When the eight-track tape and tape player were introduced in 1965, it seemed that a high point had been reached in luxurious modern technology. No longer limited to the random choices of a radio station, teenagers and hip adults could carry tapes of their favorite recording artists with them to the park or beach. Better yet, they could choose which tunes to listen to while driving in their car. It is perhaps one of the most common ironies of popular culture that one decade's most modern triumph can, like the eight-track tape, become the next decade's old news.
The eight-track tape was invented by William Powell Lear (1902–1978), famous for developing the Learjet, a small aircraft prized by corporations and business travelers. Lear developed a process for dividing magnetic recording tape into eight channels, or tracks. This increased the recording time, without damaging the sound quality, and allowed one continuous loop of tape to be wound into a portable cartridge.
Lear was not only a good engineer, he was also a creative marketer. He worked out a deal with the Ford Motor Company. In 1966, a factory-installed eight-track tape player became an option on new Ford cars. Everyone seemed to want the new technology. In 1966, sixty-five thousand eight-track players were sold. By 1967, Chrysler and General Motors (see entry under 1900s—The Way We Lived in volume 1) were also offering their customers eight-track players. Taking music along became a part of American driving culture.
The peak years of the eight-track were 1967 through 1975. Then, improvements in the tape quality of smaller cassettes and decreasing quality in eight-tracks led consumers away from the eight-track tape. By the mid-1980s, eight-track tapes were no longer being manufactured or sold and were quickly on their way to becoming a joke about out-of-date 1970s culture, along with bell-bottomed pants (see entry under 1960s— Fashion in volume 4) and giant Afro hairdos. There are a few exceptions to this attitude, however. Some country music (see entry under 1940s—Music in volume 3) labels still release albums on eight-track to appeal to truckers who still have eight-track players in their trucks. Some new alternative-rock (see entry under 1990s—Music in volume 5) bands release albums of their music on homemade eight-track tapes.
For More Information
Greenberg, Corey. "Melancholy and the Infinite Loop: Eight-Track Tape and Music Enjoyment." Audio (Vol. 81, no. 5, May 1997): pp. 40–42.
Kirkeby, Marc. "Eight-track Tapes Going but Not Quite Gone." RollingStone (October 16, 1980): p. 36.
8-Track Heaven.http://www.8trackheaven.com (accessed March 15, 2002).