This nice lady and this massive switchboard is how phones used to work. (Arnold Eagle/ Getty.edu)
When people want to know who first predicted the age of the smartphone, a few names regularly pop up.
First, there’s Nikola Tesla, who in 1926 foretold that, “through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face-to-face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles. And the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”
Then there’s sci-fi author Isaac Asimov, who’s remembered for his 1964 op-ed in the New York Times in which he claimed communication devices would one day enable people to “see as well as hear the person you telephone.” He also predicted that “the screen [would] be used not only to see the people you call, but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.”
But a name that almost never comes up is Mark R. Sullivan, whose astute predictions came more than a decade before Asimov’s. In the 1950s, Sullivan was acting president and director of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company. He was born in Oakland in 1896, lived in San Francisco with his wife and daughter, and worked his way to the top of his company, starting as a lowly traffic clerk at age 16. He also sat on the board of directors of the American Trust Company. As such, he was well respected and regularly asked to impart his professional wisdom at business conferences and forums.
It was at one of these conferences in Pasadena, California on April 9, 1953, that Sullivan relayed his eerily accurate vision of the future of phones. Tacoma’s News Tribune reported on the speech two days later in an article titled, “There’ll Be No Escape in Future From Telephones.”
Sullivan was quoted as saying:
Just what form the future telephone will take is, of course, pure speculation. Here is my prophecy: In its final development, the telephone will be carried about by the individual, perhaps as we carry a watch today. 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?
To put into context just how extraordinary Sullivan’s vision was for the period, three years earlier he 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. This eliminated the need for an operator to “record the call for accounting purposes.” The amount of column inches the Examiner dedicated to the story is an indication this was Really Exciting Stuff in 1950.
That Sullivan was able—even while working with such rudimentary equipment—to envisage watch phones, video calls, and a system similar to today’s Google Translate, is fairly extraordinary. It speaks to his ability to see well beyond the technological constraints of his own lifetime. That he did so here in the Bay Area, more than two decades before the first Silicon Valley boom, only serves to make his foresight even more eerie.
Sullivan died, aged 89, just two years after the first commercially available cell phone hit the market. Granted, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X was definitely not watch-sized and cost a whopping $3,995 in 1983 (about $11,000 today), 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.
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