There was never a better time ahead in the past than the future as seen from the Jet Age, that slice of powder blue optimism running from about 1957 to 1965.
Kids would fly to school with jetpacks and moving sidewalks promised to glide shoppers past a galaxy of storefronts. Nothing popped the imagination brighter, however, than the promise of someday soon seeing Gramps talk without having to visit him. That was the hope offered by AT&T’s marvelous “Picture Phone.”
The general public had a chance to try it out at Bell Electric Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, queuing up just to sit at a cubbyhole desk in front of the tiny TV on a raised Jetson-style pedestal to listen and see a total stranger across the country, in southern California’s Disneyland, doing the same back at them. Most Americans, however, got only as close to it as a magazine ad, assuring them that in a day soon to come one could “see with the telephone.”
For awhile during the mid-Sixties, Bell set up “hearing” and “seeing” posts at New York’s Grand Central Station, Chicago’s Prudential Building and Washington’s National Geographic Society. People had to make appointments and have their co-seer-talkers in the other cities coördinate time zones and show up there. The only reported incident of the Picture Phone being used practically was a teleconference between Union Carbide execs in Chicago and New York. Commercial PicturePhone service got as far as Pittsburgh by 1970, but even Seventies technology was light years from having the bandwidth needed to make the Picture Phone work on a wide scale, let alone for the home, being $9 a minute.
Never entirely abandoning the vision-sound dream, AT&T kept tinkering on the losing proposition, even developing a snappier, faster version akin to a fax machine called the “Videophone 2500.” At $1500 in 1992, and with a transmitted image that was still slow and choppy, it failed to hit the Holiday Season sweet spot. More than tech or cost, however, being glimpsed by the boss over the phone all rested and rosy-cheeked on Monday morning threatened the American tradition of sick days. People loved the idea but not the reality.
More on the mark was Science Digest’s 1965 prediction of the “ultimate,” a phone the size of a cigarette pack that would someday do the job of letting people see who they were chatting with, although Gramps from 1964 would long be dust,. One might tip a hat to good ole early 21st Century Skype, but its dependency on a stationary CPU sort of makes it just a modern Picture Phone.