Your Telephone Of Tomorrow (Sep, 1956)
Usually old articles of the form “Your x of tomorrow” be it house, car, phone, city, plane, etc are full of ideas that are wildly off the mark or just plain ridiculous. This article about the future of phones is remarkable because virtually everything in it has come true. Worldwide Direct Touchtone Dialing, Transistorized Switching, Audio/Video data compression, Voice Recognition and rampant miniaturization. All true. Not to mention that a tiny, touchtone, color videophone you can watch TV on is a pretty accurate description of my Motorola RAZR.
I also love the idea that everyone will get a phone number at birth and keep it for the rest of their life. If you call someone and they don’t pick up, you’ll know they’re dead. Or perhaps just sleeping.
Your Telephone Of Tomorrow
Future may bring push-button dialing, videophones, direct calls anywhere on earth and pocket-size sets.
By Robert G. Beason
ON SOME night in the future a young man walking along Market Street in San Francisco may suddenly think of a friend in Rome. Reaching into his pocket, he will pull out a watch-size disc with a set of buttons on one side. He will punch ten times. Turning the device over, he will hear his friend’s voice and see his face on a tiny screen, in color and 3-D. At the same moment his friend in Rome will see and hear him.
The disc will be a telephone, a miniature model equipped for both audio and video service. Back in 1952, Harold S. Osborne, retiring chief engineer of American Telephone & Telegraph, envisioned this tiny instrument as the ultimate shape of the phone. In the future, said Mr. Osborne, a telephone number will be given at birth to every baby in the world. It will be his for life. When he wants to call anyone, no matter where, he will merely push the buttons on his Lilliputian phone.
“If he does not see or hear him, he will know his friend is dead,” the engineer concluded.
Decades of research will pass before Osborne’s concept approaches reality. Change in the telephone industry is at evolutionary pace. Most of the new designs and ideas emanate from a rambling brick laboratory sitting amid 230 close-cropped acres at Murray Hill, N.J. The owner is the Bell Telephone Laboratories. Here, tucked away in the Watchung Mountain ridges an hour from Times Square, are research scientists who spend their days thinking and perhaps writing on a pad. They are Bell’s planners for the future.
Immediate profits from this investigation of pure science seldom amount to much. But in the long run the company is repaid many times for dollars it pays a man who does all his work inside his head.
Every year the giant corporation pours $120,000,000 into research and development programs conducted by some 3,500 scientists and engineers at Murray Hill and a few other installations, including one 13-story building overlooking the Hudson on Manhattan’s West Side.
Men at Murray Hill are now working on phone equipment you may be using in two, five, ten or 20 years. The path of research is leading toward the videophone to enable you to see as well as hear your party â€”all-electronic switching that will complete your call a thousand times faster â€”push-button dialing, or even robot dialingâ€”and transmission equipment that may one day bring live telecasts from England and the Continent.
By comparison, the lab’s most recent progeny are solidly down-to-earth. Among them are the “500” set in eight colors and with a lightweight receiver, an automatic answering set, the Speakerphone (requires no hands), a volume-control phone and a set with night-light. Into some of them went years of painstaking work.
For instance, an answering set to tend the phone when no one is home has been a dream for 50 years. In 1935 Bell scientists completed a working model but it was too big, too complex, too costly. Lab people kept going for 20 more years before the 1A Answering Set was announced. The instrument will inform a caller that he is being answered automatically and that it will record his name, number and a message if he wishes. When the customer comes home he presses a button to find out who has called and what they said.
The Speakerphone is just the ticket for an impatient magnate who dislikes being tied down. It looks like the usual phone except for a row of buttons and some holes in one corner where the microphone is located. A couple of feet away is the loudspeaker, about as big as a cigarette pack. The set allows you to have both hands free while carrying on a conversation.
The volume-control phone probably means most to the hard-of-hearing because its transistor amplifier, fitting into the base of the regulation home model, can be turned to a high level. Lifting the receiver on the night-light phone illuminates the dialâ€”a minor but still important development.
