Videophones: The Journey to Modern Smartphones



Our Phones Became Smartphones, Somehow Missing the Whole “Videophone” Stage Along the Way

“There is no telling what effect the TV telephone will have on what people say and how they do it when they call.” -AP, 1957

Seeing and talking to a person that is distant is a wonderful experience (or more of a privilege for us now) that has been just a dream back in Victorian times. The vision of science fiction was conceived in the 1920s and it was not only later in the 1930s that its working prototypes came into existence. The 1950s saw the near future of “videophones” in sci-fi movies and stories. It was even presented to government officials as the ultimate way of communication. Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, videophones earned groovy, curvaceous shapes as shown in Star Trek movies yet still remained inaccessible in the market.

Now, this piece of future technology is everywhere in the form of what we now call smartphones. But the gadget we have is totally different from the “videophones of the future past.”

Illustrated below is the frontpiece to Hugo Gernsback’s “Radio for All” from 1922. Considered as the father of modern science fiction, Mr. Gernsback has published engineering magazines like “Electrical Experimenter” where he wrote about visionary Aerophones (wireless audio transmission), the Telephot (an earlier concept of the videophone), and the Hypnobioscope (an automated thought transcription and playback machine). These magazines carried with a message of urgency that these experiments will become a reality in the future.

The legendary German movie “Metropolis” in 1927 has made video calling look very attractive and mightily important.

Mr. Gernsback’s prediction was only fulfilled 10 years later when the first video-telephone service was introduced in Nazi Germany in 1936. And it was not a single working videophone device, but a public videophone service utilized by the German Reichpost.



This first ever videophone was developed by Dr. Georg Schubert and it was able to connect Berlin with Leipzig and hamburg by the use of broadband coaxial cable. It used 8 inches square displays and the video ran at a speed of 25 frames per second. Unfortunately, the service was closed down during the war in 1940.

Take a look through these photos showing how video-conferencing was envisioned in the 1950s:

One poster in the 1950s advertises: “But a Hughes Tronotron and you will be able to see over the phone.” The add shows a picture of a huge TV screen that goes well with any cool-shaped videophone.

This cute round videophone by AT&T engineer Harold S. Osborne, was popularly known in 1952 as the “Ultimate Shape of the Phone.”

On August 12, 1957, the video-call setup was showcased at a television fair in Frankfurt, Germany. The setup needed four televisions (one to see yourself and the other to see the person you are talking with) and two telephones. Ugh, this setup really called for a very laborious arrangement compared to the accessible dials we make with our smartphones today.

By the 1970s, the dream was drawing to a closer realization as some prototypes were being readied for mass production. These were to be the primitive ancestors of what we now call as smartphones. While video-conferences was still at its rudiments by this time, these phones were advertised to become more sophisticated and can be used at home and at work in a few years time.



Here is a more or less visually-appealing design of 1970 Matra videophone from France:

And and AT&T Picturephone Mod II (the picture on the left shows the device with its cover removed).

The Future of Communication as showcased by the new 1968 Toshiba videophone model.

Bell Systems also came out with the Picture Phone in 1964.



Meanwhile in Soviet Russia in 1965, some gadgets were undergoing a few testings as well. Though they performed just well enough, the official communication system took no notice of the new discoveries thus they sank without a trace.

Mr. Osborne of AT&T has once foresaw the future of videophones. “In the future, a telephone number will be given at birth to every baby in the world. It will be his for life. When he wants to call anyone, no matter where, he will merely push the buttons on his Lilliputian phone.”

That’s definitely where we’re headed to. Or are we there yet?


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