

It will be many years before its use on a large scale is practical. Nevertheless, the Picturephone service is already showing potential as a business aid.

June 24th of this year marked the first anniversary of the date on which Picturephone see-while-you-talk service was initially offered commercially between New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC.

During this first year, this new service was used experimentally for the most part and there has not been time to explore many of its potentials. Nevertheless, it is already showing that it has possibilities as an important new business tool.

During the year some imaginative businessmen in varied fields explored the possibilities of this new service by using Picturephone calls in place of traditional methods of merchandising, for interviewing personnel, initiating product promotions, holding sales conferences and staff meetings, and other company functions.

The consensus among these early users is that the effective use of this personal communications service can mean time and money saved.

MORE OLD TECH: Way before mobile phones, AT&T and Bell Telephone launched wireless telephone service (1919)

One of the earliest users of Picturephone service, and the first to benefit from its potential as a sales tool, was Tom Slater, sales manager for the Benay-Albee Novelty Company, New York. He initially thought that the see-while-you-talk phone service might aid his novelty hat business as a promotional asset to keep his company’s name prominent in the mind of a buyer.

Having seen Picturephone service in operation at the World’s Fair, Slater decided to unveil his new line of children’s play hats in a call from New York’s Picturephone calling center to Henry Mertins, executive toy buyer for S. S. Kresge Company, at the Picturephone calling center in Chicago.

As the call progressed, Slater launched a serious presentation and received an $18,000 order for two lines of novelty hats. “The hook-up was as effective as if I had made the presentation in person,” says Slater.

Benay-Albee trade advertising has invited other buyers to contact Slater for similar calls to review merchandise. Explaining the purpose behind the program, Slater says that calls to the Chicago and Washington Picturephone calling centers should enable him to increase his coverage by up to 25 percent and make more effective use of his time.

For example, he was able to take a tour of purchasing agents that he says would not have been possible if he had spent two-and-a-half days in Chicago instead of making the Picturephone call.

Vintage Bell ATT Picturephones for 1960s video conference calls - Click Americana (5)
A toy manufacturer used Picturephone service to demonstrate a line of toys to a buyer. The result: 400 percent increase in orders of one item; 300 percent increase in another

As part of this trend, several other firms have developed effective business applications for Picturephone service since Slater’s original sales call. Companies such as Transogram, Henry Pollak, Inc., and Hat Corporation of America have tested Picturephone service as a selling tool within their respective fields.

Transogram Company, Inc., one of the nation’s leading toy manufacturers, added a new dimension to toy merchandising by using the two-way visual telephone service to review part of its product line with a major buyer, Montgomery Ward, in Chicago.

DON’T MISS: How do you use the confusing rotary phone? We have the original step-by-step booklets from the 40s and 50s

Explaining the purpose of the call, Charles S. Raizen Sr., chairman of the board, says that they decided to use Picturephone service because it afforded an opportunity to show and demonstrate certain leading items, providing a valuable visual reference for their conversation.

Transogram’s call via Picturephone facilities produced a 400 percent increase in the order of one item and a 300 percent increase in another.

Vintage Bell ATT Picturephones for 1960s video conference calls - Click Americana (6)
The toy as it appeared on the Picturephone screen

A series of Picturephone sales calls were initiated by Henry Pollak, Inc., a New York importer and supply firm, and Olympic Accessories Corporation, a Pollak subsidiary.

Marking the first call of its kind in the ready-to-wear women’s fashion industry, Henry Pollak, president, used the Bell System’s Picturephone service in a pioneering technique to merchandise a new line of women’s sweaters.

“We needed a fast way to show our newly imported line of sweaters,” comments Pollak, “and decided to experiment with a sales conference via Picturephone transmission.

“It enabled us to show the sweaters with the aid of a model, make the sale, and immediately air-ship the goods,” adds Pollak, “so that (the store) could begin selling the following day. This ability to visually show new merchandise by phone, saving the usual time and cost involved, appears to offer many benefits in accelerated merchandising.”

