Jim Henson short explains "Data Communications" for Bell execs, 1963

Joly sez, "Jim Henson made this film in 1963 for The Bell System. Specifically, it was made for an elite seminar given for business owners, on the then-brand-new topic — Data Communications. The seminar itself involved a lot of films and multimedia presentations, and took place in Chicago. A lengthy description of the planning of the Bell Data Communications Seminar — sans a mention of the Henson involvement — is on the blog of Inpro co-founder Jack Byrne. It later was renamed the Bell Business Communications Seminar. The organizers of the seminar, Inpro, actually set the tone for the film in a three-page memo from one of Inpro's principals, Ted Mills to Henson. Mills outlined the nascent, but growing relationship between man and machine: a relationship not without tension and resentment: "He [the robot] is sure that All Men Basically Want to Play Golf, and not run businesses — if he can do it better." (Mills also later designed the ride for the Bell System at the 1964 World's Fair.) Henson's execution is not only true to Mills' vision, but he also puts his own unique, irreverent spin on the material. The robot narrator used in this film had previously starred in a skit for a food fair in Germany (video is silent), in 1961. It also may be the same robot that appeared on the Mike Douglas Show in 1966. Henson created a different — but similar — robot for the SKF Industries pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair. This film was found in the AT&T Archives. Thanks go to Karen Falk of the Henson Archives for providing help and supporting documentation to prove that it was, indeed, a Henson production.." (Thanks, Joly!)


  1. The robot voice turns into that unmistakable Kermit voice at the end. It’s quite a crazy film, even outside the context of (presumably) boring business seminars!

  2. btw, it hadn’t been seen in about 50 years…it was found in the at&t archives. Actually, it wasn’t made FOR bell execs to watch, it was made for outside business owners and people in the industry–attendees of the conference would have been guys from IBM, Univac, etc.

  3. Thanks for the link, Cory. We’re going to be posting another rare Henson piece tomorrow at the AT&T Tech Channel. We’ve got a great group putting these pieces together!

    1. You’re one of the archivists at AT&T? I’m so happy that you’re digitizing and uploading these videos. «The Hello Machine» is one of my favorite videos on the internets. Would it be possible, however, to upload these at a somewhat higher bitrate? Film grain and digital signal compression is rarely a good match and it’s abundantly clear that YouTube is compressing the video half to death. I asked about it on the YouTube comment field for that video but did not get an answer.

      1. Hi Tore,

        Our team is doing the discovery/digitizing/uploading with the diligent help of the archivists at the AT&T Archives. We’ll take a look into using higher bitrates, but I can’t promise anything – often, our output is limited by the source material. 

        Thanks for your interest – I’m a huge fan of the Hello Machine as well!

        1. Thanks for your reply, Dan! I work as a television technician myself, so I’m abundantly aware that 16mm film source material can be problematic. As I commented on the original YouTube page, if the archives can find the original camera negatives, that would probably get you quite a lot of quality (at the expense of telecine time and such, of course).

          Are you transferring old telecine runs off video tape, or are these modern telecine transfers?

          Remember that if the source material is bad, you’ll “need all the help you can get” in the later points in the chain, especially because of how film noise degrades quality. YouTube will always re-encode the material, to my knowledge. If you are able, I suggest the video be uploaded at the highest bitrate, H.264 possible.

          There is also a world of difference in the quality between different encoders. Both the Adobe Media Encoder (which uses the very good MainConcept library) and MPEG StreamClip (which uses the excellent x264 library) can be good choices. Anything from Apple will more likely than not screw things up in interesting ways.

          1. Hi Tore,

            Unfortunately, we’re not pulling a lot of our source from the original film (although discussions are underway) – a lot of it is digital capture off of tape. We’ve got some great people working on improving our quality, so please keep watching and sending any feedback that you have!

    2. Hi Dan,  Sorry for the ignorance of copyright laws, but is the video in the public domain or currently protected under copyright laws.  I am interested in using some of the audio in a video piece I am working on. Thanks.

  4. After watching that video, I’m reminded how glad I am Bill Gates decided to design his operating system to display a benign blue screen when it failed critically instead of tapping into the “machine will self-destruct” wisdom of the Sixties, as shown here and any outsmarted computer on Star Trek.

    1. I kind of prefer the Blue Screen to the OSX overlay.   With the Blue Screen you know it’s all over, it’s finite; no more GUI, here’s something you don’t understand and never will, just pull the plug and start over. 

      From a traditional usability POV it’s awful – designed for no normal human to see and yet was seen all the time.  But the issue I have with the infinitely (objectively) better OSX overlay is that it leaves a hint that everything might be OK behind the scenes.  It leaves you asking questions like “Is that just a screenshot of the last state, or is there some secret button combination I can press to access that world I now have to abandon?”. I mean you can see it, right there, greyed out behind the message; the desktop that has now died… “Or has it?”.

      Just goes to show that explicit instruction doesn’t always make things easier to deal with.

      Either way, I’m also glad that on the rare occasion I experience a crash it doesn’t cause a small explosion.

      1. Technically, it all still is there. Every character in that text document you haven’t saved is still in memory somewhere. What has failed is the operating system’s ability to let you work with it.. a driver crashed, a bit got flipped somewhere, whatever. 

        There are facilities out there that can dump the contents of memory to a hard drive which can be used to debug what crashed and why. Technically you could recover lost data from this image as well, but it’s a pretty complicated process.

        You might even be able to restore the dump into memory and pick up where you left off (which is how hibernation works) but I don’t know that anyone’s put in the effort to actually do it for a crash dump.

  5. This seminar truly was about a plan AT&T had to rebuild its consumer base to become entirely robotic. Thanks to Mr. Henson sabotage of their prototype, it never came to be.

  6. I really miss how computers used to emit smoke when they were having emotional problems.

    The computer in The Desk Set is one of my favorites.

    3:00 in is where the machine goes berserk.

  7. Did anyone else notice that both the robot’s voice (I’m assuming that it was Henson) but his face and mouth, bear a striking resemblance to a certain frog.

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