The Birth of Videotape Recording

The last day of November marked the 60th anniversary of a history making broadcasting event that inaugurated a new era in the way we participate in communication, education, and entertainment.

Thanks to the magic of the newly developed video tape recording technology, the popular program Douglas Edwards With the News aired on the CBS television network on November 30, 1956, at 6:00 PM local time, for audiences in both the Eastern and Pacific time zones of the country. While it was being produced live, starting at 6:00 pm for viewers on the East Coast, the show was recorded on magnetic tape and then played back from the network’s Hollywood studios at the six o’clock hour for viewers in the Pacific time zone.

The most remarkable aspect of the time-delayed broadcasts was the excellent quality of the images and sound. Perhaps a few of us who recall the early days of television, can remember watching programs that had been recorded and rebroadcast, using a technique called the Kinescope. The method brought us fuzzy pictures interrupted by black lines crawling up our TV screens. And we noticed the sound track frequently failed to synchronize with the picture.

The CBS News broadcast was the first demonstration for a wide audience of the capability of magnetic tape to provide recorded moving images suitable for quality TV viewing, pictures on par with the sound clarity associated with audiotape.

Invented by the Ampex Corporation of Redwood City, CA, this videotape capability was first publicly demonstrated the previous spring to executives and engineers from CBS-affiliated television stations throughout the country. Their exciting event took place in a conference room at the Chicago Hilton Hotel on a Saturday afternoon in April, prior to the opening of the 34th annual NARTVB (National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters) Convention. While Bill Lodge, CBS engineering vice president,  welcomed colleagues to the convention, audience members saw the TV camera focused on the speaker and they noticed that the images and sound picked up by the camera appeared, via closed circuit television, on monitors placed around the room. Nothing unusual about that. But after Lodge concluded his talk and while he stood silently at the podium, the monitors came alive again, showing exactly what the audience had just finished watching. As each observer realized what he’d seen, the room erupted in pandemonium.

The impact of this technical achievement was soon realized not just in the television broadcast industry, but also in education and training, and with many other new uses that were never imagined before people actually had the ability to record moving pictures and sound for immediate playback. The optical technology of film had played much of that role before electronic video. But once videotape technology became available the idea of shooting a scene on film was often considered cumbersome, expensive and an inexact method, for a number of applications. With the electronic process, the results were immediately available for viewing—no delays for film processing needed—and if users were not satisfied with their results, they could easily erase the tape and reshoot whatever scenes they wanted to record. Electronic editing soon followed.

Most of today’s television viewers would regard this as old, practically ancient technology. But at the time it was as significant as the most remarkable technical advances we celebrate today.

And it did not take long for this valuable commercial tool to find its way into the consumer market in the simpler and less expensive machines that followed for home use.


How electronic video recording was created

Just as intriguing as the many possibilities to which this new technology could be applied, is the story of how videotape recording was invented. And it’s probably no coincidence that the small company that pioneered this technology was located in the heart of what now is known as Silicon Valley. Ampex was part of the rootstock in the Northern California environment that continues to produce some of the most far reaching technological advances, even today. The Ampex founder, Alexander M. Poniatoff (the company name contains his initials and “EX” standing for excellence) was a brilliant engineer who fled Russia during the Bolshevik revolution, eventually made his way to the U.S. and started Ampex on the San Francisco peninsula in 1944. It was his vision and determination that enabled his small company, years later, to bring the enormous benefits of videotape recording to the millions of people throughout the world who put it to work in so many business, personal, education, entertainment and other applications.

The newer technologies using digital tools now have all but taken over the role performed by videotape recording. But today’s capabilities owe their existence to the enormous market demand and the technical principals created by videotape recording. We can credit Poniatoff for bringing about this revolutionary capability, just as we thank Steve Jobs for his inspiration that brought us personal computers, tablets and smart phones, and we’re grateful that the partnership of Erick Schmidt and Sergie Brin placed powerful tools in our hands so we can search the world’s databases to find exactly the information and the products we seek.


