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Video chat has been disappointing people for a century

FaceTime, circa 1912.
FaceTime, circa 1912.
The Daybook/Library of Congress

In 1912, one inventor announced he had invented the early-20th-century equivalent of FaceTime — the Apple video-phone program that was supposed to change our lives. But just like Google Hangouts, Skype, and every other video-chat breakthrough, the hype outweighed the interest. Even a century ago, people realized video phones would be a little underwhelming.

Published in the March 8, 1912, edition of the Daybook, the concept was a mess of untested theory and pseudo-scientific jargon. According to inventor Jerome Meyer, the invention used "selenium ... so sensitive to electrical changes that the rays of light made varying degrees of shadow upon it." The super-sensitive selenium would conduct a video signal from one end of the device to the other. It also required X-rays, magnets, Roentgen ray generators, and 100,000 volts of power. It was impractical, but the idea wasn't completely absurd: Alexander Graham Bell proposed something similar in 1891.

Needless to say, none of us are using Meyer's device today — electronic signals gave us better options to transmit images. But the most notable revelation from the 1912 article about the "televisual phone" might be that people always thought a video phone would be a disappointment.

The headline shouted the big problem:

People kissing without the thrill

People kissing without the thrill. (The Daybook/Library of Congress)

And the video-phone takedown continues:

... the thrill will be missing. Aside from that intangible, but highly important feature, you'd never know the difference, for by Meyer's invention you hear the ecstatic sigh, see the love-light in your lady's eye and glimpse the blush that touches with crimson her creamy cheek.

Even with all that electricity and selenium, there was still something missing from Meyer's concept: a real connection (and, of course, a functioning machine). Today, when video phones actually work, that lack of connection might still be their biggest problem: