In 1953, a Telephone-Company Executive Predicts the Rise of Modern Smartphones and Video Calls




We live in the age of the smartphone, which took more than a few of us by surprise. But in all human history, not a single piece of technology has actually come out of nowhere. Long before smartphones came on the market in the 2000s, those close to the telecommunications industry had a sense of what form its most widely used device would eventually take. “Here is my prophecy: In its final development, the telephone will be carried about by the individual, perhaps as we carry a watch today,” said Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company director Mark R. Sullivan in 1953. “It probably will require no dial or equivalent and I think the users will be able to see each other, if they want, as they talk. Who knows but it may actually translate from one language to another?”

Sullivan’s prescient-sounding words survive in the clipping of the Associated Press article seen at the top of the post. It’s worth remembering that the speech in question dates from a time when the rotary phone was the most advanced personal communication device in American households.


Just three years earlier, writes KQED’s Rae Alexandra, Sullivan “appeared in the San Francisco Examiner talking about the latest innovations in telephone technology. The advancement he was most proud of was a new device about the size of a small typewriter that automatically calculated how long people’s phone calls were.” However logical, pocket telephones with video-calling and translation capabilities would then have struck many as the stuff of science fiction.

Though born before the time of household electrification, Sullivan himself lived just long enough to see the debut of the first commercial cellphone  “The Motorola DynaTAC 8000X was definitely not watch-sized and cost a whopping $3,995 in 1983 (about $11,000 today),” writes Alexandra, “but Sullivan might have seen this development as a step towards his long-ago vision — a sign that every one of his 1953 predictions would eventually come to fruition.” As printed in the Tacoma News Tribune, the AP article conveying those predictions to the public appeared under the headline “There’ll Be No Escape in Future from Telephones,” which sounds even more chilling today — in that very future — than it did nearly 70 years ago. But then, even the visions of actual science fiction are seldom wholly untroubled.

Related Content:

A 1947 French Film Accurately Predicted Our 21st-Century Addiction to Smartphones

Nikola Tesla’s Predictions for the 21st Century: The Rise of Smart Phones & Wireless, The Demise of Coffee, The Rule of Eugenics (1926/35)

When We All Have Pocket Telephones (1923)

In 1911, Thomas Edison Predicts What the World Will Look Like in 2011: Smart Phones, No Poverty, Libraries That Fit in One Book

Lynda Barry on How the Smartphone Is Endangering Three Ingredients of Creativity: Loneliness, Uncertainty & Boredom

Filmmaker Wim Wenders Explains How Mobile Phones Have Killed Photography

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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Comments (29)
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  • Miklós says:

    Check out the short story “The Murderer” by Ray Bradbury published in 1953:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Murderer

    “A psychologist exits the noisy environment to confront a patient confined to a small safe-room. The psychologist notes that its patient has ripped the radio out of the wall to silence it. The room seems unnaturally quiet to the psychologist, yet the patient seems perfectly at ease, even happy. The patient, Albert Brock, calls himself ‘The Murderer’, and demonstrates his murderous ability by destroying the psychologist’s wrist radio.

    Questioning reveals that the man had one day been driven mad by the constant expectations of communication inflicted upon him by society […]”

    Also, the first appearance of Dick Tracy’s 2-Way Wrist Radio happened in 1946:
    https://dicktracy.fandom.com/wiki/2-Way_Wrist_Radio

  • T. Horse says:

    Perhaps a supporter of Nichola Tesla who predicted the same thing 26 years earlier in Colliers.

  • Peter T McGlynn says:

    Actually I think the 1953 article is a phony (no pun intended). The term “user” is a technically modern term applied when personal computers came into play. In 1953 a phone company exec would have referred to them as “customers”.

    Somebody made up the news story just to write the article.

  • Patty Morgan says:

    I agree completely and thought the same thing when I first read this, a phony!

  • Leonard Little says:

    Would sympathize/empathize with the man called murderer. Electronics have dumbed down and desensitized modern society. Also have isolated many. Writing a letter is a lost art for most people. Believe these things are one root cause of the collapse of society.