The race to develop the videotape recording capability

By the early 1950s, it became obvious in the television industry that the method of capturing and playing back audio information, applied to radio transcription, office dictation machines, entertainment and other uses, was a capability much needed for video display. If and when such a technology became available, it would fundamentally change not only the television broadcast industry but also many other businesses, along with education, art and a myriad of other human activities. The person or people who figured out how to do that would be appreciated, applauded and richly rewarded.

It might seem a simple matter to encode images into an electronic form using a TV camera, then place the picture information onto magnetic tape, run that tape on a machine that could–whenever the user wanted–deliver the electronic impulses to a television screen where they would be processed back into the original images. That’s exactly what the magic of audio recording and playback did with music, speeches, radio programming and other sounds that people wanted to capture once and hear again as often as they wanted. But using that approach with moving images is a far more complex challenge. Rather than moving the tape at audio recording and playback speeds, such as 15-inches-per-second, video capture and reproduction equipment needed to manage tape moving at about 80 miles an hour, in order to accommodate all of the information needed to make clear pictures. Speeding up the tape was the most widely-accepted solution, but that approach came with significant problems.

The huge and wealthy RCA Corporation was the favorite in the race to produce the first practical and commercially available means of using magnetic tape for television broadcasts. The company was a leading manufacturer of consumer entertainment products including its popular line of RCA brand television receivers. And RCA had a particular interest in bringing new technology to the industry because it owned the NBC television network. The company’s effort to invent video recording formally began in September 1951, when Gen. David Sarnoff, a WWII hero and RCA president, announced he wanted his engineers to develop completely new technologies, including a practical method of recording television programming on magnetic tape for replay. An RCA team of seasoned, highly regarded engineers was assigned to the challenge of figuring out how to successfully move tape at the speeds necessary to electronically manage TV images; and with a budget of several hundred thousands dollars. RCA management felt the firm’s bright and accomplished technical experts would earn the credit for creating the capability.

One of the team’s problems was how to accurately handle tape at the speeds necessary to produce pictures. If transport in playback didn’t exactly match the tape’s trip during recording, the result would be video static. But the visual discomfort would last only about 4 minutes. That’s all the programming you could get from a 14-inch reel of tape moving past the playback heads at the required velocity.

Knowing there were other companies working to be the first to create a viable video recording machine, RCA executives made sure to publicize even their smallest gains. Reporters speculated the company’s public boasting was calculated to discourage any competition that was pursuing the challenge. A well-publicized demonstration involved a trial broadcast in early November 1953, from the Colonial Theatre in New York City to the NBC Studios in Burbank, California. The experiment was received with polite approval by the press. The RCA equipment was nowhere near able to produce broadcast-quality programming, but since the capability did not actually exist, reporters were happy to applaud anything that looked like progress toward the desired end. Besides, many of the media outlets covering the story counted on substantial advertising revenues from RCA and its subsidiaries, and would have been reluctant to convey a critical impression of the company’s attempts to show off its work.

In fact, the half dozen or so other companies that either were considering or actively beginning research into a way they could create a viable videotape recording solution, were not intimidated by RCA’s PR campaign And it was not just American companies in the race. BBC engineers worked on a system they called VERA (Vision Electronic Recording Apparatus). They also were trying to figure out how to accurately move the media past the recording and playback heads at incredible speed, and their innovation was the idea of using a flexible metal band, thinner than tape, to carry the video information. If their steel media occupied less space than tape, they could store more program material on a reel. That plan, however, was suddenly abandoned after a near catastrophe.


Enter Bing Crosby’s Company

Besides RCA, another American company, BCE (Bing Crosby Enterprises), was a contender in the competition to create the needed video equipment. Bing Crosby had become interested in the virtues of tape recording in the mid-Forties when the he was host of a weekly radio show, the Philco Radio Hour. The singer was nearly desperate to end the grueling routine of performing each weekly program for audiences in the Eastern time zone and a few hours later, having to do it all over again for listeners on the West Coast. He’d discovered Ampex, which had been producing antenna motors for the Air Force, and after the war, was looking for a product it could manufacture and sell to remain in business. That product would become America’s first line of audio tape recorders.

