Remember the promise? Video phones are in your future! Ma Bell made quite a show about them at the 1964 NY World’s Fair (yes, I was there).

The path of technology is anything but the straight line that even the most savvy engineers desire. Western Electric, Bell Labs and Ma Bell overall did not control their destiny.  The boxy, clunky prototype pictured here in this vintage ad, along with successive models, never really got out of the labs into commercial production. The technology wasn’t available.telephone with large television set with woman on telephone

What a difference a few decades make, and a good thing, too. We’ve had video phone calls  for most of this century. First on personal computers and now on numerous cell phones (see the January 9 post by my colleague Ralph Legnini for an example). Compare the size, portability, and features of the device Western Electric advertised with your smartphone.

Video Phone Calls & Western Electric Company

In 1964, would you have imagined the mass market availability and adoption of these products? Could the folks at Western Electric company come close to predicting what we’d have, even in their wildest dreams? I doubt it. Ironic, though – the video phone call enabled smartphones exist because of minuscule semiconductors, the successors to transistors.  Transistors were invented at Bell Labs.

Now, the modern day AT&T runs just one of many networks to carry the wireless signal. Western Electric withered away years ago. But we take the technology for granted. We grumble when the networks drop our calls. I guess that hasn’t changed over the decades .