The Telephot – Zoom in 1918

No, there wasn’t Zoom in 1918. Heck, most people will tell you there wasn’t Zoom in 2018. (They’d be wrong, the company started in 2012.) But the idea of Zoom was there, and thanks to The Internet Archive, we have proof.

Thank Hugo Gernsback

Hugo Gernsback in 1963, showing a prototype of today’s VR goggles

Most folks don’t know the name Hugo Gernsback. But, it’s not everyone who essentially invents a whole genre of fiction. Mr. Gernsback published a series of magazines throughout the early 20th century. Some were speculative and informative, like today’s Popular Science. Some were full of fiction, like Amazing Stories. That magazine inspired a whole generation of science fiction writers and continues to inspire to this day.

So, ok it’s not completely fair to say he invented science fiction; the works of Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe, and H.G. Wells predate him. Even Mark Twain, known as his generation’s Stephen Colbert, did a speculative story called A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, thought to be one of the earliest examples of time travel fiction.

But were it not for Hugo Gernsback, the world would not have had Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, or Gene Roddenberry. And, by extension, the world would not now be full of excellent writers like Dave Galanter whose work carries on their legacies.

But today we look back to an issue of Electrical Experimenter in which Mr. Gernsback talks about “the Telephot.”

Telephot?

Hey, folks you have to understand that this was before the birth of modern marketing. It’s a dumb name but it makes sense if you’re well-educated in Greek. Hey, aren’t we all?

The Telephot used moving parts to serve live video to something that looked like a hand mirror. It was described eight years before the first proof-of-concept of television, and thirty years before the invention of the transistor (which ushered in the Electronic Age.)

If you have some time, read the entire article, preserved at The Internet Archive.  It’s an incredibly complex analysis of the science that would allow someone from 1918 to do two-way video calling. I have to imagine that it informed the future of television.

We need visionaries like this today

People like Hugo Gernsback imagined a world so advanced that it took almost 100 years for it to come true. We have some excellent science fiction writers today, that’s for sure, but I think we need more than that. As I said over five years ago, it’s time for a new vision of the future. The world changes at such an incredible pace now, far more than any of us could have imagined. Most of us grew up accustomed to the rapid pace of technological change, and all of a sudden we are reckoning with a world that seems to change faster than technology can keep up. I think that most of us who ask what will the year 2121 look like, first want to know what the year 2021 will look like. But more than ever, we need people like Hugo Gernsback who are capable of creating visions of a future where what we do, and how we do it, makes life quite a bit better for everyone.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 6,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.