Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Real Picturephone? (1939)

This (most likely doctored) photo of a picturephone in 1939 or 1940 is featured in the book Exit to Tomorrow: World's Fair Architecture, Design, Fashion 1933-2005.

The weird thing is that I haven't been able to verify the authenticity of this photo outside of this book. In fact, it is rare to find mention of a working picturephone, with any degree of specificity, pre-1955. Anyone who might be able to shine a light on this is encouraged to educate us all. The caption to the photo appears below.
Charles F. Kettering, General Motors vice president in charge of research, appeared on the screen in the first demonstration of what might be termed the "television-telephone." By means of this equipment, which was the first of its kind ever operated in this country, Ernest L. Foss could see the person to whom he was talking. The apparatus was displayed at the formal opening of the Previews of Progress, General Motors Research's stage show at the fair.

See also:
Tomorrow's TV-Phone (1956)
Television Phone Unveiled (1955)
Futuristic Phone Booth (1958)
Governor Knight and the Videophone (Oakland Tribune, 1955)
Face-to-Face Telephones on the Way (New York Times, 1968)
Picturephone as the perpetual technology of the future
The Future is Now (1955)
Discovering the Videophone (1970)
A Ballad for the Fair (1964)


Aaron T. said...

Would General Motors actually have been researching electronic devices like videophones in 1939?

Bjørn Are said...

Germany did trials on videophones in 1938 (needing 1000 telephone lines per call). The plan was to enter commercial service in 1939. However, as the country got other priorities, it was never realised.

Unknown said...

From Britannica...
"The first public demonstration of a one-way videophone occurred on April 7, 1927, between Herbert Hoover (then secretary of commerce) in Washington, D.C., and officials of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) in New York City. This was followed by the first public demonstration of a two-way videophone, on April 9, 1930, between Bell Laboratories and AT&T Headquarters, both in New York City. This two-way system employed early television equipment and a closed circuit."

Anonymous said...

What I find funny - not to mention it PISSES ME OFF - is that when you have a picture of a doctored screen, people are always represented as being fully three-dimensional on the picture - their face is rotated to the same direction the device is, while in reality their face would be flattened to the screen.

Sure, there's always the possibility that the imaginary camera was set at the correct angle for a given shot, but it's highly unlikely.

Anonymous said...

To whomever wrote the anonymous comment,

You're totally right! I couldn't figure out what bugged me about the shot, but you nailed it. He would also be facing forward, looking at the camera in the phone, and not sightly sidways, off camera.

Mark R. Brown said...

Probably a PR shot pasted up by their PR Department to illustrate the demonstration, which would have looked downright nasty in a photograph - scan lines, grainy, blurred image, etc. Remember that the quality of early B&W TV was horrid.

Aaron T. said...

I should have phrased my question differently.. What I was surprised by was that General Motors, a car company, would be researching something seemingly so far out of their league as a videophone. Were they doing such non-car-related research back then?

anonymous: I know just what you mean. You often see this in cartoons and comics as well, since the artist forgets that the screen is essentially two-dimensional, and they're used to drawing people as though they were 3D.

Anonymous said...

@Anonymous, @deven-science:
As we cannot see the camera on this videophone, we may assume that is hidden behind the face of the man talking in front... which would mean that he too is portrayed from the right side of his face, which would be the correct perspective angle for the other guy!

It is in fact the only possible way to do it, if you do not have a camera small enough to be build into the bezel around the screen (as Apple does).

teacher dude said...

I remember reading that the first TV sets in England were used as a kind of two-way radio, at least amongst amateurs. Only later did the idea of broadcasting take hold.

Anonymous said...

@Aaron T. -- Large corporations such as General Motors often have subdivisions that have little to do with what they're well-known for. For example, my mortgage is through GMAC, a finance company owned by GM. Pfizer (drug company, right?) also makes Tetra-brand fish food. General Electric owns NBC in addition to appliance, locomotive, and aircraft engine divisions. Ford used to have a non-automobile electronics division, although they've dropped it to concentrate on their core business.

It's certainly a bit odd to see GM researching something like a videophone, but not impossible :)