Predecessor of Zoom and Skype: Nazi Germany had first public video calling system

„If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants“, those are the words Isaac Newton used in 1675 to pay respect to all of the major thinkers who have come before him, enabling him to use their accumulated knowledge to make groundbreaking new discoveries of his own.

It is symbolic that Newton borrowed this phrase.

This metaphor of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants which expresses the meaning of “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries” has been traced all the way to the 12th century, attributed to Bernard of Chartres who pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, „not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.”

We, who are living in a digital age, often forget that all of our gadgets wouldn’t be possible whitout a long line of scientist and inventors spanning hundreds of years in history.

For example, one of the things we use frequently today is video conferencing, especially in the time of social distancing and we tend to think this is a product of our modern age although the concept is very old.

Very few know that public video conferencing existed even in Nazi Germany.

This was a true videophone system, with two-way video and two-way audio, and it was developed by Georg Oskar Schubert.

He was the head of “Sudetengau verlagerten Fernseh-GmbH”, a combine of several companies tasked with developing television broadcast technology and production.

Schubert designed and oversaw the production of the “Gegenseh-Fernsprechanlagen”, the first public real time, two-way audio-video phone system.

First video call ever

On Sunday, March 1, 1936 German Minister of Postal Affairs Paul Freiherr von Eltz-Rübenach inaugurated the first public videophone conversation. From Berlin he video-called Leipzig’s chief burgomaster.

Because of the complexity of the system along with the lights, camera, display and telephone handset; these videophones were set up in private booths within the post offices. This was the only feasible option as post offices also housed large parts of the telephone, telegraph and wireless communication infrastructure, writes

Impressive technical specifications for video calls

By the time the system was abandoned in 1940, there were additional booths in the post offices of Nuremberg and Munich as well, together with aforementioned booths in Berlin and Leipzig post offices.

Even if the war had not diverted resources, the system probably wouldn’t have grown much larger or remained in service very long due to the incredible cost to construct and maintain the system. Calls costed 1.20 Reichsmarks per minute or about five times as much as for a regular telephone call.

The technical specifications were impressive with an estimated resolution of 232 x 172 at 25 frames per second and toll-quality audio. From the images, it appears as though the display was approximately 12 diagonal inches.

The old German system placed the caller close to the video camera and display so that the image quality was adequate to convey facial expression and some body language.

British science-fiction film High Treason predictions

However, very idea of video-conferencing goes way back, it predates the Nazis.

Recently a clip from a British science-fiction film High Treason (1929) which envisioned people using video phones, vent viral.

Movie was directed by Maurice Elvey, one of the top British filmmakers of the period, and offered a host of images that would become commonplace in today’s world like giant videoscreens and a tunnel under the English Channel.

Prior to Schubert’s video-phone innovation in Nazi Germany, other video telephone systems existed that had a two way audio system and a one way video system.

For example, AT&T experimented with video phones in 1927 and development of video conferencing started all the way back in the late 19th century.

After the war halted further development of video phones, not only in Germany but also in other parts of the world, it took more than 30 years for video phones to make a comeback – this time in United States.

Picturephone hype

This Bell System Picturephone premiered with great fanfare at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.

Like earlier prototypes, the Picturephone required special wiring to work, so it wasn’t compatible with the existing telephone network at large. AT&T did its best to drum up hype for its futuristic phone, even staging a call between Lady Bird Johnson in Washington DC and Bell Labs in NY. This model entered limited commercial service between Washington, New York, and Chicago that year, but failed to take off.

Consumers weren’t thrilled with AT&T’s offering for a number of reasons. It was too expensive, the controls were too difficult to operate, the screen was too small, and people just didn’t like being observed over the phone, according to PcWorld.

Video telephony had to wait some more before it took of in our times.

In modern era Skype was a pioneer in peer-to-peer communication, making video calls feasible even in slow Internet connections dating to the mid-2000s, but has fallen in popularity by 2020.

Zoom vs Skype

Recently, video-conferencing tool Zoom has become the essential tool with the number of remote workers using its service growing from 10 million to more than 200 million in the time of COVID-19 pandemic.

It hasn’t been an easy ride for the little-known company, a myriad of recently discovered security and privacy issues has seen the videoconferencing software banned by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and New York City.

At the same time, in a bid to position Skype as a viable Zoom alternative in light of these issues, Microsoft has taken to promoting the service’s recently added ‘Meet Now’ feature, which offers “a simple, hassle-free way to connect with the important people in your life on Skype, no sign-ups or downloads required”.

While Microsoft is adding new functionality to its videoconferencing client – or at least promoting old ones – Zoom CEO Eric Yuan announced that his company was freezing new feature development for three months while it focuses on sorting privacy and security issues.

“We did not design the product with the foresight that, in a matter of weeks, every person in the world would suddenly be working, studying, and socializing from home,” Yuan said.

As the fight for Number 1 video conferencing software in our times is ongoing, it is worth to remember giants who pioneered this technology.

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