Who invented the conference call?

Who invented the conference call? (Image credit: Thinkstock/iStock)

It's hard to believe that the conference call is nearly 60 years old.

The technology was used for the very first time in 1956 – 58 years ago – during a time that pre-dated the internet, England winning the World Cup and colour televisions. 

Of all of these, it's probably the fact that conference calling came before the internet that is the most impressive, as it shows just how visionary the concept was in an age when digital communication was very much still in its infancy.

The first organisation to dream up the conference call was Bell Labs, which is the research arm of US telecoms giant AT&T. The name Bell of course refers to Alexander Graham Bell, who is largely recognised as being the inventor of the telephone in the 1870s. While Mr Bell obviously wasn't around to see the introduction of this evolution of his breakthrough product, it's nice to know that his legacy has been able to continue in this way!

After engineers and developers came up with the idea, it was another six years before the first conference call was actually made. In 1964, the New York World's Fair hosted this momentous occasion, with delegates able to speak to visitors in Disneyland in California via the medium.

The device was dubbed the Picturephone by AT&T, with a picture appearing on a tiny screen once the two speakers were connected – although it only refreshed every two seconds.

However, while the innovation was undoubtedly a technological breakthrough, it faced several issues that threatened to hamper further progress. For a start, while what it allowed users to achieve was impressive, many people were unwilling to pay the price to have access to such a facility.

With a $125 (£74) monthly service fee – which is more than $700 by today's standards – on top of a 21 cent per minute call charge, any business wanting to use teleconferencing as an alternative to long-distance travel needed to seriously consider whether or not they could justify the costs. This was made even more difficult by the fact that the person on the other end of the line would also need to have the same device – severely limiting who could use it.

Another problem was the size of the gadget – with three phone lines needed to accommodate the video and audio channels. Ultimately, it all proved too much for both consumers and AT&T, with the latter eventually canning the product, despite spending more than $1 billion on its development.

Thankfully, this wasn't to be the end of the conference call and the advancement of digital communication brought about a teleconferencing renaissance, partly thanks to a new method of connecting participants of a conversation via a conference bridge.

What is a conference call bridge?

This innovation allows any number of users to connect to the same call by dialling a particular number, entering their details and being rerouted to the conversation they have been invited to.

One of the greatest advantages of the conference call bridge is that it allows potentially thousands of participants to speak to one another on the same line – previous systems had accommodated a maximum of three people, so the potential for conference call bridging was realised very early on after the concept was initially thought up.

Nearly 17,000 callers took part in the world's largest ever conference call, with all of them in the same conversation together for at least ten seconds. This happened during a specially-organised event in 2012 and emphasises the power and flexibility that bridging was able to bring to the teleconferencing medium.

With the first conference call system being dreamt up nearly 60 years ago, who knows what's next for the technology? Demand for this form of communication is still high in the corporate world and the benefits it can bring to a business are multiple, so it's quite feasible that developers will continue to investigate how they can improve it further for many more years to come.