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Long Before Skype, There Was The Bell Picturephone

Courtesy of AT&T Archives.Today, a growing number of people use two-way video communication, whether its on their computers with Skype and similar services, on their iPhones via FaceTime, or perhaps at work through a high-end telepresence system. Of course the world was much different in 1964. Back then, there were five of Bell telephone's new-fangled Picturephones at the World's Fair.

With the help of a lovely phone attendant, fair goers could be treated to audio AND video communications to the other Picturephones.

AT&T Archivist Bill Coughlin with the Picturephone.We had a chance to visit the AT&T archives where archivists Bill Coughlin and George Kupczek showed us one of the two Picturephones in AT&T's collection. (I should point out here for the younger crowd that Bell Telephone was essentially a single, nationwide phone company that was broken into several "baby-Bells" in the 1980's.)

In our interview with him, Bill mentioned the service was aimed primarily at business users, and never really took off, in part due to the specialized equipment needed on both ends. It's interesting to me that today, (relatively speaking) the amount of business video conferencing is dwarfed by all of the casual video interactions people are having every day.

A special thanks to Bill and George for making the Picturephone and AT&T's rare fair materials available for the film.

 One of two Picturephones in the archive.

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Reader Comments (1)

I don't remember the Picturephone from the World's Fair, but I do remember a roundish room where my whole family stood (about 8 of us) and we were able to call my aunt in Seattle and all talk at once! That was very exciting since on the rare occasions we ever called way out there, we had to pass the phone around the room to everyone! I think we all just laughed the whole time we were on that call!

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSue Oliversen

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