Crosby had experienced the benefits of tape recording as a result of his roles as customer, investor and best known cheerleader of Ampex.  He knew what was at stake in the race to invent a video recorder and he understood the power his company could wield in the industry by bringing to market the more complex, video version of the technology he’d purchased from Ampex. Besides, he knew just the brilliant engineer to head up BCE’s efforts. He’d gotten to know John Mullin, who had been a consultant with Ampex, and asked Mullin to join BCE as its chief engineer.

Mullin’s approach, was to use an Ampex 200 audio recorder, break images down into several separate channels of information, record that data on the tape, and then, during playback, reassemble the electrical impulses into the patterns that would yield the original images. The idea was to make use of sophisticated electronics to manage and synchronize the data rather than struggling with the mechanical issues involved with moving the tape perfectly at high speed.

Mullin and his chief assistant, Wayne Johnson, provided demonstrations for interested media and key people from RCA, Ampex and other companies to witness its progress. The BCE results were promising but there still were problems with picture quality and image stability. Playing a movie musical meant the dancing around was done not just by the actors, but by the picture itself.


The Ampex solution

While aware of what other companies were doing and what problems they encountered, Poniatoff held onto the dream that his company would create practical video recording for the industry. Although Ampex didn’t have the money, engineering staff or marketing muscle of RCA, the company had pioneered the audio recording revolution and had built a substantial business providing its equipment to several segments of the entertainment industry including radio broadcasters and recording studios. Motion picture companies also came to rely on Ampex to help them improve the audio portion of their films to match the refinements they were developing in the visual quality of their product.

In 1951 Poniatoff hired a young radio engineer, Charles Ginsburg, whose assignment was to investigate the idea of creating a viable videotape recorder. Poniatoff regarded Ginsburg as a very bright young engineer with an open mind as to how to solve technical problems. He had the ability, in Poniatoff’s opinion (and in today’s language), to “think outside the box.” But the Ampex founder didn’t have the full support of the firm’s executives, in what had become a public company, with a board of directors as concerned about meeting profit goals as conquering technical challenges. Ginsburg’s work on the videotape recording idea was not always funded, and he was taken off the videotape project on more than one occasion so his knowledge and ideas could be applied to other Ampex products. During working hours he was part of the team that produced data recording equipment for the U.S. Military, and on his own time, what he called his “bootleg time,” Ginsburg worked to understand and overcome the problems preventing his company from introducing the first commercially available method of doing with television pictures what it had done with sound. Months after joining the company Ginsburg was introduced to a clever 19-year-old engineering student whom Poniatoff had been engaging, part time, to run film projection equipment and engage in other odd jobs for the company. Ginsburg took an immediate liking to the young man and agreed to take him on a few hours per week as an assistant in his work on the video recording effort. It was the first opportunity for the youngster, Ray Dolby, to work in the field of magnetic recording. That job would eventually lead him to found Dolby Labs, a company long at the forefront in development of noise reduction as well as other important capabilities that advanced the use of sound recording in a variety of commercial and personal applications.

Some Ampex directors believed their company had little chance of beating RCA in the effort to produce a commercially viable video recording system. But Poniatoff encouraged Ginsburg to continue his work. And through their persistence, Poniatoff and Ginsburg sometimes persuaded the company’s leadership to direct some money and resources to the effort.

Some Ampex executives felt the best strategy was to cheer for BCE, with which Ampex continued to have a good relationship, to successfully invent video recording. If Bing Crosby’s company produced the first workable solution, Ampex would most certainly be selected to build the new machines.

