A BRIEF HISTORY OF VIDEO TAPE
AND IT'S RELATION TO THE VCR

Back in the dark ages of 1975 when Sony introduced the first successful consumer VCRs (first the LV-1901 console and shortly after the SL-7200) video tape was very different from what is available today. So much so that one can reason that it was the characteristics of the tape at the time that sealed the fate of the Beta format. When Sony engineers were given the task by Akio Morita* to produce a video machine that could record an hours worth of recording on a tape small enough to fit into your pocket they looked at all of the various formats currently floating around, played around with different ideas (even VHS) and decided that a miniature version of a format they already had in production could be made to fill the bill. The three quarter inch U-matic format developed for the broadcast industry was downsized, physically and electronically altered and a new cassette was designed for it. (More on this in a moment.) It ended up being slightly bigger than a paperback book and really didn't fit that well in your pocket, but they basically felt they had their vision. In 1975 Sony sold over 100,000 of the new "Beta" VCRs. A very respectable quantity considering it was new, weighed a ton and cost more than many televisions of the time. Yes, they were on a roll, they were showing the world once again that they were the electronic leaders and the future looked good.

"The Great Time Machine" came out the next year and Beta's hope to be the dominate format in home video recording was soon to be vanquished. It really couldn't of ended up any other of way when you consider that ultimately all the public really cared about was the most recording time for the least money and what format their neighbors had. The things Sony was pushing, tape handling characteristics, picture quality and great special features didn't matter a flip to most consumers. Sony was mystified, everything they stood for didn't cut it this time. They were the symbol of excellence and now they had something superior and no matter what they did to try and save it, it was failing. They were very innovative, true to form for Sony, but VHS sales continued to rise and the Beta's market share dwindled to nothing. In retrospect Sony made lots of errors, from not being able to meet the demand for their video tapes early on, licensing problems, the Beta I fiasco (the Beta II only machine), insisting on using mini phone jacks for audio when the rest of the world used phono plugs, the confusing tape length numbering; the list goes on. It really stands as a testimonial to Sony's strength that they maintained there dignity and market image through all of it. A lesser company could of came out of it all as a broken down joke, but Sony didn't. I only wished they had continued on, recognizing that VHS was for the masses, and not treated Beta in the later years like the crazy aunt tied up in the basement.

I made the decision early on that Beta was better. Picture quality was paramount to me. I was mystified when I saw people looking at videos played back on VHS machines that looked like they were recorded through a screen door or in a fish tank. (Remember this was early in the game and things have improved greatly since those days.) Oh yes, I had (have) a VHS machine so I could make dubs for my friends and many times I fought the urge to throw it in the trash. It was especially irritating trying to find a location on a tape and having to wait for the tape to wind in and wind out. Betas low friction tape path allowed for its tape to stay in the machine during rewind and fast forward, making it a snap to find a particular section. (Don't rewind your tapes in your machine, save wear and tear, buy a winder).

So how does all this misery lead back to the structure of video tape. Well read on, you've went this far. When Sony engineers looked at the various formats back in 1975 (Sanyo V-Cord, Quazar, Cartrivison, VHS and others) they felt they could do better. The designs were too complicated, distorted the tape while playing, not suitable to the vision of the Sony brass and, more importantly, not invented by Sony. At this time they were manufacturing their own video tape and they knew that forcing it to deform around the video drum would cause wear and tear on both the tape and the machine. Their "U" type loading system used in the U-matic guided the tape around, down, back around and up so it could wrap around the video drum to maintain alignment rather than distorting it (as VHS does). So they modified it to become Beta and now the tape would be handled oh so well from the small little shell. What they didn't foresee was that tape would get better, a lot better. Their Crystal ball and their position as a tape manufacturer made them focus on tape handling, longevity and quality at the sacrifice of bulk, mass and price. As other tape manufacturers got into the game of making video tape it continued to improve. It became more durable, the distortion and damage from wear became less and less of an issue. Sure the Beta format was technically superior, sure it handled the tape better and allowed for all kinds of neat little benefits like BetaSkipScan, indexing or not having to wind the tape out of the tape path for rewinding. But the buying public didn't care, Sony couldn't make them care and Sony failed to cater to the faithful out there that did care. So down the spiral went all because of the initial focus on how to best handle the tape inside the machine. A lot is left out of the story but you can see from the position of being able to review the past that it couldn't have turned out much differently. The Video recording phenomena was just too big and too fast for even Sony to control. I'm just glad they were in it, they produced some of the best examples of consumer video products to ever hit the world market because of it.

How did the L-1000 video cassette come about? I always wanted my Beta to be able to match the 2,4,6 hour recording of VHS because it seemed to be such a big deal way back when the battle lines were first being drawn. I didn't personally see why I couldn't be done. The L-830 tape stock was thin enough and if you redesigned the cassette a little it seemed possible to accommodate a little more tape volume. Sony, ever stuck to the criteria that their specs had to be just so for their cassette shell, wasn't going to do it. How I eventually ended up with it was I came across a manufacturer of tape that made a superior thin based tape and worked up a design for a shell dimension that would hold enough tape to allow for six hours of recording in Bx3. The tape is so good and the alterations made to the cassette so small that I doubt Sony is going to mind at this late date. All it took to do this was a ten thousand run of cassettes, a loader, the tape and initiative. The same shell design was used to make the L-830 Metal cassette and tape is available to produce a L-1000 Metal tape, should there be enough interest. Shown below is a diagram of the L-1000 thin base tape construction. One side note: the thinner the tape, the better it contacts the video heads and the better picture it can produce. Video tape has gotten a lot better.

To learn more about the Beta cassette click here.
To learn more about the early cassette designs other than Beta click here.



*reference: "Made in Japan, the story of Sony"