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Friday, September 10, 2010

Television History: Videotape Debuts at NAB, April, 1956

The Ampex Mark IV 2" Quadruplex recorder was unveiled to a select group of CBS network people and affiliates during a private showing at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Chicago in April of 1956.   A thunderous round of applause from convention goers several days later greeted the machine's public debut.  Up until this time, television recording was accomplished with a Kinescope Recorder, which was a modified motion picture camera pointed at a TV monitor.  The filmed images were of nominal quality and not instantaneous because the film had to be developed.

CBS was the first on-air user of the machine, to tape-delay the CBS Evening News with Douglas Edwards broadcast on Nov. 30, 1956.  The historic recording and playback took place inside CBS Television City in Hollywood where "Quad" tape recorders were located in the basement, and where Quad machines are still used to this day to transfer 30 years of video productions to newer digital formats.

RCA, the presumptive leader in television development, was blindsided by the product which was created by a small California company named Ampex.  This tiny company located in Redwood City, California had pioneered magnetic audio recorders in the late 1940's after an Army Captain (Mullins) brought back magnetic recorders captured from the Nazis in WWII.   The first Ampex machines were only capable of monochrome recording (Black and White).  However, at that time, color television was seen only rarely by a handful of set owners who had only a few color shows available to watch.  Full color television was still 10 years away.  RCA purchased some of Ampex's new video recorders and then set about to copy them and improve upon them.

With many improvements, including color, editing and automation for spot playback; the Quad videotape format remained the primary method of video recording and playback for broadcasters up until 1985 when, 1" Helical tape pioneered by Sony (and others) surpassed the format in quality and price.  RCA did come out with a competing machine based on Ampex's design and was the only other company to manufacture Quad VTR's in the west (The Soviets made a knockoff copy of the Ampex Video Recorder).  The original owner of Ampex was Alexander M. Poniatoff, a Russian Emigrant.  The team that devised the Quad VTR included among others, Ray Dolby, who would go on to invent the Dolby Noise Reduction system for audio and video tape recording.   The Mark IV was the result of 3 years of work by the Ampex design team who developed the process of recording using Frequency Modulation with a spinning set of 4 heads to write the enormously high frequency signal on 2" magnetic tape developed by 3M.  RCA called their tape Television Tape due to the trademark restrictions giving Ampex exclusive use of the word Videotape.  Later, videotape became the generically accepted term for video magnetic tape recording after several companies began manufacturing similar systems.
  

May 22, 1958, President Eisenhower became the first president to be recorded in color on videotape.  The president helped dedicate NBC's brand-new Washington, D.C. facilities housing the NBC network and WRC-TV television studios.  A usable Quad tape of this event is preserved at the Eisenhower Library in Kansas, and is the earliest known color recording discovered to date.


*Restored Eisenhower Color Tape playback from Ed Reitan's D-2 Digital Master,
at CBS Television City, July,2006. Photo © 2006 Ted Langdell

**President Dwight D. Eisenhower On RCA Color Videotape-May22-1958-WRC-TV-NBC-Wash-DC