The first ever transcontinental conference call happened exactly 100 years ago. It was an expensive affair that took seven years to set up. Nowadays, everything you need for a conference call is portable enough to fit in your bag…and you’re up and running in mere seconds. How did we get here in a single century?
We take it for granted that we can jump on a call with anyone, anywhere in the world, whenever we want. Need to have more than one other person on the call? No problem. Want to add video to your call? If you have a webcam, you’re all set. And, in most cases, this call won’t cost you a cent.
It hasn’t always been like this. Back in the day, conference calls were expensive, complicated, and their quality was a far cry from the instant communication we’re now so used to. Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane.
The first ever conference call
On January 25, 1915, Alexander Graham Bell placed a call from New York to San Francisco, where Thomas Watson answered. The ceremonial call was later joined by AT&T President Theodore Vail from Jekyll Island and US President Woodrow Wilson from the White House. It was the first conference call to ever take place.
Making this phone call happen wasn’t an easy feat – in fact, it was seven years in the making. In 1908, Theodore Vail promised that AT&T would start transcontinental phone service by 1915. To keep that promise, AT&T had to source new technologies (like the three-element vacuum tube), design new machines to dig pole holes faster, and install a total of over 330,000 kilograms of copper wires using horse-drawn carriages and early cars.
When the ceremonial call finally happened, it took switchboard operators in different cities about 10 minutes just to connect it. The call lasted about 3.5 hours. After that, the transcontinental phone line was open to paying customers. A three-minute phone call on that line would cost…$485 in today’s money. Remember that the next time you complain about having to see an ad on Skype.
From video calls…
It took another 50 years for the first video calls to become reality.
At the 1964 World Fair in New York, visitors could jump into a futuristic booth to have a video call with a stranger in a similar booth at Disneyland, California. You can see a short clip of the booths at the 0:53 mark in this video:
It was an impressive launch for AT&T’s Bell Labs Picturephone.
The company was selling the dream with ads like this one:
Sadly, once AT&T launched its commercial Picturephone service, it fell way short of that dream. Picturephone booths were only available at specific locations in just three cities: New York, Washington, and Chicago. You had to book 15-minute appointments for your video calls. And they were expensive – really expensive. A three-minute call would cost you $120 dollars in today’s money. Unsurprisingly, the Picturephone never quite took off.
Even after another 20 years, video calls were too expensive to appeal to consumers. Compression Labs launched a VC product in 1982 – it cost $250,000 to buy and $1,000 per hour to use the line. In 1986, PictureTel Corporation also offered a VC product. This one was much cheaper – a measly $80,000 to purchase and $100 per hour. Practically a bargain.
It seemed video calls were destined to be prohibitively expensive…if it weren’t for a little thing called the Internet.
…to web conferencing
The early 1990s saw a slew of PC-based video conferencing products that took advantage of the early Internet – from IBM’s PicTel to Apple’s CU-SeeMe. Free services like NetMeeting and MSN Messenger sped up consumer adoption.
By the early 2000s, high-speed Internet access was becoming affordable for more and more people. Video capture and display tech was getting cheaper, too. When Skype launched in 2003, it ushered in a new era of free web conferencing. Since then, we’ve seen rapid evolution of hardware, software, and Internet services that make instant conference calls easy for consumers and businesses alike.
Conference rooms have evolved, too
Not so long ago, most companies would have dedicated rooms where people gathered for conference calls. As recently as 2013, setting up a fixed conference room could look something like this:
Yup, that’s a team of professionals taking an entire work day to prepare a single conference room. Granted, eight hours is a lot faster than the seven years it took to set up the first conference call. But today, eight hours is a long time.
That’s why it’s become increasingly common for companies to have flexible “huddle rooms,” where smaller teams of around four people meet to brainstorm and have conference calls with their colleagues around the world.
In turn, this development triggered a transition to portable speakerphones that people could take with them from one room to the next. Today, any room can be a conference room. That’s why…
These days, it’s all about sound
Because you can make calls from virtually anywhere, sound quality has become that much more important. Sure, you can put your phone on loudspeaker and have a decent-quality call with a friend or two. Yet for larger meetings with more participants, your phone won’t quite cut it. Small portable speakerphones are great for huddle rooms with a few colleagues, but they’re not powerful enough to handle a larger room.
As such, you normally had to choose between using a portable speakerphone that was good enough for a few people or—if there were more participants—gathering everyone in a dedicated conference room. But now, you can get a speakerphone that fits in your suitcase yet can easily handle up to 15 people in one room. It connects to your laptop, phone, or tablet and you’re up and running within seconds, so you never have to waste more meeting time than absolutely necessary.
From seven years to several seconds. We’ve come a long way in 100 years, haven’t we?