Here's What Skype Was Like In 1947

Illustration for article titled Here's What Skype Was Like In 1947

Thanks to tech like Skype, the ability to both see and hear someone across thousands of miles is a mundane exercise for most of us here in the early 21st century. But back in 1947, signing a contract over videophone was like looking into the future. Even if that future turned out a bit different than we were expecting.


When commercial videophone service started in earnest, in the 1960s, one of the big selling points was that you could see and show documents from a great distance. You could even sign contracts with all signatories "present" despite the fact that they were thousands of miles apart.

But the first use of this technology would actually happen decades earlier, in 1947, during a publicity stunt in which execs from Chevy signed a deal with Dumont to sponsor some TV programming.

The January 9, 1947 issue of the Alexandria Times-Tribune in Indiana explained:

A legally binding business contract simultaneously signed by contracting parties more than 200 miles apart, yet able to see and hear each other by television, resulted from the first use of this newest medium of communication to consummate a business agreement.

Parties to the transaction, which may presage an entirely new way of doing business face to face though many miles apart, were the Chevrolet Motor Division of General Motors and Dumont Television, through whom Chevrolet was the first automotive manufacturer to sponsor a commercial television broadcast series.

The strange aspect of the story to modern eyes? They called the Skype-like technology the ability to see "by television." Here in 2015 we think of TV as simply a broadcast medium. But early TV, much like early radio, also encompassed point-to-point communications.

Image via the April 1947 issue of Mechanix Illustrated by way of the Modern Mechanix blog





Fun fact: World War 2 was televised. Television was more or less ready to go in the late '30s; NBC televised the opening of the New York World's Fair in 1939. The war delayed TV's rollout for a decade, but there were a few experimental transmitters in NYC, one atop the Empire State Building. About 5,000 early adopters had receivers and enjoyed sporadic broadcasts of test patterns, old movies, and newsreels of the war. Thousands of New Yorkers saw the war unfold in their living rooms.

The war indirectly facilitated TV; the war effort required CRTs for radar sets in huge numbers, so design and manufacturing were quickly refined. At war's end those production lines were easily modified to make consumer sets to bring you Milton Berle and Sid Caesar.