TV History: Television in the 1930s

Women and handheld television 1927
1927 Illustration, Wagner Magazine, Germany: Women of the year 2000, flying their personal airplanes to meet friends at lunch

Drinking in mid-day and smoking as casually as men, both women at the table are distracted by the little video screen in their hands, paying more attention to it than to each other. In one woman’s case, she’s looking in on her child, and on the other’s tiny round screen, a man, a lover in all probability. There’s a lot of fashionable, imaginative conjecture here in one picture, but nearly a century later, minus the aviatrix hats, wouldn’t this be a pretty close 2019 approximation of two young women at lunch, wearing earbuds, using Facetime on their phones? For almost ninety years this idea looked futuristic. Now, the liberated lifestyles of those modern ladies of leisure and the pocket “mirrors” of their hand-held video screens are commonplace 21st century reality.

TV was always supposed to be two-way, face to face communication. The idea of television was born in the wake of the telephone, not radio; the idea of mass broadcasting, one to a million, wasn’t yet dreamed of when the first dense webs of phone wires were formed. The image of the ladies on their picture phones was what most educated people of 1900-1925 expected the television of the future to be like.

Video telephones were a stock prop in science fiction for a long time, surprisingly for almost all of the twentieth century. Yet the glowing video screen and the camera pickup tube were accomplished by the early Thirties; why’d it take so long?

Videophone lovers from the film High Treason 1929
Videophone lovers in the future world of 1940. (“High Treason”, UK, 1929)

After all, in Manhattan as early as 1931, you could respond to a written invitation from AT&T to be part of an experimental two-way conversation across town with a friend at one of the city’s other two Bell Telephone television rooms. By 1937, you could do this in Nazi Germany on a much more practical scale, and across much greater distances. Family members in Munich, Hamburg and Berlin could hold reunions in various public picturephone rooms to make use of intercity video bandwidth originally put in for remote viewing of the Berlin Olympics. Even the USSR would get into the act. None of these experimental television-telephone services, essentially all propaganda showpieces of future tech, survived the war.

The 1939-40 New York World’s Fair was remembered for popularizing superhighways, television, robots, nylon, and the one that didn’t catch on: faxing newspapers overnight nationwide via radio. Twenty-five years later, the 1964-65 World’s Fair was supposed to be the mass market commercial debut of new technologies like space travel, computers, and video telephones, featured at AT&T’s Bell System Pavilion. When I was twelve, I thought they were right around the corner; as it turned out, my future wife and her sister talked to each other over the Bell Picturephones as well. As a further futuristic touch, at random the video booth conversations in New York were extended to the Bell exhibit at Disneyland, creating transcontinental face to face talks between strangers. Of course, 55 years ago the only company that could afford AT&T’s exorbitant long distance rates was…AT&T.

White House - Lady Bird Johnson
From the White House: Lady Bird Johnson calls New York City Mayor Robert Wagner

The 1964 iteration of the long-awaited vidphone was practical, durable, and well-crafted to fit within the company’s century-old wired network of spoken telephone technology. AT&T was one of the largest, most respected industrial corporations in the world, famous for its long-reaching plans. The anticipated Sixties-Seventies leap to Picturephones was long in the making, with phased investments. Yet it failed, and the failure was so famous that for decades, it became a case study in business schools, as if the lessons of that loss were obvious. “The blind fools spent the money before they bothered to find out if customers wanted it”—that was supposed to the bottom line.

But that wasn’t really so. Lots of customers said they wanted it, but not at the price point that the phone company could finally reach—$150/mo.: in 2019 dollars, $1000, per video phone, per month. People were ready to pay 3 or 4 times as much to see who they were talking with, not 30 to 40 times as much. In the bandwidth-starved analog era, that’s the best Ma Bell could do.

Like the Concorde or the Space Shuttle, video telephoning became a development of the late Sixties that worked, but for vastly more money than predicted. From this point forward, though, large companies that could afford it started to treat themselves to video conferencing rooms that rivaled the lairs of James Bond villains. That became a narrow, lucrative specialized market that was the videophone’s first real world success.

By the late Eighties, speculation about interactive and two-way television was coming back into the news. Sony and other companies pioneered a tiny, short-lived market in still image, black and white phones that worked over regular phone lines. Sony Face to Face had a specific need in mind: Japanese men who were separated from their families on long contract projects in foreign countries.

Although my cross-country business travels were usually brief, I carried a Sony transceiver whenever I was away from home. After the American Film Institute’s 25th anniversary of “2001: A Space Odyssey” at the Uptown Theater in D.C., I was probably the only California-based member of the audience who was able, like the film’s fictional Dr. Heywood Floyd, to actually go on a phone afterwards and say hello to my kids, 2700 miles away.

1993 wasn’t 2001, not quite yet. That same year, the day after Bill Clinton’s inauguration, I visited AT&T’s fabled laboratory in Holmdel, New Jersey, then one of the nation’s jewels of privately financed research. They were all in on what they saw as the future profit center of the telephone company, sending video to the home, with various new methods called ISDN (individual subscriber digital network) and DSL (digital subscriber line). The UK’s notably un-sentimental business journal The Economist gave it Big Capitalism’s official nod of the head, calling ISDN “The unmistakable sound of money hitting the table: I Smell Dollars Now”. And they were right to. This wasn’t quite broadband to the home yet, but it was only half a step, half a decade away.

Until then, there was a fairly cheap product called Via 8, full motion videophones that worked over regular phone wires at no extra charge. They were popular with families; we still have ours. You could send motion or detail, not both, but they worked surprisingly well during the turn of the 21st century twilight of low definition TV and ‘POTS’—Plain Old Telephone Service.

Then, broadband to the home changed everything. Smartphones with cameras changed them again: Skype, and FaceTime, and you know the rest of the story.

It’s been claimed again and again that there’s no real market for seeing who you’re talking with. Certainly, there’s no need for most phone calls to be made at arm’s length and in flattering light. But there are already a couple of valid, time-proven markets for video telephony (yes, there is such a term): Family Reunions. Business meetings. Staying in touch with a spouse during distant travel. Young people’s vanity. All four uses are reliably not going away anytime soon.

The picture up at the top, of 1927’s ladies of the future: ignoring for the moment the social implications of this lifestyle and what it’s actually meant for relations between the sexes in our century, let’s jump to the really captivating factor here: Realistic product design. The whole thing isn’t in the hand-held screen; it’s assumed that a handbag-sized case with a shoulder strap would hold the battery and most of the electronics. Remember the ‘bag’ or ‘lunchbox’ first generation cellular phones that were called “Salesman’s specials”? Same idea. Not bad for 1927, a prophecy that finally came true.