When Did Video Calling Get Its Start?

The AT&T Picturephone, an early video phone, debuted in 1970, but it was too expensive to be a commercial success.
The AT&T Picturephone, an early video phone, debuted in 1970, but it was too expensive to be a commercial success.

For those who didn't grow up with laptops and smartphones, it still feels pretty futuristic when you join a Zoom meeting or talk to a friend face-to-face via Skype or FaceTime. So you might be surprised to know that for people who had the money and the desire, video calling was already an option 50 years ago.

Developed by Bell Labs, the "Picturephone" debuted at the 1964 World's Fair; soon after, public booths appeared in Washington, D.C, New York, and Chicago. The technology was there, but the market wasn't – at least, not at the price AT&T was charging. A three-minute call cost a whopping $27 USD (around $200 today). In 1970, AT&T began marketing a new version to companies, after realizing that regular individuals weren't going to shell out that much for the gadget.

For its Chicago Picturephone service, AT&T wanted companies to pay $75 USD a month, while in Pittsburgh, where the service debuted, the company wanted $160, with the first 30 minutes included. That equates to around $1,000 today. Even then, the Picturephone didn't find many buyers. By 1972, Pittsburgh sales had reached only 32, and Chicago – despite being considerably cheaper – peaked at 453. It was clear the line was going dead quickly, and in 1973, AT&T's new CEO John deButts pulled the plug.

I can see you talking:

  • Businesses in the United States make 11 million video calls per day, on average.

  • The average video call in the U.S. lasts between 31 minutes and an hour.

  • The global video conferencing market is estimated to be worth about $6 billion.

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    • The AT&T Picturephone, an early video phone, debuted in 1970, but it was too expensive to be a commercial success.
      The AT&T Picturephone, an early video phone, debuted in 1970, but it was too expensive to be a commercial success.