When Was Conference Calling Invented?

by Nathalie Gosset - Updated September 26, 2017
Conference calling involves more than two persons in the same conversation over the phone.

Conference calling was invented by Bell Labs in 1956 and introduced to the public by American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) at the 1964 New York World's Fair. Called the Picturephone, this invention invited the visitors to talk to persons thousands of miles away at Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

Historical Context

Bell Labs first developed a crude version of the concept in 1956. This was a tour de force given that the Internet did not exist and digital communications were still in the realm of the imagination. Computers the size of a room were the forefront of development.

Invention

The Picturephone included a small screen connected to the phone. Visual and audio information was sent on three phone lines simultaneously to be able to handle the bandwidth required even for a small black-and-white screen. A picture was sent every 2 seconds.

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Intended Application

This technology was meant to be endorsed by businesses that valued saving travel expenses by facilitating virtual meetings. The hope was that the conference-call capabilities would move to the residence market where this capability could be provided for a fee. However, complexity and price challenged this vision.

Issues

A conference call placed with the Picturephone monopolized three phone lines and no other conversations could be carried simultaneously on the same line. This bandwidth hungry technology stood as an expensive solution not only for the user ( $125 monthly service and 21 cent per minute) but also for the phone company. The cumbersome controls of the conference calling system discouraged users from entering this in their way of conducting business. Eventually, the customers moved away from this product and AT&T abandoned it after investing about $1 billion in its development.

Evolution

With the onset of the digital communications, conference calling took on new forms. Today, a typical setting for conference calling refers to a phone conversation that involves three or more persons calling from different locations. Visual contact through computer screens might be included. Participants dial a common phone number that acts as a conference bridge between everyone. These capabilities regularly are used in the business setting and available in the homes for a fee. Hence, AT&T was ahead of its time with the Picturephone given the state of technology of the 1960s.

About the Author

Nathalie Gosset started writing for technical journals such as “Lightwave” in 1990. Awarded the 2009 IEEE Engineer of the Year and 2007 EMBS Career Achievement recognitions for her philanthropic outreach, she authored her first professional development book, “Hidden Jobs, How to Find Them!” in 2009. Gosset has a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering, a Master in Telecom and a Master of Business Administration.

Photo Credits

  • group of business men and women image by Steve Johnson from Fotolia.com
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