Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Photo Telephone

I found this century-old Tom Swift dust jacket on the Internet.

The technology needed must have seemed impossibly fantastic when this book was published in 1914. It was science fiction. After all, television was still just a spark in somebody's brain; radio — “wireless” — wasn't being widely used (the Titanic disaster was two years before); even telephones, as shown in the illustration, were hand-cranked devices needing the intercession of a live operator.

Flash forward to the 1960s, and Bell Telephone demonstrations of telephones with visuals of the person on the other end. You all remember Dr. Heywood Floyd talking to his daughter on a television screen in the 1968 movie, 2001 A Space Odyssey.

The idea just never took hold. The reason, as I heard it at the time, was because people liked telephones as they were, without visuals. I remember the common complaint was, “I wouldn't answer if I'd just gotten out of the bathtub,” or if makeup wasn't in place, etc. In other words, the fact that no one can see you when you answer is a positive for a telephone. It really doesn't need the additional technology attached to it.

I think the cost of setting it up was very expensive for the time, and in order for it to be universal everyone would have to have one.

But technology and people change. The time for those picturephones was evidently just not right. The picturephone is now here, just not as Bell Labs and Tom Swift, 100 years ago, envisioned it. We have web cams, camera cell phones, and we are connected via pictures. My wife talks to our grandchildren on Facetime, using their iPads.

The idea of decades past, of plugging a few coins into a payphone, talking to the wife or kids back home and being able to see them using a landline telephone, that idea is as antiquated as the scene on the jacket of Tom Swift and His Photo Telephone.

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