AT&T Tech Channel

About this video

Before 1970, the Picturephone was a long-awaited piece of technology that was heavily promoted by the Bell System as the appliance of the future. It was the culmination of decades of work - Bell Labs' first functional picturephone had actually been built over 4 decades earlier. That first device used a television broadcast sent over the phone lines, which was impractical on a larger scale.

The public first witnessed the Picturephone at the 1964 World's Fair in Queens, NY. Soon thereafter, the Bell System rolled out three Picturephone booths in Washington DC, New York, and Chicago. These three Picturephones could communicate only with each other. Costs ranged from $16 to $27 for three minutes (that's $118 to $200 in 2012 dollars!). Here's a superb brochure about the limited 3-city service.

This film contains footage from the 1970 inaugural call at the launch of commercial service in the first test city, Pittsburgh. The call was made from Mayor Pete Flaherty, in Pittsburgh's Bell Telephone HQ auditorium, to John Harper, the Chairman of Alcoa. The two men made the call from locations that were only a block apart.

The Pittsburgh service launched with 38 Picturephones at eight companies. The cost, at the time, was quite expensive, at $160/month for the service, which came with a minimum of 30 minutes. (In 2012 dollars = $947) Additional sets on the same line added $50/month; additional minutes were 25 cents each. But one use of the Picturephone was novel and ahead of its time — it served as a terminal to view data from the existing corporate computer database. In fact, Alcoa had built a system around this asset, the APRIS, or Alcoa Picturephone Remote Information System. APRIS' could display a matrix of 20x22 characters, and users navigated the system with the buttons on the telephone.

Around the launch, the Bell System projected that by 1975 there would be a hundred thousand Picturephones in the national network. But the huge costs drove away businesses customers, and by July 1974, the Pittsburgh market had only 5 subscribed Picturephones on the network. Nationwide, there were merely hundreds, primarily located in Chicago, which had followed the 1970 Pittsburgh launch.

Footage Courtesy of AT&T Archives and History Center, Warren, NJ

Release date: 06/29/2012