The Inventor of Videotape Recorders Didn’t Live to See Blockbuster’s Fall

As far as Charles Ginsberg was concerned, the video tape was “one of the most significant technological advances” since the television


Videotapes built the Blockbuster empire. The network of rental stores has now dwindled to 303 holdout locations—which, the company announced yesterday, will close by the beginning of next year. But movie lovers of a certain age may fondly remember Saturday nights roving the aisles of the local Blockbuster in search of that perfect drama or horror flick to take home for three days (or two if it was a new release), all beckoning from the sleeve of a brightly illustrated VHS cover. The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal meditates on those clunky, but beloved, objects: 

There were even dedicated machines for rewinding tapes! And there were stickers on the tapes that read, “Be kind, please rewind.” With a smiley face. Even the process of bringing the movie back and handing it over, or of missing closing time and having to go to that metal bin stationed outside, sticking it through the slot and hearing it clatter in the digestive system of the video rental system. 

Blockbuster can thank Charles Ginsberg, inventor of the videotape recorder, for its brief but profitable rise, all based upon a simple business model of renting video tapes. Ginsberg, an researcher at Ampex Corporation, invented the videotape recorder in 1951. The contraption worked by taking live images from cameras and converting them into electrical impulses stored on magnetic tape. Ampex sold the first video tape recorder for $50,000 in 1956. By 1971, Sony began marketing the first at-home VCRs. After Ginsberg’s invention broke, nothing was ever the same for the entertainment industry. MIT reports

Tape recording of television signals dates to just after World War II, when audio tape recorders were used to record 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 high-frequency response.

Ginsburg and his team came up with a design for a new machine that could run the tape at a much slower rate because the recording heads rotated at high speed, allowing the necessary high-frequency response.

With the advent of the VTR, recorded programs that could be edited replaced most live broadcasts. CBS was the first network to employ VTR technology, starting in 1956. With that, today’s multimillion dollar video business was born.

By “today,” MIT means 2002, when that article was written and published. The video tape business, of course, is no longer a multimillion dollar venture. Today, that visceral Blockbuster video experience has largely been replaced by digital platforms like Netflix. Perhaps luckily for Ginsberg, he passed away at the height of video tape’s success, in 1992. At that time, more than 1,000 Blockbusters dotted the country. As far as he was concerned, the video tape was here to stay, and he could rest easy knowing that he had  created “one of the most significant technological advances to affect broadcasting and program production since the beginning of television itself,” according to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

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