Remember a couple of weeks ago, before you knew the term “social distancing,” when you dreaded your next conference call? Fast forward a few days, and your next Zoom/GoToMeeting/WebEx is your lifeline to the outside world during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As early as the late 1800s, speculation persisted that Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison were working on a video phone, called a “telephonoscope” or a “telectroscope.” But it wasn’t until the 1964 World’s Fair in New York that videoconferencing made its public debut.

Visitors stepped into the Bell Telephone exhibit to try the Picturephone, where they could place a call to a stranger in a matching exhibit at Disneyland in California. The screen was not even six inches square and featured a black-and-white image. Following the World’s Fair, Bell Telephone began offering commercial Picturephone service at the price of $16 for three minutes. Not surprisingly, the Picturephone was too cost-prohibitive for widespread use.

Videoconferencing waits for the webcam

It took the 1994 introduction of the first webcam — the moderately priced QuickCam — for videoconferencing to gain traction. Manufactured by Connectix and retailing for only $99, the QuickCam quickly took off, despite its black-and-white picture, 320×420 pixel screen, and initial Mac-only compatibility. Inventive users combined the QuickCam with their new modems and the early videoconferencing software CU-SeeMe.

Originally developed for IT staff at Cornell University, CU-SeeMe became commercially available in 1995 and served as a precursor to Skype, Facetime, Zoom, and a host of other platforms that have made it possible for workers to telecommute as a matter of routine or as a public health necessity. Stay safe and remember to blur your background.

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Photo: New Africa / Shutterstock

Kate Johanns

Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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