People living in the year 2020 have plenty of options for talking over video chat: Skype, FaceTime, Facebook Portal, and perhaps the most popular video app of our pandemic era, Zoom. But none of them look nearly as cool as this idea published in a tech magazine from 1918, a time when radio broadcasting was in its infancy and the first TV shows were still decades away.
The theoretical device, called the “Television and Telephot,” was imagined by Hugo Gernsback, sci-fi author and magazine publisher. Gernsback owned the magazine Electrical Experimenter, which was filled with his strange and futuristic ideas. But this idea, from the May 1918 issue, was really out there.
For perspective, in 1918, radio was still primarily a point-to-point technology rather than a broadcasting medium. It wasn’t until 1920 that the very first radio stations were licensed in the U.S., in cities like Detroit and Pittsburgh. And television technology was still merely a dream to even the most advanced scientists in 1918. But that didn’t stop Gernsback from imagining such an incredibly complicated device which was essentially a two-way mechanical television, as opposed to an electronic television.
“There are certain inventions which, altho not as yet existence, we may take for granted will be invented some day without any doubt whatsoever,” Gernsback wrote in the 1918 article, using his typical confidence surrounding technological prophecy.
From the May 1918 issue of Electrical Experimenter:
The future instrument on which the name “Telephot”(from the Greek tele-far, photos-light) has been settled, is supposedly an apparatus attachable to our present telephone system, so that when we speak to our distant friend, we may see his likeness not only as an immovable picture, but we will see his image exactly as we see our own image when looking into a mirror. In other words, the apparatus must faithfully follow every movement of our distant friend whether he is only five blocks away or one thousand miles. That such an invention is urgently required is needless to say. Everybody would wish to have such an instrument, and it is safe to say that such a device would revolutionise our present mode of living, just as much as the tele- phone revolutionised our former standard of living.
The article included a rather elaborate explanation for the lighting necessary to pull off this wonder of future technology. It almost seems silly how complicated the explanation appears until you remember that a successful TV tech demonstration was still almost a decade away. None of what Gernsback was discussing, aside from the telephone, had been invented yet in 1918.
The illustration below explains how a light source is thrown onto the speaker’s face from the place marked R, which is then reflected back onto the lens, marked as L. The microphone (referred to as a “sensitive transmitter”) then picks up speech in H, which is housed in the frame, identified as F.
John Logie Baird, a Scottish inventor, gave the first public demonstration of a mechanical TV system in January of 1926, and electronic TV wouldn’t be demonstrated until 1934. Even then, it took decades for TV technology to become mainstream.
Just two per cent of U.S. households had a TV set in 1949, and a majority of Americans didn’t have a TV until 1954. That was an incredible amount of growth in just five years, but it only happened after decades of promises from guys like Gernsback—people who didn’t just see TV technology as a one-way broadcast medium. The principles underlying TV were often imagined first and foremost as something that could provide two people video-chat capabilities.
The article also included an illustration showing how the mechanical television underlying the idea would work, though it didn’t use that exact term. As you can see from the picture, everything is still explained as “theoretical” in 1918, which it very much was.
Gernsback didn’t have all the answers, of course. There were many aspects of his design that relied on things he couldn’t foresee, and he acknowledged as much in the article, waving over the impossible things by saying that one day they’d be invented. And the funny thing is that he was right.
From the 1918 article:
Now, as we have shown that pictures can actually be transmitted at a distance without the means of selenium cells, it is up to our inventors to devise something to do away with these cells entirely. It is safe to say that when the successful Telephot finally appears, it will be found to be a very simple apparatus, probably not much more complicated than the present- day telephone receiver.
The videophone was long a promise of the future, but it took even longer than television to become mainstream. One of the biggest hurdles was the fact that early videophones of the 1960s and 70s relied on costly infrastructure from AT&T. You also needed people on either end of the call to own expensive equipment, and it didn’t really add much to the call.
People of the 1980s were told that they’d be used for school instruction, and people of the 1990s were promised they could stay connected to family. Those promises went largely unfulfilled until recently. But it almost seems like video chat has gone into hyperdrive in 2020, as the covid-19 pandemic has fractured traditional ways of keeping in touch with family in the flesh. The Jetsons had plenty of standalone videophones, but it wasn’t until all of our devices became cameras that the future kind of snuck up on everyone.
Today, Zoom accounts for a huge number of video chat calls, with daily users on the platform skyrocketing to 200 million in March, the start of some lockdowns in the U.S. By comparison, Zoom had just 10 million daily users in December 2019, according to CNBC.
Gernsback, a science fiction legend for whom the Hugo Awards is named, always wrote with confidence that he was presenting something which would one day become reality. And the funny thing is that he was often partially correct when it came to telemedicine, carphones, robot tanks, and even home shopping. There were, of course, plenty of misses though, including his predictions for flying cars, radio-newspapers, mechanical matchmaking, 3D television, and bizarre helmets for office workers.
We can safely put Gernsback’s prediction for videophones in the “accurate” pile, at least when it comes to the basics. Sadly, Gernsback’s design was much cooler than the future we actually got with applications like Zoom. At least I think so.