In 1964, AT&T unveiled its Picturephone—a telephone with video as well as audio—at the New York World’s Fair and at Disneyland. It was an iconic moment for personal technology. But when the company then launched a commercial video-calling service, you had to go to one of three Picturephone stations in the U.S.—New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago—and pay at least $16 to make a three-minute call. So it was no shocker that this service didn’t exactly change the world.
Six years later, with the 1970 launch of the Picturephone II, AT&T began letting any company install a videoconferencing system at its own premises. At least any company in Pittsburgh, which is where the service debuted. (AT&T had planned to offer it in New York as well, but its network there was insufficiently robust to handle video.)
The first official Picturephone II call occurred in Pittsburgh on June 30, 1970, 50 years ago today. It took place between Pittsburgh mayor Pete Flaherty and Alcoa chairman John Harper, who were actually only a block away from each other. Fortunately for posterity, AT&T captured the event:
With its room full of guys in suits and ties, this video has an overpowering 1970 vibe to it. But the Picturephone II looks pretty slick from a design standpoint. And its features—including a zoom option, document sharing, mute control, and privacy mode that blacked out the screen—show that AT&T had a good sense of what would make the technology useful and appealing as a business tool.
When Flaherty’s call successfully goes through and Harper appears on his Picturephone—as a tiny, black-and-white image—the spectators break into applause. Today, rather than cheering services such as Zoom, we’re more likely to swear at them when the image cuts out or audio is choppy. That might be a sign that we’re spoiled. But the fact that we don’t regard the Picturephone II’s descendants as miracles is evidence of how much we’ve come to depend on them.
Back in the early 1970s, AT&T charged a monthly fee of $160 per Picturephone II, which included only 30 minutes of video-calling time. Perhaps the cost of admission was one reason why the service never became a phenomenon, maxing out at 453 active Picturephones in 1973. The idea just needed a few more decades of technological evolution—and pervasive use of PCs, smartphones, and tablets—to live up to its potential.
At 10:15 a.m. ET on the morning of June 30, Carnegie Mellon University will host a 50th-anniversary recreation of the 1970 call, with Pittsburgh’s current mayor, William Peduto, and current Alcoa chairman Michael Morris. They will connect via vintage Picturephone II units retrofitted with PC technology, allowing them to work over modern videoconferencing networks. You can watch a live stream of the call and a panel discussion on the anniversary. CMU also has more information on the Picturephone II’s launch and legacy.
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