Happy 50th Birthday to Videotape

I missed this story last week: Friday was the 50th anniversary of the debut of modern videotape. While there were many attempts at recording television to magnetic tape or record platters going back more than 20 years prior, April 14, 1956 was the first public demonstration of a videotape recorder using a rotating drum head.

The rotary drum head is the technology still used in VHS VCRs and DV camcorders because it allows the recorder to put signals more densely on the tape than a linear head, such as used in casssette recorders.

It’s actually amazing to me that a reliable rotary drum head can be squeezed into tiny palm-sized camcorders, when in the 1950s it required a machine that couldn’t fit through a doorway. It’s a complex technology that can be pretty fragile given all the precision moving parts. It’s also one that is slowly being replaced by hard drives and solid-state memory now that our signals are mostly digital.

Yet, the move to video tape made possible home video playback, and home video production. Videotape also democratized the production of moving images, since it ended up being cheaper and faster (no processing) than film — even 8mm. Video recording was also the gateway to digital photography and digital video. The roots are solid and deep.

For more videotape nostalgia, check out Labguy’s virtual museum of extinct videotape machines. I still keep a pile of boatanchor Sony Umatic VCRs at work so we can play programs produced at the university going back to the late 1970s.







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