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Videotape Revolutionized TV Broadcasting 50 Years Ago

Video technology seems to march forward at a relentless, accelerating pace. Many people still remember when TV was black-and-white. April 14 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most important innovations in television history.

Before Internet video and DVDs, home video was dominated by the VHS format, which dates to the mid-'70s. Other formats - for both professional and home use - came and went during the years, but in a way they are all direct descendants of a product introduced 50 years ago this week -- the first commercially practical videotape recorder, developed by California-based Ampex Corporation.

Until that point, the only way to preserve a television broadcast was something called a kinescope recording, explains Gregory Lukow of the Library of Congress. "Kinescopes are actually filmed records of television programs that were made simply by pointing usually a 16 mm camera at a monitor and making a record of what was shown on the air."

As the head of the library's television collection, Lukow is happy to have the surviving kinescopes, but broadcast historian Pete Hammar says that in the early 1950s the industry was unhappy with the status quo. "People were desperate for a replacement for this process because, first of all they were very expensive, second the quality was very bad. You knew you were watching a recorded program when you were watching a kinescope-delayed show."

Ampex Corporation, which was founded in the 1940s by Russian emigre Alexander Poniatoff, was an industry-leader in professional audio recording, and the company set out to develop a way of recording video onto magnetic tape. But as Pete Hammar points out, video contains a lot more information than audio.

"The original idea of recording television on tape was to take audio tape and run it very quickly, very fast," he said. "The problem is you ended up with a reel of tape about a half-meter in diameter that lasted only four minutes. Not exactly practical, but it was an idea. Ampex in 1956 came up with the only real practical way to do video recording on magnetic tape, which is to spin a head, a set of heads spinning rapidly past a slow-moving tape, rather than fixed heads that were being passed by a fast-moving tape."

That breakthrough remains the basis of all videotape machines today, from network control rooms to the home video players connected to untold millions of TV sets worldwide.

Ampex introduced its new videotape recorder at a trade show in Chicago in April 1956. The first generation Ampex VR-1000 recorders sold for about $50,000 - a tremendous amount of money in the 1950s. But buyers got a lot for their money. The electronics were not miniaturized, and the machine was overbuilt to handle the rigors of a reel of five centimeter wide tape. The whole setup weighed about a ton.

"The very first video tape recorders were very large, about the size of three full-size washing machines set side by side just to handle the videotape itself," said Hammar. "In addition to the large tape transport mechanism, the electronics were handled by two, and later three racks of circuitry, each about two meters tall. The original videotape recorders used glass vacuum tubes, and the tubes or valves ran very hot, so a room full of videotape recorders had to have huge air conditioning mechanisms to keep everything running right and to keep the temperature down."

Even though the new video recorders were extremely expensive, and the tape was costly, Hammar says the machines sold far better than Ampex expected. "When Ampex introduced the video tape recorder, they assumed that television stations and networks around the world would be using this product only as a time-shifting device, a way to delay broadcasts. So they thought at first, at least, that in the first few years of production, they would sell only a handful, perhaps two dozen of these machines in perhaps four years. At the show in Chicago in '56, they took orders for almost 100 machines in four days."

Aside from the cost and size, another limitation of that first generation of video recorders was the difficulty in editing programs. Later machines had electronic editing systems, but at first the tape had to be physically cut. Vic Vissari, a technician at Washington's WRC-TV, recalls the challenge.

"You had to mark the tape physically with a Magic Marker and cut between the video segments on the tape," said Vissari. "And you would put [on] the editing solution, is what it's called. It looked like graphite mixed in alcohol. And you could see the video tracings through a little magnifying glass. And you had to make sure that the tape on the other side didn't have the residue of the editing solution or it would not stick. And a lot of these [splices] came apart on the air."

Videotape came to dominate television, of course, and the technology is so good that you can't tell if you're watching professional-quality videotape, or a live broadcast. But for historians and archivists, like Gregory Lukow of the Library of Congress, the short term quality advantage of video recording has long-term disadvantages.

"Videotape, as with all tape-based magnetic media, is a very, very poor archival preservation media. Unlike film, which if properly processed and stored, can last hundreds of years, videotape we're often counting in just a couple of decades or less."

In addition, Lukow says the constant evolution of different formats presents a different challenge: the tape itself is worthless unless you've got a machine to play it on.

And from an archival standpoint, one of the greatest shortcomings of videotape derives from one of its biggest selling points: because tape can be erased and reused, and in the early days it was very expensive, countless hours of news and entertainment recordings are lost forever because the tape was erased and used to record something else.