But Ginsburg was committed to having a team able to achieve the objective and receive the honors for creating the world’s first workable system for television recording. Ginsburg not only was the kind of manager who looks for fresh ideas, he also attracted a few brilliant young engineers and other specialists who responded to his leadership and his constant encouragement to find new ways of solving old problems. The fresh idea the group pursued was a tape drive system Marvin Camras an Armour Institute engineer had designed and for which he submitted a patent application  in 1951. Ampex paid him $15,000 from Poniatoff’s personal funds, for the rights to license the design for its own products. Camras had advanced a little-known method by which the tape and heads could quickly exchange the large amount of data needed for good video quality. His design used not one, but multiple heads, carefully positioned on a rotating drum rather than a stationary fixture, and then caused the drum to spin in a direction opposite the way the tape is moving. It was a method that combined both mechanical and electrical solutions working together in a way that could reach the effective speed necessary for the desired result, without the problems of racing the tape past the heads and hoping for the best. After many hours and months of experiments, the Ampex team developed a way to apply the Camras principle using a rapidly rotating headwheel mounted with four sets of separate recording and playback heads.

The team of mostly young engineers and mechanical specialists was assembled in the months following the company’s latest approval for Ginsburg to pursue the video recording project.

Fred Pfost, who joined Ampex before the ink was dry on his engineering degree from U.C. Berkeley in 1952, was grabbed from the company’s instrumentation division months later, and proved to be a wiz at imagining how the complex heads should be designed and built. Among his many contributions that led to the all-important record and playback heads, was his discovery after much trial and error, of alfenol, a material for building the heads that enabled them to continue working for many hours without wearing down and becoming ineffective. At Pfost’s side was Shelby Henderson, an Ampex employee who had an extraordinary talent for converting ideas into working models.

A senior member of the group, Charles Anderson, just 30, had experience in the new field of FM radio broadcasting and he’d learned a few tricks about processing sound electronics in the FM band, for a much better listening experience than the methods associated with AM radio. The team was accustomed to working in the AM band, and in 1955, Anderson built the FM circuitry for their product so he could persuade fellow engineers of the greater efficiencies gained in the higher frequencies. Anderson’s design was adopted and improved on by Ray Dolby who’d recently rejoined the company after a two-year absence. Another employee added to the team was Alex Maxey, who had no formal engineering training, but a brilliant mind with an uncanny ability to conceive of solutions to the problems they encountered.

Ironically, RCA engineers also had considered the idea of applying FM signal processing to the company’s machine, but decided against trying that approach.

The Ampex team provided periodic progress reports and demonstrations to company executives so they could assess the progress and see how Ampex money was being spent.

Although not kept a secret from Ampex employees, most people probably had no idea about the separate, “off campus” Ampex facility (think: “skunkworks”) where a handful of youthful and knowledgeable workers (today we’d call them “young techies”) were endeavoring to build a successful video recording machine for television.

One of the team’s earliest demonstrations, in November 1952 for Poniatoff and some of the company’s top engineers, was meant to show that the group had gotten to the point of displaying images on TV from the machine they were developing. They had taped part of an old western movie for the occasion. While the recording was playing, Poniatoff studied the monitor and famously asked: “Wonderful! Is that the horse or the cowboy?”

As the Ampex engineers continued to make incremental advancements in their work, the company’s rumor machine began to buzz with talk of a special project being conducted by a few fellow employees. More people managed to gain access for each successive showing.

The demonstration conducted February 1956 brought observers to their feet with cheers and applause while execs in attendance agreed that the Ampex solution for videotape recording was nearly ready for “prime time.”

The logical place to introduce their invention to the industry was the next annual National Association of Television and Radio Broadcasters convention. It would be held the second week in April at Chicago’s Downtown Hilton Hotel, with an agenda including discussions about the industry’s economic and legal issues, as well as an opportunity for manufacturers and their customers to talk technology and conduct business. Most network and station executives would be in attendance and a number of large media outlets, print and well as broadcast, would be sure to have reporters there—a great opportunity for millions of people in the U.S. and abroad to learn about the Ampex invention.