Infinitely more complicated is switching equipment devised by lab men to wed the telephone to the dictation machine. A firm that can’t afford a secretary for every executive installs several dictation machines in one room and the interoffice phone fine is hooked to them. When anyone wants to dictate a letter he dials a number, is connected with one of the machines and gives his letter over the phone. One secretary can collect cylinders from half-a-dozen machines and transcribe all the letters.
As with most other recent Murray Hill productions, the dictation set-up is a relative midget. Miniaturization has become a mania in the industry since a little less than a decade ago when two Bell scientists experimenting with germanium came up with the transistor, a pea-size solid-state assembly that can do most of the jobs of a vacuum tube. It has found ready use in radios, hearing aids and the telephone, and since last spring it has been making music for 300 Bell customers at Crystal Lake, 111. Instead of listening to the strident ringing of a bell, the Crystal Lakers are summoned by a tone device with a voice like an oboe. They are the guinea pigs in the musical signaler’s field test. If the equipment wins approval, things will look bad for the bell, the part of the phone that has changed least since Alexander Graham Bell made his invention in 1876.
An invention which in time may rank with the transistor has finally answered a long-held dream of scientists and laymen to convert sunbeams to electrical energy. Murray Hill researchers called their creation the solar battery. The device has just come through a major test with flying colors by generating power for a rural phone line at Americus, Ga. The solar battery unit also is a midget, and a relatively simple one. Chief component is a silicon disc about the size of a quarter that traps sunlight and turns it into electrons. Part of its power goes into a storage battery which takes over when the sun is not shining.
If a cheap method of production is found, the battery’s future will be colossal. One company already has put a sun-operated portable radio on the market, and early in 1958 the battery is to produce electricity for telemetering equipment in the first man-made earth satellite, the MOUSE. Power always will be a problem of satellites, manned and unmanned, and the solar battery may be the answer because it uses fuel abounding in all space.
This year has seen the blossoming of the biggest long-range planning job ever thought up by the Murray Hill dreamersâ€”a Direct Distant Dialing (DDD) system enabling a customer to dial long distance numbers directly. Conceived in the Depression years when the dial itself was only 23 years old, DDD finally came into being in 1951 when 10,000 subscribers in Englewood, N. J. were hooked up directly with 13,000,000 phones as far as 3,000 mi. away.
Other small communities were added, and then early last spring the first large city, San Diego (pop. 435,000), got DDD. By the end of 1957, experts say, the total will be 250, and in 15 years the service will be country-wide. Conceivably the ultimate goal may be a global DDD system.
Direct Distant Dialing’s greatest advantage, besides convenience and accuracy, is speed. The average transcontinental call in 1920 took 14 minutes to complete; by 1953 the figure was down to 90 seconds for a call that involved half-a-dozen operators. Then came DDD, and now Maine and California are six seconds apart.
These six seconds may also be pushed into the horse-and-buggy category by a new giant called all-electronic switching which promises to slice off as much as five seconds. Standard telephone equipment at present has a heart of electro-mechanical relays, each about the size of the box around a tube of toothpaste. Contact points in these relays close to complete a circuitâ€” an action that can be timed in a few thousandths of a second. A coast-to-coast call employs thousands of relays, and the decimals add up to six or ten seconds. Bell’s braintrusters wanted something faster and better and now they have itâ€”the gas tube relay.
Dr. W. D. Lewis, one of the lab’s switching geniuses, calls the gas tube the relay of tomorrow. The physicist-mathematician says of the tube: “This switch has no moving parts. Inside are two elements surrounded by gas. You apply voltage and get a gas discharge across the gap. You can now talk through it as through a closed relay.” That is called all-electronic action.
The tube, about as big around as a fountain pen and 2-1/2 in. long, acts 1,000 times faster than the old relay and could carry your call from Atlantic to Pacific in much less than a second.
“Later we’ll have a transistor substitute for the tube,” Lewis adds. “Then we’ll have exactly what we want.”
