"Instant Replay": The Invention of the Video Recorder

I bet you’d guess that the first video tape recorder was invented by the Japanese. Perhaps Sony? A Betamax? Well, you’d be wrong!

In the spring of 1956, Charlie Ginsburg from Ampex Corporation (otherwise known as the father of video) nearly caused a riot at the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters in Chicago. He made some opening remarks, pulled back a curtain to reveal a massive tape recorder (Ampex VRX-1000), and then instantly played back the sound and video of his just-delivered remarks, to the astonishment of the engineers in the audience.

This may seem routine today, but in 1956, film was the medium that was used to capture sound and video. And, as we all know, it takes time to develop film. Ampex, having invented—or, rather, "reinvented"—magnetic audio tape recording (see Part 1), experimented with this new technology with the hope of recording the very high frequency signals needed for television. These early machines were pushed to their limits, running the tape at very high speeds of up to 240 inches per second to achieve the high-frequency response associated with recording video signals. At that speed, recording a one-hour program would require a tape almost 14 miles long!

Ampex came up with a fairly simple solution to this problem. Instead of running the tape rapidly past the heads, why not run the heads rapidly past the tape? The team at Ampex used a rotating head technique to solve the problem—four heads mounted on a rotating head wheel, spinning at high speed, scanned the slowly moving tape. Although the tape speed was only 15 inches per second, the relative head-to-tape speed was 1,600 inches per second. The "Quad" head assembly had four heads wrote the video tracks vertically across the width of a two-inch-wide tape. This allowed programs of one hour to be recorded on a single reel of tape. In 1956, one reel of 3M 179 2" Quad Video Tape cost $307—about $2,000 in 2005 dollars. Oh, how I long for those days !

Today, if you happened to look inside your home VCR, you'd see a "spinning drum" with… guess what? This time you'd be right—rotating video heads. Today the technology is somewhat different to the Ampex Quad VRX-1000 and, of course, smaller, lighter and more compact as well, but Ampex's breakthrough in technology in 1956, i.e. setting the recording heads in motion, remains the cornerstone of video recording that revolutionized both broadcast television and home entertainment.
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