On June 30, 1970, the world’s first commercial video conferencing service launched with an inaugural call from Pittsburgh Mayor Peter Flaherty to Alcoa Chairman and CEO John Harper. AT&T’s “Picturephone” system opened to customers the next day, with 38 Picturephones in use at eight Pittsburgh companies. By 1973, some 450 sets were in use. Although not a commercial success, it marked the first time video calling moved from demo booths to peoples' desks, and from a concept to practical business tool.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary — June 30, 2020 — current Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto and Alcoa Chairman Michael G. Morris conversed via video, as their predecessors did a half century ago. The event featured opening remarks from Carnegie Mellon University Provost and Chief Academic Officer James H. Garrett, Jr. Following the call, a panel of scholars from Carnegie Mellon University hosted a live Q&A, discussing the history and legacy of the Picturephone's launch, which heralded a future of ubiquitous video calling and telecommuting that is mainstream today.
The confluence of early motion picture demonstrations and the invention of the telephone in 1876 planted the seed in the public consciousness that a technology could soon exist that transmitted pictures as well as sound. As early as 1877, periodicals acclaimed that “lovers will be enabled to glance at any time their absent loved ones [...] merchants will be able to exhibit their goods to any customer, whether in London or Peking, [and] scholars enabled to consult in their rooms any rare and valuable work” (The New York Sun, March 29, 1877).
Despite public interest, technical progress was slow – video contains much more information than speech, making it hard to transmit using the low-speed, often mechanical technologies of the era. By the 1910s, single pictures could be sent (slowly) over phone lines. It was not until the late 1920s that video calling became possible, thanks to improvements in television, camera and transmission technologies. These “closed circuit” systems used dedicated cables to hardwire one camera to a distant television (which also had a camera and a cable running back). For the first time, people could reserve a time at a public booth and have a video chat with a person in the terminal city.
In the 1930s, AT&T began to develop technologies that allowed streaming of video over its switched telephone network (as opposed to using dedicated cables). Initially, this required the bandwidth of many simultaneous telephones lines, which was deemed too expensive for commercial uses. Although AT&T demonstrated a prototype system at the 1939 World’s Fair, it wasn’t until 1964 that a public system launched. Like earlier systems, this too was available via public booths which one could reserve.
Throughout the rest of the 1960s, AT&T slowly put together all of the technology pieces needed for a nationwide video calling service, including advances in camera miniaturization, electronic switchboards, integrated circuits and signal compression. The result was the first true video conferencing service, in which anyone could subscribe, have the technology in their office or home, and make a call to anyone in the system.
AT&T intended to launch Picturephone service simultaneously in New York City and Pittsburgh. Both cities had large numbers of corporate headquarters, which were hoped to be early adopters of the technology. Pittsburgh was also well regarded as a center for technology innovation and adoption, with pioneering companies such as Alcoa and Westinghouse, and leading academic institutions including Carnegie Mellon University and University of Pittsburgh. As the launch neared, network deficiencies in New York City meant it had to withdraw, leaving Pittsburgh as the sole launch city.
By 1970, the notion of capturing moving images and transmitting them as real-time, two-way conversation over accessible, easily-manufactured and repaired telephone devices suitable for home and office had been a dream of firms like AT&T for decades. Experiments like the popular Picturephone booths in the Bell Systems Pavillion at the 1964 World’s Fair (featuring an experimental precursor to the Mod II, the Mod I) captured the public imagination of Americans. Films such as director Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) presented routine videophone calls between the Earth and the Moon as the tantalizing promise of a technologically sophisticated future.
Yet the Mod II Picturephone unveiled in Pittsburgh in the summer of 1970 never took off commercially. Official assessments by AT&T and outside observers suggested the ambitious network failed because of cost ($160 a month per unit), or its limited scale (peaking at 453 sets nationwide by 1973), or a failure to properly excite potential customers about the promise of videocalling. In fact, we might more properly label the 1970 Picturephone as a secret success, a technology ahead of its time that instead set the pace for the world five decades hence.
Thanks to technological breakthroughs made by Bell Labs engineers and network planning and marketing principles brainstormed by officials at parent company AT&T, the Mod II Picturephone system would lay the groundwork for widespread videoconferencing decades in the future, even if the device itself never became widespread. Besides resolving technological quandaries of cost reduction — transmitting video over copper telephone wires, cheaper than dedicated coaxial cables — and ease of installation — tying voice transmission into customers’ existing desktop phone receivers -- the picturephone designers recognized the greatest appeal of video-by-telephone: flexibility of use, and a place for consumers to define their own use preferences.
By incorporating a flip camera to enable document sharing — intended for corporate customers to disseminate memoranda on videophone calls — Bell Labs engineers anticipated a world of screen sharing and converting single communication devices into multi-modal transmitters of voice, picture, and video, connected to an easily-accessible commercial network. The Mod II Picturephone anticipated the smartphone that would become so ubiquitous to American life in the early 21st century by consolidating multiple tasks into a single machine plugged into an existing network.
The clients of the initial Picturephone network in 1970 were businessmen — corporate executives of the Pittsburgh industrial giants that fueled the last period of post-World War II American economic prosperity. These firms, including Alcoa and Westinghouse, envisioned connecting far-flung industrial outposts to corporate boardrooms to streamline intra-firm communication and make corporate operations more profitable. Alcoa in 1971 incorporated the Picturephone into its experimental APRIS (Alcoa Picturephone Remote Information System), an internal network that used Picturephones to share data and charts like a modern-day intranet.
Others in Pittsburgh recognized the potential of remote videoconferencing to transform education medicine, the arts, and daily life. University of Pittsburgh educator Dr. Omar Khayyam investigated the Picturephones as tools for connecting research universities to inner city schools. Pittsburgh’s Mercy Hospital was prominently featured in AT&T marketing materials as a site where nurses and doctors could consult with one another remotely via videophone across the length of the facility. The civic leaders who attended the Picturephone unveiling in AT&T’s Pittsburgh auditorium in June of 1970 envisioned a widespread network where daily use of videocalls extended beyond corporate headquarters to homes, public libraries, and civic organizations, with telephoning by picture becoming a new norm within a few years.
AT&T was off by a few decades, but in 2020, in the grip of pandemic, the world found itself embracing more than ever the modern-day successors of the 1970s Picturephone network: software-based applications like Zoom, Hangouts, Skype, and Facetime, installed on computers, tablets, and mobile phones, linking people across vast distances.
Lipartito, Kenneth. "Picturephone and the Information Age." Technology and Culture, Volume 44, Number 1, January 2003, pp. 50-81. Johns Hopkins University Press. (online copy)
Record (magazine), May/June, 1969, Bell Laboratories. (online copy)
"Picturephone." Today's Engineer, February 2014. (online copy)
Online compendium of several Picturephone articles (via Porticus)
"Future Calling: Videophones in the World of The Jetsons." Smithsonian Magazine, January 28, 2013. (online copy)