History of Video Conferencing

The History of Video Conferencing #1: 1930s To The ’70s

Roundee is the future of video conferencing, but we can only offer a superior quality of service thanks to the hard work of inventors and engineers of the past. A concept that has long fascinated inventors, video conferencing has a long history that traces back nearly 150 years. 

As part of recognising how far our industry and the technology it relies on has come, we’ll be tracking the history of video conferencing from its earliest concepts to the present day in this and other blogs. Read our latest blog and understand just how much work has gone into making your call to a colleague or a loved one seamless and beautiful.

Tele phono scope

From theory to early practice – 1870s to 1930s

The idea of a phone that transmitted images as well as sound was conceived very early on in 1878 – just two years after the invention of the telephone. Referred to by a number of names including the telephonoscope and telectroscope, these early concepts never reached practical completion, and largely existed as dreams to be chased by future inventors. 

It wouldn’t be until 1927 that the first videophone system would be invented by AT&T. Called the ikonophone, it operated at 18 frames per second and required half a room full of equipment in order to function. Operation was expensive and the machine required extensive set-up, making it as far from a commercially viable product as it could be. Despite this, potential was seen in the project and it was continued over the next few decades at Bell Labs. 

First public steps – the 1930s

The world’s first publicly available video telephone service was opened in Nazi Germany in 1936. Operated by the German Reichspost (post office), it connected specially built video telephone booths in Berlin and Leipzig by more than 160 kilometres of broadband coaxial cable. Later extended to encompass Hamburg, Nuremberg and Munich, the system offered 25 frames per second video calls at a surprisingly high resolution for the era. 

Like many other systems developed prior to the 1990s and 2000s, costs were exorbitant, with a call between Berlin and Leipzig costing a significant portion of an average worker’s weekly wage. Just four years later, the system was discontinued, and the cabling converted to telegraphic message traffic and television service as Nazi Germany became more involved in World War II.


Mass market appeal – the 1960s

The first modern attempt at publicly accessible video conferencing came in the 1960s after decades of research by telecommunications conglomerate AT&T through Bell Labs. Called the Picturephone, it was the first videophone capable of being installed in any home or business and relying entirely on existing telephone infrastructure. 

First demonstrated in its completed form in 1963 and later publicly exhibited at the 1964 New York World’s Fair before limited public trials, its sleek, glossy white oval housing capture the imagination of a populace that was hungry to see science fiction as a roadmap to the future. Famously appearing in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Picturephone was more successful as a marketing gimmick than as a viable product, at its peak in 1974 only attracting a few hundred subscribers across the entire United States. The service was discontinued in the late 1970s. 

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