The world's first commercial video conferencing call took place 50 years ago today

Shawn Knight

Posts: 12,297   +120
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The big picture: For many, their first experience with video calling likely took place on a computer using a webcam, either one built into a laptop or a standalone unit attached to a desktop. Even still, video calling wasn’t considered mainstream until it started to become standard fare on smartphones. One of the earliest examples of a successful, large-scale rollout was on the iPhone 4 which was introduced in mid-2010.

It was 50 years ago to the day that the first commercial video conferencing call took place. Just half a century later, video calling via smartphones is utilized by millions of people on a daily basis.

On June 30, 1970, Alcoa CEO John Harper and Pittsburgh Mayor Peter Flaherty took part in the first commercial video conference call using AT&T’s new Picturephone Mod II. A day later, the subscription-based service officially launched at eight companies in the Pittsburgh area. New York City was to serve as the other launch city but network deficiencies meant the city had to withdraw, leaving Pittsburgh as the lone launch city.

As you can imagine, operating a video conferencing service in 1970 wasn’t cheap. In addition to the $150 installation cost, customers were billed $160 per month (around $1,057 in 2020 dollars) for 30 minutes of video calling. Anything over the allotted half hour would be billed at $0.25 per minute (roughly $1.60 today).

This wasn’t the world’s first video call, mind you – that happened way back in the 1920s through public phone booths that could be reserved for use.

Unsurprisingly, the Picturephone Mod II wasn’t an overwhelming success due to its high cost and low adoption.

Video calling systems evolved slowly over the next few decades and didn’t really gain much traction until the last 15-20 years.

Nowadays, virtually every smartphone comes equipped with a front-facing camera for video calls, either over Wi-Fi or cellular networks.

Masthead credit: Chris Harrison

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Vulcanproject

Posts: 1,135   +1,824
Impressive tech for the day, expensive as it was. The world was a different place, especially the business arena. Good business was done face to face, with execs flying around the world, sitting in rooms and making slide show presentations. All that. It was preferable to a phone call, a mere intangible voice on the line for many when millions of dollars were at stake. Not trusting the tech. Better and more comfortable judging someone's character eye to eye.

Mostly gone. New world. Familiarity with at first phone conferencing and then video. Efficiency and speed ever more important.

Hurt the airlines you know. In the 60s and 70s they were guaranteed a steady stream of the wealthy and famous in business class, execs criss-crossing the trade capitals. That's why Concorde existed and that's why Concorde died.

It might have been the most incredible fastest airliner in the world but it couldn't beat the speed of the internet if you wanted a business meeting. Fast. Not fast enough.
 

QuantumPhysics

Posts: 2,871   +2,601
When I was a kid in the 80's, I had to go with my parents and stand on line to pay the phone bill in the local AT&T. They had a Video Phone on display - for over $1000 - which probably would be the equivalent of $2000+ now.

"the Picturephone Meeting Service". It was still overly expensive, even for a large company to rationalize the purchase. A one-hour video conference call between New York and LA could cost $2,380, on top of a company having to spend $117,500 to buy or $17,760 to lease the equipment.


I had hopes for video phone calls when Motorola built the Motorola Razr got a selfie cam.

It wasn't until Apple iPhone popularized it and standardized video conferencing that it got cheap enough and popular enough to truly move units.

Thing is: it wasn't until I had women forcing me into video chats that I started to truly hate the idea of it.
 
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psycros

Posts: 3,127   +3,227
"This wasn’t the world’s first video call, mind you – that happened way back in the 1920s through public phone booths that could be reserved for use."

Uh..what? TV wasn't even a thing until the 50's and there was literally no infrastructure in place to handle such a service in the 20's.
 

mgwerner

Posts: 78   +52
"This wasn’t the world’s first video call, mind you – that happened way back in the 1920s through public phone booths that could be reserved for use."

Uh..what? TV wasn't even a thing until the 50's and there was literally no infrastructure in place to handle such a service in the 20's.
German World's Fair (Something like that) had it on display before WW2, and there was a network with the German Post setup around Berlin until the war was underway.