Once strictly reserved for Max Headroom, Marty McFly and the crew of the USS Enterprise, audio-video communications technology — videophones, webcams, videoconferencing, telepresence and the like — is now as ubiquitous as once-far-out contraptions such as microwave ovens and laptop computers. Although now a standard method of communicating with friends and loved ones in distant locales and conducting business in a cost-effective, carbon emission-curbing manner, in the not-so-distant past videotelephony was an enduring trope of science-fiction films, television shows and comic books along with jet packs, flying cars and other “Jetson”-esque gizmos and gadgets. In other words, talking to someone in real time on a video screen in lieu of picking up ye olde rotary phone was the future.
Below, you’ll find eight of our favorite pop culture sightings of videotelephony, dating all the way back to the late 1920s. Is there one we missed? Tell us about it in the comments section.
German director Fritz Lang’s Art-Deco-y dystopian sci-fi film from 1927 is widely believed to contain the first cinematic appearance of a videophone. In his description of the device published on the blog of British design consultancy BERG, Joe Malia makes us so very grateful that things have been streamlined just a touch in the past 85 years: “Joh Fredersen [the industrialist ruler of the “Metropolis”] appears to use four separate dials to arrive at the correct frequency for the call. Two assign the correct call location and two smaller ones provide fine video tuning. He then picks up a phone receiver with one hand and uses the other to tap a rhythm on a panel that is relayed to the other phone and displayed as flashes of light to attract attention.”
“Modern Times” (1936)
While many average American moviegoers may have skipped over “Metropolis,” another (nearly) silent film released nearly 10 years later with decidedly more mainstream proletarian appeal also featured an early form of videotelephony. In addition to scenes of a bare-chested factory worker taking direction from the president of Electro Steel Corp. via a giant video screen and a rudely interrupted cigarette break, Charlie Chaplin’s zany, Depression-era comedy features inadvertent cocaine consumption, nervous meltdowns, workplace sabotage and multiple arrests. In other words, it’s the Little Tramp at his finest.
“The Jetsons” (1962 premiere, syndicated)
Many of the seemingly far-fetched technologies employed by George, Jane, Judy, Elroy and the gang have indeed been realized 50 years after this classic Hanna-Barbera animated sitcom premiered in 1962: flat-screen TVs, robotic vacuum cleaners, personal tanning beds, moving sidewalks, talking alarm clocks and “televiewers.” And, of course, there was video chatting, a primary means of communication among the good citizens of Orbit City in nearly every episode. Still, it looks like we may have to wait another 50 years until 2062, the true age of “The Jetsons,” for flying bubble cars and pill-dispensing, feather duster-wielding domestic help as loyal and good-natured as Rosie the robo-maid to come along. Also, was it ever explained as to why Rosie spoke with a thick Brooklyn accent? (Fun factoid: The actress responsible for giving voice to Rosie, Jean Vander Pyl, also provided the voice for stone-age cartoon matriarch Wilma Flintstone.)
"2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968)
Similar to “The Jetsons,” Stanley Kubrick’s game-changing science fiction film predicted numerous, now-commonplace technologies, and, for the most part, MGM made good on its promise (reportedly made in a publicity brochure at the time) that "Everything in '2001: A Space Odyssey' can happen within the next three decades, and ... most of the picture will happen by the beginning of the next millennium” (we’re still waiting on suspended animation and moon colonization, however). Heck, even Siri has a bit of HAL in her. What’s more, Samsung unsuccessfully attempted to introduce scenes of tablet-like devices being used in the film as evidence in the company’s epic court battle with Apple (the latter company recently won). Patent infringement lawsuits aside, an early form of videoconferencing also appeared in “2001” in a scene in which Dr. Heywood Floyd uses a (pay) videophone system installed at an intergalactic Howard Johnson’s to have a quick chat with his young daughter (played by Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian) before taking off to a lunar research base. The cost of Floyd’s space station-to-Earth call? $1.75.
“Pee-wee’s Playhouse” (1986-1991)
Children of the 1980s have none other than Pee-wee Herman to thank for an early, albeit fantastical, introduction to video chatting. One of the many “characters” in the red bowtie-donning man-child’s whimsical abode was, of course, the Picturephone (not to be confused with the Magic Screen which was primarily used to “connect the dots la la la la”). A massive, anthropomorphic device with lip-shaped saloon doors that somewhat resembled an oversized phone booth, the Picturephone put Pee-wee in touch with some of his closest pals via a TV set and an empty tin can of Del Monte fruit cocktail that served as an earpiece. Rhonda (Sandra Bernhard) served as the Picturephone operator. Two lessons learned from Pee-wee’s Picturephone: Practice caution when making rainy day prank calls, and prepare to multitask when Dinah Shore calls to wish you happy holidays.
In science fiction films from the 1980s and 1990s, videotelephony was portrayed as a de rigueur technology (“Total Recall,” “Blade Runner,” “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” “Aliens,” “Demolition Man” and “Back to the Future Part II" just to name a few notable examples). Then, of course, there was Mel Brooks' uproarious 1987 sci-fi send-up in which the always-popular videophone trope was married with old-fashioned potty humor in one scene where the pesky Commanderette Zircon from Central Control pops up to relay an urgent message to President Skroob (Brooks) on an “unlisted wall” while he’s in the midst of taking a tinkle.
"The Simpsons" ("Lisa’s Wedding" — 1995)
Although videophones have been around for decades now (AT&T began research on videotelephony back in the 1920s, unveiled its first experimental Picturephone at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and commercially released the device in the early 1970s) they’ve never quite caught on with the public due to their high cost, size and, later, the rapid development of broadband-based videoconferencing, web cameras and other communication technologies. It’s not that videophones are a completely obsolete technology — they’re still out there in sleeker and more affordable forms — but some do believe that the devices are heading in that direction. The Picturephone itself, discontinued by AT&T in the late 1970s and deemed one of the company’s great failures, did manage, however, to get itself a shout-out in the sixth season of the “Simpsons” in an Emmy Award-winning episode set partially in the year 2010 that finds a 23-year-old Lisa calling home to tell Marge of her recent engagement.
“Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion” (1997)
Back in 1997 when this highly quotable, interpretative dancing-filled comedy was released, even cellphones were far from ubiquitous and still a bit cumbersome in size (but not nearly as hefty as the classic Zack Morris model). Mobile technology even provided for one of many excellent one-liners from the desperate-to-impress titular characters (“Hey, if anyone needs to make a call, I’ve got a phone!”). In addition to gags about cellphones, Post-It notes and “business women specials,” videotelephony makes a memorable appearance in a futuristic dream sequence in which a geriatric Romy and Michele (the former being on her deathbed) partake in some “Mary Tyler Moore Show”-related bickering.