Picturephone shown a half-century ago
April 21, 2014
by Mark Ollig

A Bell Telephone Company representative demonstrated its futuristic Picturephone to many curious observers gathered around it.

This demonstration took place 50 years ago this week, in Queens, NY, during the 1964 World’s Fair.

The Bell System’s Picturephone presentation included: a video camera, monitor screen, a push-button telephone (which in 1964 was impressive in itself), audio speakers, and a power supply.

The video camera used a Plumbicon tube, which was commonly found in commercial television broadcasting cameras.

The Picturephone included a small, Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitor screen.

In the demonstration video I watched, the sound and video quality of the Picturephone was good; the real-time visual of the person seen on the monitor screen was in black-and-white.

The people using it appeared to delight in seeing the person they were speaking with over this futuristic, video telephone.

April 20, 1964, using a Picturephone installed at the fair in New York, and one at Disneyland in California, people located in both venues were able to see and talk with each other.

There were reported to be very long lines in both locations, as folks wanted to get a good look at this video telephone of the future.

In June 1964, Picture phone commercial public calling booths were installed in New York City, Chicago, and Washington DC.

Half-hearted enthusiasm greeted these Picturephone calling booths; the person wishing to place a video telephone call needed to schedule an appointment 15 minutes in advance.

Cost was found to be another huge barrier, as it was exceptionally expensive; $16 to place a 3-minute video call from New York to Washington, DC.

Remember folks, this was in 1964, so that $16 would be equivalent to approximately $122 in today’s economy.

The cost of a local phone call using a good-old fashioned, coin-operated payphone back in 1964 was 10 cents, which, for those of you who are wondering, would be equivalent to about 75 cents today.

The consumer price index inflation calculator program I used is on the US Bureau of Labor Statistic’s website: http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm.

The folks at AT&T, which, we baby boomers know was the parent, or the “Ma Bell” of Bell Telephone’s operating companies, needed to make a strategic decision in order to entice more people to use their new Picturephones.

In 1965, they decided to cut the cost of placing a 3-minute Picturephone call by about 50 percent.

This pricing strategy proved unsuccessful.

So, the next idea was to move the outdoor Picture phone video booths inside Bell-owned buildings to see if this would increase their usage.

This action resulted in the public still not expressing much interest in them.

Since using a Picturephone was restricted to just the three cities, it did not acquire enough national exposure from the public.

It was expensive, and the people having to make a video call from a location other than their home or place of business, found it too inconvenient.

Many of the Picturephone booths installed were no longer in use by 1968.

By the early 1970s, AT&T admitted the public was not showing enough interest in the Picturephone, causing its loss of appeal.

AT&T did say, at its peak, there were approximately 500 Picturephone subscribers.

While the technology used at the time was impressive, having a Picturephone installed in a business or a home proved too costly for most people; this fostered its fall from favor with the public.

Today, cost is no longer a limiting factor.

We’re able to make video and voice calls on our computers and smartphones using free videoconferencing software applications such as Microsoft’s Skype, and Apple’s FaceTime.

And the good thing is, we don’t need to travel to a Picturephone public calling booth to do it.

Five years ago, I used the Skype program on my personal computer to communicate with my oldest son, while he was in Florence, Italy.

This program was easy to use, and the quality of the video and sound was impressive; besides, the cost of the video call ($0.00), made it a no-brainer.

A photograph of the first videophone call using the Picturephone, from April 20, 1964, can be seen on my Photobucket web page: http://tinyurl.com/bytes-p1.

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