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In Brief: Remembering the Bell Labs Picturephone

By Norman Chan

A great expample of bootstrapping innovation to existing infrastructure.

There was a lot written about Bell Laboratories' (now AT&T) Picturephone invention when Apple introduced its iOS FaceTime video feature back in 2010. Steve Jobs' demoing of FaceTime--technical hiccups and all--was reminiscent of Bell Labs' own Picturephone press conference (video below). Presentation parallels aside, Bell Labs' Picturephone was actually a much bigger deal for the telephone company, which made its eventual flop and disappearance from history that much more interesting. Most people don't know about the decade-long research and development effort by Bell Labs to make Picturephone work--piping a 30hz video signal (with 250 interlanced lines of resolution!) over an existing 1MHz bandwidth line. Pure analog communications, bootstrapped onto Bell's vast telephone line infrastructure. I was delighted to find a June 1969 copy of the Bell Laboratories Record (PDF), the company's bi-monthly magazine, dedicated to explaining Picturephone technology, complete with wonderful photographs and diagrams showing the set's operations. I've uploaded it to Scribd here for easy reading. Bell took Picturephone to four cities, and businesses paid $160 a month plus 25 cents per minute to use the service. And even though it failed, the Picturephone was a fetching piece of hardware. I've been searching Ebay all way to see what it might cost to get a unit...