Two years from now 2,500 customers at Morris, Ill., will try out Bell’s first electronic switching system, and if the equipment lives up to expectations the stage will be set for a slow national change from clicking relays to noiseless leaps by electrons.
With an electronic system, the slowest links in the chain would be the caller and his party, a fact that has led to considerable thought on the part of the Bell planners. Their first victim probably will be the dial, replaced by a row of push-buttons. Punching a number would be much faster than dialing. In the theory stage is an instrument called the Polytonic Coder which could take the punched numbers and transmit them just about as fast as they can be packed into a line, as many as 100 a second.
According to the Coder theory, and adding electronic switching, you could punch a number and as soon as you picked up the receiver your party’s phone would be ringing, whether across Madison Avenue or in Walla Walla. If the line was busy you wouldn’t punch a second time. The setting would remain and the number tried again when you lifted the handset.
The idea of a retained setting already has been antiquated at Murray Hill, however. The scientists have on the boards a memory unit to note the fact that you tried a certain number and found the line busy. At the instant it was free the brain would ring your phone. Answering, you would find your party on the line.
Almost 30 years ago some day-dreamer, now unknown, got the idea of a television-telephone instrument to furnish pictures along with sound. Seeing while talking is nothing new, of course. In 1927 Bell labmen transmitted images of Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover from a phone booth in Washington to New York. Almost anyone could have the same service between, say, home and office merely by asking for itâ€” and paying the bill! The installation would consist of a phone plus straight video equipment. Transmission costs would be fantastic. A man might pay $375 just to tell his wife he’d be late for dinner.
The videophone concept needs refinements and inventions to make the marriage of pictures and sound a practical one, especially from the monetary standpoint. The biggest stumbling block is circuits. A telephone conversation requires one line, but transmission of the picture part of a TV program takes up 1,000 circuits. An order today for a videophone would leave you paying for about 1,001 circuits.
One answer would be a machine to squeeze the wide-band transmission into a package small enough to be carried by only a few linesâ€”perhaps only one. Several experimental models have been devised at Murray Hill. One of them, named Audrey, can take human speech of 3,000 cycles per second, cut it to as few as 30 cps and sent it through a line. At the receiving end,, Audrey recreates speech from the 30 cps. A former one-conversation line now can carry 100 calls. Audrey has a major drawback, through. Her recreated speech has been compared to two robot tobacco auctioneers fighting over a cigar butt.
Audrey and the other pieces of equipment like her do have promise of helping make the videophone practical. They also could assist in bringing live television from Europe. The new trans-Atlantic cable will go into operation this December with 36 circuits. That is not enough space to carry a television program, but with the type of band squeezing done by Audrey the cable might be able to handle TV, assuming some transmission problems are solved.
Audrey, a mass of tubes, switches, condensers and other electronic paraphernalia, has another charming ability of being able to recognize numbers spoken by her operator. Her electronic fingers then will dial them. Some day you might pick up the receiver of your dial-less phone and simply speak the number wanted. Robot dialing seems a long way off, however.
Let’s move into the future and say we now have: 1. The musical tone; 2. All-electronic switching; 3. Robot dialing; 4. World-wide DDD; 5. The videophone; and 6. Intercontinental television.
What else could telephone men invent?
The next steps probably would be improving the equipment to make it handier. The radio got smaller and became portable and the phone is likely to take the same path, perhaps coming down to pocket-size. In several U.S. cities there is a little-known service where a customer is given a number and a hand-size receiver. As he walks along the street he holds the instrument to his ear. If he hears his number he knows someone is calling him, although he has to go to a regular telephone to talk to him. That set may lead to one with transmitter and receiver in a box you hold in your palm.
Adding video equipment to that concept produces Harold Osborne’s idea of a watch-size telephone-television instrument, a notion that cannot be called far-fetched. Miniaturization of electronic components already is far advanced. Transistors are as big as peas. Further machine-made models can be smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence.
Osborne implied that the telephone would never go beyond the instrument he described. So far his words have not been disputed, but it’s a safe bet they will be!