  • Tara Mahsue says:

    Once T.V came out in the 1930s and wireless radios long before this many people believed they could combine both and make a phone. This is just not one or two people that thought this. If you know history well this is not even a story!

  • Goj says:

    Algorithm brought me here. Dang this is lazy ish looking at old press releases of people going gee I wonder. Log off.

  • TIJANI says:

    An unlettered man foreseen this, telephone of all kinds, television,aircrafts etc. over 1400yrs ago. The much maligned Prophet of Islam.

  • Mark says:

    ME, ALONG WITH MANY PAST AND PRESENT HAVE AND WILL LOOK AT A TV AND TRY TO WARN THE ONE IN DISTRESSES WITH THAT BEING SAID, WE FORMALATE THE MINDSET FROM WANTING TO SEE WITHIN AND ABOVE THE IMAGINATION OF OTHERS THEORY OR EXPECTATIONS ONCE WAS CALL THOUGHT SEEKERS, BUT IT’S A PROCESSES THAT WE OVER LOOK EVERYDAY WHEN WE FIND A WAY TO PUT A ROPE ON A STICK AND PICK UP A FISH AND CALL IT A FISHING POLE, “FUTURISTIC THOUGHTS” I HAVE PLENTY OF THEM BUT DON’T HAVE RESOURCES TO FOLLOW THROUGH BUT CAN SAY HAVE SEEN A COUPLE COME ABOUT THROUGH OTHERS. WE CAN ALL ATTEST TO SPEAKING BUT PUTTING IN PLAY IS THE MISSION…

  • Craig says:

    Wasn’t comic book character Dick Tracy using his wrist radio like a phone in 1946?

  • OC says:

    Hi all,

    Open Culture here. We noticed this post was getting a wave of visitors today. But we didn’t know where the visitors were all coming from? Was it from Google? Or another source?

    Thanks for letting us know.
    OC

  • Bardo says:

    Yeah, because we all know that the term “user” didn’t enter the English language until the 2000’s.

  • Charliss Green says:

    The term “USER” is not new.
    Even wringer washing machines and early refrigerators had USERS. The term was in use,long before it was applied to modern technology.

  • Jessics says:

    Google main page

  • C says:

    Yes, it was Google Discover.

  • bill morgan says:

    bench to english wheel{[after hearing that , deep in the broadcast bunker everybody missed a shot . SO once-again . i liked the deflowered stick shiftus

  • J.sullivan says:

    It’s hard to set a vision and make it a reality. It’s easy to see where your idea will go and expand.

  • Bill says:

    Snopes rates the article as true.

  • Crusty Fretz says:

    Great article. Thanks
    It is true, for those with a cellphone, it is difficult to stay away from our phones. No escape.
    Maybe that is why many people use their cellphones as a form of escape from reality.
    Maybe that is why many people use their cellphones to stay connected to reality.
    I use my cellphone for both purposes, until my phone battery dies….🤣

  • Crusty Fretz says:

    ¿huh?

  • Crusty Fretz says:

    What does that smell like?

  • Patrick says:

    My father was a sales exec (one of 5 regional Vice Presidents) in the ~60’s to the late 80’s for a National (but local) telephone Company (Continental..or Contel…bought by Verizon ultimately). I sent this article to him and while he didn’t recognize this gentleman, he told me they had Business and Strategy meetings surrounding this topic (and others) on a regular basis. I can’t confirm if this article is legit, but the conversations it refers too certainly happened.

  • wayne says:

    I told Wilber and I told Orval—It will never get off the ground

  • JH says:

    Don’t even remember now ….. it’s been 5 whole minutes LOL

  • Andrea Vadala says:

    I think I believe what yr “actually saying”…..desperate LUNATICS trying to do exactly what yr saying…..

  • Gabriel Zahradka says:

    Pardon?

  • Adrian Jamison Banks sr says:

    I can do all things through christ Jesus….

  • Rory Mayon says:

    Just live your life and make your own choices and if you make the wrong ones learn and grow from it and experience life in your own way

  • Fester says:

    i predict all people will forget the CapsLock key in the future.

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