The Video Tape Recorder (VTR)

The invention of the first video tape recorder (VTR) was the end product of a four year project conducted by various individuals who each brought their own unique set of skills to the team.  This project’s goal was not, by any means, and easy one to accomplish.  In October 1951, after many debates of how to record television on a magnetic tape, the President of Ampex Corporation, Alexander M. Poniatoff, and his two aides, decided that only a small sum of money should be an appropriate investment amount for the project.  The team discussed three possible methods in which the project’s goal could be obtained: high speed tape movement, time division multiplexing techniques, and the rotating head method.  In the end the rotating head approach was chosen and as a result a start up project was commissioned in December of 1951.[1]

Charles P. Ginsburg, inventor of the VTR, immediately jumped at the opportunity to join Ampex on the project.  The project was given a low priority during its early stages and was suspended in May of 1952.  This three month suspension allowed for Ginsburg to contact one of his part time engineering students Ray M. Dolby.  A few months later, October 1952, the project team was able to demonstrate an image.  Although unrecognizable, this image was enough to capture and maintain the enthusiasm of Ampex management.  Now with the newly found support and excitement of management, the team was able to create an improved second model, now with four rotating heads rather than the earlier three.  Despite this new and “improved” second model, problems still existed.  These dilemmas resulted, again, in the project being put on hold in June of 1953 in favor of projects with higher priorities.[2]

Between the months of June 1953 and August of 1954 there was no agenda set for the continuation of the VTR project.  However during its second suspension, team members continued to work out the problems that still faced them, some authorized and some unauthorized, and made significant progress.  Encouraged by these solutions, the team created a report to be submitted to Ampex management.  The team urgently requested their approval to make modifications to the machine which became known as the Mark I.[3] After receiving the appropriate approval the project was re-launched with a new sense of urgency in September 1954.

Between the years of 1954 and 1956 considerable improvements were made in picture resolution and sound quality.  In February 1956 the team used the Mark IV in its first exhibition with an audience of approximately 30 Ampex people.  At first the team replayed and program to the audience that had been recorder an hour earlier.  After replaying the program the team recorder the audience for two minutes and then showed the recording to the audience.  In the weeks after the demonstration, visitors such as Bill Lodge of CBS, Frank Marx of ABC, and representatives of CBC and BBC all came to see the team’s new invention.[4]

As a result of Lodge’s visits to Ampex, arrangements were made for a surprise showing of the Mark IV at CBS’s Affiliate’s Meeting.  Shortly after, the Mark IV Video Tape Recorder went on the air the first time on November 30, 1956 from CBS in Hollywood, California.  Its first broadcast was a west coast recording of Douglas Edwards and The News.[5] This was the first time in history that any video tape had been broadcasted anywhere in the world.

Like the Mark IV, other early editions of VTR weigh almost half a ton.  In 1963 Sony launched the first compact video recorder, the PV-100, which used a ½ inch of tape.  In 1965 a different model, the CV-2000, was introduced primarily for home use.  During this time, however, videotape recorders were not only expensive luxuries to have, but also inconvenient for casual use.

[1] Charles P. Ginsburg, “The Birth of Video Recording.” LabGuy’s World. (accessed February 8, 2011) pg. 1

[2] Ibid, pgs 1-2

[3] Ibid, pg 2

[4] Ibid, pg 5

[5] Ibid, pgs 6 & 8

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