Retrotechtacular: Home Video Recording

The news has been full of reports that the last company manufacturing consumer VCRs will cease making them this year. I think most of us are surprised that the event is only happening now. After all, these days, video recording is likely to be on a hard drive, a USB stick, or on a server somewhere. Even recording to DVDs seems a bit quaint these days.

VCR-03Back before there were web sites, people had to get information from magazines like Popular Electronics, Radio Electronics, and a few others. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was common to see these magazines predict that this would be the year of the home video recording system. For example, in 1971, [Lou Garner] wrote: “…they [Sony] hope will put home videotape playing in the same living room as conventional high-fidelity sound systems.” You should know that the video cassette he was talking about was 8 inches wide by 5 inches deep (a big larger than a VHS tape) and contained 3/4 inch magnetic tape (VHS used 1/2 inch tape). The 32-pound player had a retail price of about $350 (about $2,000 in today’s dollars; remember gas was $0.36 a gallon and eggs were $0.53 a dozen). It would be several years before VHS and Betamax would duke it out for home supremacy.

Technical Challenges

You might wonder why it took so long. Audio recording on tape had been a thing for a number of years, mostly using reel-to-reel tape. Audio isn’t as demanding as video (especially video combined with audio). An audio recorder uses a magnetic head that stays still and a tape that moves across the head. The tape speed is slow enough that the tape doesn’t have to have any magic properties to keep from breaking under the strain.

VHS_head_drum_1Using a single head for video was obvious, but had a problem. Because of the increased bandwidth (6 MHz vs 20 kHz or so), the tape had to travel fast. So fast that it was prone to break and a few minutes of video would require a lot of tape. The trick was to not use a stationary head. Video heads reside on a drum that spins. Some systems record vertically on the tape (transverse) while others record in long diagonal stripes (helical).

There are two or more heads spaced around the drum. The combination of the tape moving one way and the head moving the other gives a faster effective speed and increases the bandwidth. Now tape could move at a reasonably leisurely 15 inches per second. It might take a convoluted path (see below) but at lower speeds, the tape could be thinner which meant more tape, longer run times per foot of tape, and the tape was less expensive to produce.


How Did we Get Here?

The BBC experimented with single head recording on steel tapes as early as 1952. The tape had to travel at around 200 inches per second. That’s over 11 miles per hour–not much for a car, but pretty fast for tape.

Ampex_VR_1000-BThe first practical videotape recorder was from Ampex in 1956 (the VRX-1000; see right). With a price tag of about $50,000 there were not many users and probably no consumer users of this device. By 1963, though, Philips introduced the EL3400 and Sony came out with a reel-to-reel recorder (the PV-100) that at least purported to be for the non-broadcast market. It was expensive, though, so in 1965 they rolled out the inexpensive CV-2000 that used a cassette instead of tape reels. Keep in mind that inexpensive meant $1,000 (which would have paid about a third down on a new car at the time). Other companies competed which further drove prices down.

By 1970, the Sony U-Matic cassette appeared. These could record 90 minutes on a cassette, but the recorders were still priced outside the reach of most consumers (although it was very successful in business markets). In 1972, another cassette appeared called Cartrivision (or SVC in Europe). By 1974, that format was dead. Between 1975 and 1977, both Betamax (from Sony) and VHS (from JVC) formats appeared and this led to the infamous format war in the 1980s.

Prior to that, there were many attempts at repackaging surplus commercial video tape recorders for hobbyists as well as a few devices that showed up as kits, but none were very successful. The real assault on the living room was between VHS and Betamax.

Format Wars

Betavhs2With affordable and practical machines, the real war turned into VHS (bottom) vs Betamax (top). Betamax had better technical specifications and picture quality. Betamax lost market share, though. There are probably several reasons, but two stand out: first, the VHS format could hold two hours on a tape which was important for people wanting to rent movies. Sony was slow to introduce a longer Betamax format (the original could hold one hour for NTSC recordings). VHS gear was also cheaper. A possible third reason–although not everyone agrees–was that VHS was willing to allow mass production of pornography, while Sony’s Betamax did not.

By 1988, even Sony started selling VHS machines. Apparently, the Betamax machines had enough foothold in some parts of South America and Japan, that production continued until 2002. Now with VHS gone, too, there’s not much left to talk about with consumer video tape.

Other Uses

When videotape was common, there were other uses for it besides just recording video. There were several schemes for backup up computers using video signals, including ArVid which was popular in the USSR and DVT VCR to back up the Atari ST. These days, old videotape winds up in craft projects including a dress worn by [Kesha] to the 2010 American Music Awards. If you have an old machine, you might consider building a VHS toaster. If you are more science-minded, you could make a centrifuge.

RIP Videotape

There was a time when it was hard to imagine videotape going away (just ask Blockbuster). But it did. Even DVD and BluRay sales are dropping as everything goes to digital distribution. It is a common conceit that what we use will last forever, but it is rarely true. Try to think of what you use today that was around in any form one hundred years ago. Or five hundred. It makes you wonder what common commodities we take for granted today that will be obsolete tomorrow.

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