Olympic Accessories Corporation capitalized on the experience gained by Pollak and expanded the firm’s “Picturephone Sales Conference Technique” method of merchandising through a planned series of calls to promote its line of ladies’ handbags to buyers.

“By using the visual telephone, we were able to show our product line from the New York Picturephone center, discuss the handbag features, and create the same buying interest as in a personal sales visit,” says Sam Schiff, the Olympic corporation’s sales manager.

Lady Bird Johnson using the Picturephone Service (1964)
First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson using the Picturephone Service (Phonovision) in the National Geographic Society building in Washington, D.C. on June 24, 1964/Courtesy NARA

“Our first series of three Picturephone calls were to buyers in the Washington area,” he reports. “Although the primary purpose of this particular campaign was just to offer buyers a sneak preview of our line before the industry’s market show in New York, we received immediate advance orders.”

Olympic Accessories Corporation’s program marks the first planned program of Picturephone calls by a single firm.

The possible uses for Picturephone service seem to be almost unlimited and the list of applications is lengthening through the influence of creative thinking. Creativity immediately pinpoints the advertising and graphics industry, a business where the visual telephone’s benefits are compounded.

N. W. Ayer & Son, Inc., first in the advertising agency field to experiment with Picturephone service, sees “many potential applications in the agency business — to say nothing of other service businesses,” according to Jerry N Jordan, vice president and assistant to the president.

Aver conducted a series of test transmissions via Picturephone facilities including projection of both the live demonstration and film portion of a combination commercial to executives of WTTG-TV in Washington, DC.

Vintage Bell ATT Picturephones for 1960s video conference calls - Click Americana (1)
View of the puppet for TV commercial displayed for TV station by the ad agency.

From the Picturephone calling center in New York, Ayer people demonstrated the desired manner in which the commercial should be handled, explained the assembly of a display, the action of a puppet, and then switch to an accompanying 60-second spot film.

Since a performer generally has contact with the agency and client through correspondence or actual commercial copy only, Picturephone service opens the door to an entirely new means of communications. It makes it possible for the performer to be in direct contact with the people who conceived the spot and be shown exactly how they want it done, assuring proper presentation of the product.

WTTG’s general manager and vice president, Lawrence Fraiberg, sees a number of uses for Picturephone service.

“I envision the time when a program presentation to an agency can be made by Picturephone service, when a commercial idea can be transmitted to a client or agency, and when TV stations also can communicate with each other through this service.”

Vintage Bell ATT Picturephones for 1960s video conference calls - Click Americana (3)
Ad agency team demonstrates handling of a TV commercial for TV station executives

From the agency standpoint, Jordan terms Picturephone service “a dramatic advance in communications for which we, at Ayer, see many potential applications. While there is no substitute for direct personal contact in our business,” Jordan says, “Picturephone calls are the closest thing to it that has been developed and as demonstrated in our experiments, a truly superior means of communications.”

Other recent tests by Aver show potential usefulness for the new communications medium in transmitting art layouts, graphic material, packaging designs, sales presentations, and new product introductions.

Picturephone service was used in another recent graphics transmission when a painting was unveiled in New York to an audience in Washington, DC.

The event marked a first for artists, as representatives of the National Geographic Society at the Picturephone center in Washington were able to view a painting of General Lee’s surrender to General Grant transmitted from the center in New York.

On hand in Washington to view the painting was Major General US Grant 3rd, Retired, grandson of the famous Civil War general, who supplied much of the information for the painting’s detail and accuracy.

Commenting on the call, Andrew Poggenpohl, art editor for the Society, says that seeing the painting via Picturephone service ”enabled us to get an overall impression while discussing detail in a face-to-face conversation with the artist, Tom Lovell.”

After the unveiling, the painting was forwarded to the National Geographic Society for closer inspection and evaluation.

Vintage Bell ATT Picturephones for 1960s video conference calls - Click Americana (4)
Artist in New York shows a painting to representatives of the National Geographic Society at the Washington DC Picturephone Center

Another valuable business application for Picturephone service has been its use for interviewing prospective employees. Milton R. Stohl, marketing vice president of Mystik Tape, Inc., Chicago, hired a New York job applicant as district manager for the Boston area after a 20-minute interview via Picturephone service, terming the call ‘more than worth it, because of time and money saved.”

