The Development of the Video Recorder

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The Development of the Video Recorder


Video technology research began almost as soon as television was invented, as it offered distinct advantages over standard film. However, technical problems slowed development until the 1950s when video machines revolutionized television broadcasting. The home market flourished in the 1970s, although there were many setbacks, and the incompatibility of different machines scared off some consumers. In the 1980s the VHS format dominated, and consumers took to video with abandon, using it in an unforeseen variety of ways.


The idea of electronically recording video images is an old one. Indeed, the first patent for the storage of television signals on magnetic tape dates back to January 4, 1927. However, fundamental technical problems limited the quality of video technology. Research blossomed after World War II, and slowly the necessary advances in amplification, noise reduction, and recording materials were made. The most challenging problems were the high recording and playback speeds needed to transfer the large amount of information in a quality image. The higher the definition of the image, the faster it needed to be retrieved from the storage medium. In the early 1950s several companies experimented with video machines that fed magnetic tape through at high speed, over 100mph in some cases, and so went through—quite literally—miles of tape for only a few minutes of recording time.

The problem of how to record and retrieve information at high speed, yet with safety, reliability, and a minimum of tape, was solved by engineers at Ampex in 1956. An engineering team that included Charles Ginsburg (b. 1920) and Ray Dolby (b.1933), later famous for his noise reduction system, came up with the idea of having the tape move slowly while rotating the recording and playback heads at high speeds in the opposite direction. This meant the relative speed between the heads and tape was very high, yet the amount of tape used was small. The Ampex team unveiled their machine at a trade convention at the Chicago Hilton in 1956. Charles Ginsburg recalled the reaction: "There must have been two or three minutes of excruciating silence, and then all hell broke loose. They were hollering and screaming and jumping out of their seats. It was a bombshell."

The reason for the enthusiasm over video was that previously the only way to record a television broadcast was to point a film camera at a television set. Quality was poor, and as the film required processing it was days before a show could be broadcast again. Video offered quality pictures available for broadcast immediately after recording. Early video machines were notoriously difficult to operate, requiring a full-time engineer to get the best out of them, but television companies quickly took to them. Breakdowns occurred often, and the phrase "normal transmission will resume shortly" became a common sight on television screens.

The impact on television production was immediate. In the United States the East Coast evening news was no longer broadcast in the afternoon on the West Coast; it was recorded live onto videotape and played back a few hours later, so that the West Coast, too, watched their evening news in the evening. Delayed broadcasts were also used for sports events, allowing the editing of games to fit within scheduling times. Video technology allowed the instant replay, which helped popularize sports broadcasting. Video changed the style and format of many television programs, which had generally been live-to-air before video. Freed from the live studio format, shows began to include location shots and quick scene changes. Editing videotape was an art form at first, as unlike film there are no visible frames on the tape.


The success of video in the broadcast industry suggested the possibilities of a home consumer market. Sales of audiotape had surprised many pundits, and videotape seemed a natural progression. In 1965 Sony introduced the CV-2000, aimed at the home user, but it did not do well as it was expensive and unreliable. However, a flood of optimism and investment into video occurred in the early 1970s. Forgotten pioneers of the home video market include the CBS EVR, the V-Cord, the TelDec, Cartrivision, and the UMatic. Only the U-Matic, from Sony, sold in numbers, and not to home consumers, but to the education and training sectors where it remained the industry standard for many years.

In 1975 Sony introduced the Betamax, a home system developed from its successful industry models. The unit was small and cheap, relatively speaking, and quickly established itself with enthusiasts, slowly making inroads into the wider consumer market. Sony tried hard to get other manufacturers to use Betamax as a standard format, and several companies signed-up and released their own Beta machines. It was hoped that having only the one format would make everything simple for the consumer, who had been faced with a bewildering range of incompatible machines. However, such simplicity was not to be. In 1976 JVC launched its VHS format, which was similar to the Betamax with one major difference: VHS had a larger cassette size, and played a little slower than Beta tapes, which gave VHS a longer recording time. As the two formats were incompatible the now infamous Beta-VHS format war ensued, with price-cutting and fierce marketing campaigns. While many enthusiasts still make claims for the qualities of one format over the other, consumer tests at the time failed to identify a clear winner in terms of picture, sound, and other playback qualities. For the average consumer it was price and the availability of pre-recorded tapes that were the major factors in choosing a machine. Price-cutting occurred on both sides, and at first both Beta and VHS movie tapes were plentiful. However, as VHS slowly edged ahead in sales it became harder and harder to get companies to make tapes for the Beta format, and so Beta tapes became rarer, helping to reduce sales of the machines. Beta's market share grew ever smaller despite aggressive marketing. While recording time, marketing, and tape availability played important roles in the decline of Beta, many industry analysts put the result down to poor luck, and it is still a hotly debated topic.