But there was still much work to be done, and only a few weeks till the convention. While team members were pleased with their latest demonstration of clear pictures and steady image framing, several adjustments to both electrical and mechanical components were needed. If Ampex was going to take credit for inventing video recording, they had to improve the machine and to work out all its bugs. For one thing, it would be nice to have a suitable housing for the system rather than unveil the invention by asking people to peer at a crude wood box that was being used to hide the workbench covered with mechanical assemblies, vacuum tubes and nests of wiring. Charlie Anderson had a chance to use his carpentry skills, building a presentable-looking cabinet for what they were calling the Mark I. And the team continued to have concerns about the magnetic tape provided by 3M under an agreement that included the tape company’s pledge of confidentiality. Its chemists continued to experiment with various formulations, working to meet the performance specs requested by their contacts at Ampex. Ginsburg, among others felt the tape was not performing as they expected.

Working the hardest and longest was the guy responsible for performance of the recording and replay head assemblies. In the weeks before the show, Pfost spent most nights at the lab, usually dragging himself home early in the morning so he could shower, have something to eat and then return to work.

On Friday April 13, Ginsburg, Pfost, Anderson, and Alex Maxey, completed assembling the machine–its parts having arrived in Chicago with them earlier in the week. They provided a trial run for the benefit of the few CBS representatives who knew about the equipment and the planned introduction. The network men were not pleased with what they saw. Picture quality was not what they’d expected. The fellows from Redwood City explained that any lingering problems should be resolved once they loaded the system with an improved version of the tape they were expecting from 3M.

As the network guys grumbled, the men from Ampex were close to panic. What if the machine did not live up to the claims they planned to make?

And as near to deadline as possible, hours before unveiling what they now called the Mark IV, a representative from the Minnesota based tape company flew into Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on a mission to meet and pass to Pfost an important package: a reel of tape fresh from 3M labs, incorporating its most recent attempts to deliver the specs that would work best with the equipment.

At the conclusion of Saturday’s successful demonstration, with the network audience applauding a replay that was as clear as the live performance they’d just witnessed, a final dramatic element was the opening of a curtain behind CBS’s Lodge to reveal four happy, very relieved members of the Ampex videotape recording team. They were rushed by audience members congratulating them, showering them with praise and with questions about how they’d achieved what had just taken place.

In the days that followed, after the machine had been carefully disassembled once again, then put back together in a room on the seventh floor of the hotel, Ginsburg and the team members who had come to Chicago conducted demonstrations for many if not most of the hundreds of broadcast professionals who’d come to the show. The curious broadcasting professionals had to wait for their personal showings, standing in a line that usually stretched all the way down the hall to the elevator. The Ampex Mark IV–later referred to as the “quadraplex machine” because of its four heads–was clearly the main attraction at the convention that year. During the 5-day duration of the show, Ampex salesmen wrote nearly 50 contracts for delivery of the machine to commercial and educational broadcasters from many parts of the U.S. and abroad. When they ran out of sales contract forms, company president George Long and other Ampex executives in attendance wrote price and expected delivery dates for signature by eager customers who had just seen the machine in action and had to have one—a few bought more than one—as soon as possible. Meanwhile, very disappointed representatives at the show from RCA, BCE and other companies still working on the problem called their offices to announce it was time to shut down their work to create a videotape recorder. It had already been done.

Throughout much of the week, Ginsburg was mobbed by television executives and members of the media. He would say, later: “The work that led to development of the first practical videotape recorder did not flow from a …” Charles Ginsburg said.

It was a gamble for Ampex to invest in a small team of young engineers and technicians, using a clever but unproven way to capture television pictures on magnetic tape for playback. In a competition against larger, more experienced and better-funded companies to introduce the capability to the world of television, the little company from California had won. The gamble paid off with what the New York Times reported was a total of $3.8 million in sales made in less than a week. And the company’s value, based on its stock prices traded over the counter, went up by about a third.

And CBS News was taking a chance November 30, by relying on the new technology, never used in a real application, to air its signature program in prime time. Company executives were relieved that it worked perfectly, that they didn’t have to broadcast the show via the kinescope they’d filmed as a precaution. And most of the millions of people, watching that night didn’t understand they were witness to an engineering miracle provided by a powerful new technology: a technology that resulted in Ampex and CBS being honored with 1957 Emmy Awards for invention and application of the important new technology; a technology, that in a few years, would completely transform methods of communication, education and entertainment through much of the world.

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