Picturephone service is credited with doing the job for one-third the cost while saving valuable executive time.

MORE: See how expensive international long-distance phone calls were back in the 60s

Personnel Laboratory, Inc., also used Picturephone service as a means of interviewing job applicants. The firm made a call from New York to Washington, DC.

“For preliminary screening, Picturephone service is a new tool that forward-looking personnel people will welcome,” says James H. Pierson, consultant. He feels that companies will be hiring better people with the use of Picturephone calling since they can canvass the field more thoroughly than is usually feasible.

Vintage Bell ATT Picturephones for 1960s video conference calls - Click Americana (2)
A new hairstyling service was inaugurated between New York and Washington (Photo of vintage Picturephone by Bell Telephone, 1964)

Perhaps the most unusual business for Picturephone service that has yet been developed is the new “Hair Styling Consultant Service” being offered by John Fonda, a nationally known New York hairstylist.

His service was inaugurated to enable women in Washington and Chicago to call him via Picturephone service for consultation on their hair problems. As part of the consultation service, Mr Fonda designs an individualistic hairstyle for them and sends a geometric diagram that enables a local beauty salon to re-create the coiffure.

Vintage Bell ATT Picturephones for 1960s video conference calls - Click Americana (7)
View on the Picturephone screen: Hairstylist at work

The potential of Picturephone service seems to be stimulating considerable interest in nearly every phase of business operations. In another recent Picturephone call, the president of a large Chicago bank called a bank official in New York to discuss security transactions and new building construction. In this instance, the desire for a face-to-face conference prompted the call.

ALSO SEE: Nikola Tesla: The life story of the inventor & scientist who created tech we still use today

Several other business calls placed over the tri-city network include a conference by two airline executives to discuss developments in the fields of communications, bookings, and transportation; a person-to-person taped interview of Broadway producer-director Herman Shumlin by Chicago TV-radio personality Sig Sackowicz; a New York builder to show three model homes to an official of the American Association of Home Builders in Washington, DC; a staff sales conference by Chicago and New York executives of the Stanley Home Products Corporation.

Medical sales demonstration on vintage Picturephone system
In this Picturephone service experiment, representatives of a drug firm demonstrate the preparation of antibiotics for intervenous injection. The view as seen on the remote Picturephone screen is reproduced above.

And, perhaps as a sign of the future, a product trial of Picturephone service began July 7 in the Chicago and New York headquarters buildings of the Union Carbide Corporation.

About 35 Union Carbide employees are participating in the trial and have Picturephone sets installed on their desks. They can communicate with other Picturephone set users in their own organization; between the Union Carbide offices in New York and Chicago; and with the Picturephone calling centers in New York, Chicago, and Washington.

ALSO SEE: Remember that AT&T jingle, ‘Reach out and touch someone’? Hear it again & find out how it came to be

The trial, which will extend over several months, gives Union Carbide employees the use of this new telephone service under nearly normal office conditions and enables them to determine its value to them in their daily activities.

At the same time, Bell Laboratories and the New York and Illinois Bell Telephone Companies which are conducting the trial will be able to analyze Picturephone hardware and the ways in which customers use the service to get some reactions to its utility, application, and design.

J. E. Currens, president of Union Carbide’s Realty Division, said the company was participating in the Picturephone service trial “as part of its continuing effort to speed and improve communications for the purpose of increasing operational efficiency. Also, as a research-oriented company, we are pleased to test new products and advances in technology.”

A 1970s version of the Picturephone

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. One thing that kept the Picturephone from taking off in the 1960s and 70s was simply cost. According to the chart here, a call from Washington to San Francisco cost $6.50 per minute in the 1960s; that’s the equivalent to over $50 per minute today!

    Another notable feature of the Picturephone is the collection of urban legends surrounding them. Supposedly during testing, some of the engineers took the units home… and hilarity ensued when the cameras were activated without the receiver being aware, resulting in people being caught in states of undress and other private moments. But these stories were likely just that — good stories.

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