How the 19th century (sort of) predicted the 2016 video explosion

Arguably the biggest trend online in 2016 will be video content. DIY media like YouTube and Snapchat encourages networks of users to interact through video. Short-form content gets billions of mobile views daily on social networks while subscription models cross over to big-screen entertainment. Video is bigger than ever, even as cable bundles are dropping.

Rich Raddon, co-founder and co-CEO of video identification company ZEFR, termed streaming video a “disruptive market” of 2016, saying that the battle between Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, HBO, and YouTube Red for the revenue cord-cutters can offer marks the “era of SVOD (subscription video on demand)”.

But video streaming was a long time coming. Handfuls of artists and dreamers, from over a hundred years of retro-future history, have predicted the current trend accurately, with one large exception. Here’s a look at predictions of the present, from the past, alongside the one main thing they got wrong. Because from 1879's ‘telephonoscope’ to 1930's version of FaceTime, all the predictions have all focused on interpersonal communication rather than entertainment. And aside from Periscope, sports events, and an annual musical on NBC, little of today’s video content is live.

How the 19th century ‘telephonoscope’ projected the future

In 1879, George du Maurier presented his vision for a future TV that would allow two-way communication. His cartoon showed an elderly couple watching their children play cricket on a wall-sized screen. Speaking into horns, they could grill their kids on who their friends were, and whether they were charming or not. The scene might seem familiar to any student who has introduced their college buddies to their parents over Skype.

An update on a decade-old concept from French editor Albert Robida, the so-called “telephonoscope” was attributed to Thomas Edison in Maurier’s cartoon. This was no coincidence: the telephone had been patented just four years earlier, and Edison was already known for his prolific patents on mass-communication-enabling devices like stock tickers, vote recorders, and motion pictures.

Victorian predictions paralleled the invention of the telephone

A leading theory takes a closer look at the zeitgeist of late-nineteenth-century culture to locate an answer. According to a 2014 article from Dr. Verity Hunt, the time period held a “fascination with televisual long distance seeing” that combined with “the new, emerging dynamics of Modern communication” to spark an interest in the television that paralleled the telephone.

Writing about a “telectroscope”, a concept similar to the telephonoscope, Hunt explains that “the concept of the device first appeared not long after the telephone was patented in 1876. It was hoped it would ‘do for the eye what the telephone had done for the ear’ and provide a technologised system of long distance seeing”. The telephone had brought two-way communication to the masses: Why couldn’t future citizens ring their cousin in the big city and be dazzled with a moving picture of New York as well as the sounds?

But in the modern day, the answer might just be that it’s too much hassle and too intimate. When you need to contact a friend, do you immediately open Skype? You likely opt for a quick text, or perhaps a phone call. Even FaceTime is a little intrusive unless you’re talking to a close friend. Skype is useful in business calls, but hasn’t replaced text or audio calls.

Perhaps a technology still in our future will improve on the telephone enough to truly make a person across the world seem to be in the same room—virtual reality is certainly evolving, and some hope holograms can be used for this exact purpose. But the past track record isn’t impressive. Skype isn’t the disruptive industry that fans of the telephone hoped for.

The forecasts of two-way videophones continued into the 20th century

By the 1930s, television was a reality. First demonstrated in 1927 and debuting at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the invention was decidedly one-way. Even the predictions recalibrated for one-way devices, which hailed an educational revolution via televised academic lectures, didn’t manifest thanks to a lack of funding once the television receiver became widespread in the 1950s.


Image credit: James Vaughan via Flickr

Though I’ve used the term “Victorian” to describe the futurists in this article, it must be noted that an overemphasis on the importance of televisual communication extends further into the 20th century than the Victorian era. One 1930 illustration of the future depicts two women at a café on their videophones, which require a battery pack on one hip and a speaking horn. One famed British politician, FE Smith, predicted in 1930 that television’s impact would extent to politics. While his concept of political leaders speaking directly to the people has become reality, his recommendation to cut out representatives and allow the entire population to vote on issues, à la ancient Greece, has not.

Even 1950s predictors still hoped for a two-way television future. After all, prototypes existed—AT&T spent $500 million developing its Picturephone over the ‘50s and ‘60s. A commercial failure, the device can be seen in use during one scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Speaking in 1952, Harold S. Osborne, a retiring chief engineer at AT&T, predicted that televisual watches would soon be issued to citizens at birth. Osborne carried his vision of a omnipresent smartwatch to its sober conclusion, saying that if a caller “does not see or hear him, he will know his friend is dead”.

Past prophesies said more about the past than about the modern day

With the benefit of hindsight (or foresight, depending on your definition), we can learn a simple lesson from the fortune-tellers of the 1870s and beyond. They focused on a Skype-like invention because of its similarity to the telephone. The lesson? Predictions about the state of future technology will generally reflect more about current society than they will about the future.

Still, there’s no reason the two can’t coincide: The telelectroscope isn’t without its 2016 analogues. The user-driven video-streaming app Periscope has a team and user base the size of 2009-era Twitter, and, after being bought by current-era Twitter, has the resources it needs to grow.

Periscope was inspired by 2013 civil unrest in Istanbul's Taksim Square, too. By connecting the world through live, interactive televisual communication, Periscope comes closer to 19th century techies’ dreams of an improved world than ever before. Victorian predictions of video streaming seem more relevant every day: Periscope’s users currently stream 40 years’ worth of video every 24 hours.


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Adam Rowe

Adam Rowe is a freelance science and technology writer. He splits his freelance research time between finding bizarre science facts and bizarre science fiction, documenting it all @AdamRRowe.

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