Curious About How Conference Calling Came About? The Party Line And The Switchboard Started It All

21 January 2015
 Categories: , Articles


Conference calling, or the ability of more than two people to carry on a conversation over a single phone connection, is an important business tool in the modern world.  It began with the party lines and the switchboards of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The eventual wedding of video to audio conference calling added another dimension to this method of global communication. If you curious about today's high-tech systems, you might be interested in how they came about.

The Party Line, Unintended Conference Calling

Having a telephone in the home was once considered a luxury. In the 1890s, shortly after the invention of metallic circuits made long distance calling possible, the party line was invented.  This allowed neighboring households to share the phone line and its associated cost.  Though not intended as such, the fact that more than two people could get on the line and talk at the same time made the party line the first "unofficial" conference calling system.

The Switchboard, the First True Conference Calling Device

The phone switchboard was invented in 1878 and first installed in New Haven, Connecticut. Operators could use this devise to make and connect calls If needed they could connect more than two callers on the same line. This was done by a series of cords, jacks and switches.  For example, if you had an answering service, the precursor of the call center, that had four switchboards and each switchboard had a pair of connecting jacks, you could connect up to four people on one line, creating a conference call.

The Picture Phone, an Idea Ahead of It's Time

Visitors to the 1964 World's Fair in New York were invited to test the Picture Phone in a specially constructed booth that had a connection established with a similar booth at California's Disneyland in Anaheim. Surveys conducted on the spot revealed that though the touch-tone dial pad was a big hit, the rest of the phone was a resounding disappointment. Most users found that the picture was too small and the controls were difficult to operate. Like many of the television shows of that era, the picture was in black and white, and sometimes it was "fuzzy" looking. After a revamp of the Picture Phone design, adding color and a larger screen, the machine was shelved. The idea was great; the transmission technology just wasn't quite good enough.

Audio Conferencing for Business, the Beginning

In 1982 a company called Compression Labs came up with a video conferencing system that targeted businesses.  The cost, $250,000 for the system and $1,000 per hour of line usage, kept its potential customer base small.  For a few years they had a virtual monopoly on the market. Then, in 1986, PictureTel came up with their system. It was a bit more wallet friendly, costing $80,000 and charging $100 per hour line use fee.

Video Conference Calling, The Picture That Made the Difference

As more and more players entered the video conferencing market, the prices continued to drop.  IBM introduced PicTel in 1991, the first video conference system that used the increasingly popular PCs.  This black and white system priced out at $20,000 with a $30 per hour line use fee. Technological advances and more powerful, faster computer systems eventually led to free software and services through various companies.

Today's High-Tech Video Conferencing Machines

Going digital made all the difference in high-tech video conferencing. Today it is possible to hold a meeting in New York with participants across the United State and even world-wide. Video cameras, found in nearly every smart phone, PC and iPad, can display a participant on the other electronic devices involved. Likewise audio is taken care of by microphones transmitting to speakers, also on a range of devices.

Corporate or satellite offices usually control the meeting through a home base system. Depending on the complexity of the system, and the preference of the meeting holder, the attendees can carry on conversations and share reports, graphics and other visual aids. It's just like attending an in-house office meeting, without the jet lag.

Today's video conference calls or business telephone systems transmit over computer connections, which are either through phone lines or through wireless routers. None of this would be possible without the earlier invention of phones, switchboards and the integrated phone network that began more than a century ago.