Almost forgotten on the periphery of the VHS-Beta wars were a small host of other video formats that made little impact on the marketplace. In Europe the Phillips V-2000 offered a number of advanced recording and playback features, but failed to make a splash. In the 1980s most manufacturers abandoned their own formats and produced VHS machines. In 1988 Sony also capitulated and started producing VHS format recorders, yet Beta machines are still popular in some countries, and in the television electronic news-gathering market.

The introduction of home video recorders sparked a wave of surprise and panic in the motion picture and television industry. In the midseventies Disney and Universal Studios took Sony to court in the United States, arguing that taping films and programs off-air constituted copyright infringement. In 1979 Sony won the case, and the video industry breathed a sigh of relief. However, the case was appealed, and in 1981 the verdict was overturned. For a while it seemed possible that video-taping would be declared illegal. Finally, in 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that taping for private, non-commercial use was legal. In the United Kingdom the copyright laws were amended as late as 1988 to allow taping, but required tapes to be erased after 28 days. However, many video laws were only academic, as common public practice was so widespread and ingrained as to make enforcement impractical.

Censorship was also challenged by the videotape revolution, with laws often lagging years behind industry developments. The ratings of motion pictures did not apply to videotapes, creating new adult markets, as well as exposing children to action and violence previously kept from television screens. Many countries imposed unenforceable censorship laws, and often it was the public who dictated the practical limits of censorship through their common rental, taping, and buying practices. Video piracy and theft troubled the industry, with an estimated 10% of all tapes sold worldwide being pirated copies. The high price and small size of video recorders made them the target of choice for thieves, creating a thriving black market.

Surprisingly many early video pundits could not see the value of recording television programs. It was expected that pre-recorded material would be the major draw for consumers, and many machines were marketed without stressing their recording capabilities. However, it was the freedom from the strict scheduling of network television that made the biggest impact on consumers. The ability to record daytime programs while at work increased the popularity of many soap operas. Going out in the evenings no longer meant missing a favorite show, and the ability to rent movies if there was "nothing on" made owning video recorders attractive to many consumers.

The videotape rental boom caught the entertainment industry napping. Manufacturers had expected to sell their pre-recorded videotapes to the home buyer. However, the high price of tapes produced low demand. The solution was to rent the tapes for overnight viewing, which keep costs down and created a new demand. While video-makers were unhappy about rental, which sometimes included the player as well as the tape, consumers took to the idea wholeheartedly. Made-for-video tapes began to appear, and unexpectedly it was "Jane Fonda's Work-Out Tape" that topped early sales figures, offering a cheap gym-style workout in the home, and spawning a host of imitators. Tape rental broadened the market for foreign and niche films, and offered failed or forgotten movies a second chance in the marketplace.

Videotape provided freedom from "official" channels, as was shown in the United Kingdom in February 1985 when a controversial documentary on MI5 (a British intelligence agency) was banned from transmission. At the same time the American soap opera Dallas was also taken off the air in a battle over transmission rights. Within days of these events the documentary and the next three episodes of Dallas were available all over the U.K. in videotape form.

Video began to be used in unexpected ways almost from its inception. The rise of video-dating agencies, where the prospective "dates" could see and hear each other before meeting face to face, bypassed the fears and stigma attached to newspaper personal ads. Video artists used the new medium for strange special effects in a new wave of art movies. The alternative press took to video to bypass the mainstream version of public events, and some alternative documentaries have enjoyed popular and, perhaps ironically, commercial success. Globally videotape allowed the fast interchange of information, and broadened the television coverage of world events.


Further Reading


Alvarado, Manuel, ed. Video World-Wide: An InternationalStudy. London, Paris: John Libbey & Company Ltd, 1988.

White, Gordon. Video Techniques. London: Butterworth & Co, 1982.

Wyver, John. The Moving Image: An international History ofFilm, Television and Video. London: Blackwell Publishing, 1989.


The Virtual Museum of Home Video Technology.

Videodiscovery. "DVD Frequently Asked Questions (and Answers)."


The pundits who predicted the success of video-discs are finally being proved right with the new generation of DVD (Digital Video Disc, sometimes called the Digital Versatile Disc) players. DVDs use similar technology to compact discs but with tighter spirals, image compression, and a two-layered system in which the laser reader can refocus itself to read either the outer or inner layer. DVD discs can hold many times the information of CDs and are so thin that they can be made double-sided. An entire motion picture can be placed on a single DVD, and the quality of sound and video is higher than tape-based systems, with a longer life span. DVDs are also used in computers, and some foresee DVD allowing the full integration of the personal entertainment system—TV, video, and computer. With rewritable DVD drives it should be possible to record television programs and transfer them to a computer, all at high definition. However, as with the introduction of other video technologies, there are problems with compatibility and copyright. Many DVD formats exist (from different companies), and they are not transferable from one to another. Even using the same brand players does not guarantee compatibility between video players and computers. Movie studios, foreseeing trouble with pirating, have included format zones across the world to limit interchange between countries, and imposed several copy protection measures on the DVD format. Unfortunately, some of the protection methods have been known to cause playback problems.

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The Development of the Video Recorder

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The Development of the Video Recorder