The Long, Final Goodbye of the VCR
July 22, 2016 by JONAH ENGEL BROMWICH/ © 2016 The New York Times via The Asahi Shimbun
In an undated handout photo, a woman demonstrates the Sony Videocasette player in 1970. Japan’s Funai Corp., thought to be the last active manufacturer of VCRs, said it would cease production at the end of July 2016--a death rattle for a technology which was once ubiquitous in American homes. (Handout via The New York Times)
Many new technologies are born with a bang: Virtual reality headsets! Renewable rockets! And old ones often die with a whimper. So it is for videocassette recorders, or VCR, that once-revolutionary device.
The last-known company still manufacturing the technology, the Funai Corp. of Japan, said in a statement Thursday that it would stop making VCRs at the end of this month, mainly because of “difficulty acquiring parts.”
A Japanese newspaper, Nikkei, reported on the impending demise earlier this month.
The news represented the death rattle of a technology that was introduced in the 1950s. It took several decades for VCRs to make their way into consumers’ homes, but in its heyday it was ubiquitous and dominant. According to the company statement, 750,000 units were sold worldwide in 2015, down from millions decades earlier.
In 1956, Ampex Electric and Manufacturing Co. introduced what its website calls “the first practical videotape recorder.” Fred Pfost, an Ampex engineer, described demonstrating the technology to CBS executives for the first time. Unbeknown to them, he had recorded a keynote speech delivered by a vice president at the network.
“After I rewound the tape and pushed the play button for this group of executives, they saw the instantaneous replay of the speech. There were about 10 seconds of total silence until they suddenly realized just what they were seeing on the 20 video monitors located around the room. Pandemonium broke out with wild clapping and cheering for five full minutes. This was the first time in history that a large group (outside of Ampex) had ever seen a high-quality, instantaneous replay of any event.”
At the time, the machines cost $50,000 apiece. But that did not stop orders from being placed for 100 of them in the week they debuted, according to Pfost.
“This represented an amount almost as great as a year’s gross income for Ampex,” he wrote.
The first VCRs for homes were released in the 1960s, and they became widely available to consumers in the 1970s, when Sony’s Betamax and JVC’s VHS formats began to compete. VHS gained the upper hand the following decade, but Sony stopped producing Betamax cassette tapes only in 2016.
By the 1980s, the VCR was catching on with ordinary Americans. In June 1984, The New York Times wrote that analysts expected 15 million homes to have the machines by the end of the year, up from 5 million in 1982.
A consumer guide published in The Times in 1981--when the machines ranged in price from $600 to $1,200--explained the appeal:
“In effect, a VCR makes you independent of television schedules. It lets you create your own prime time. You set the timer and let the machine automatically record the programs you want to watch but can’t. Later, you can play the tape at your convenience. Or you can tape one show while watching another, thus missing neither.”
But only a decade after the technology became common in American households, the introduction of the DVD, in 1995, sounded the older technology’s death knell.
A Times article in 1997, when DVD players were first released to consumers, did not disguise its excitement for a new horizon: “Sound the trumpets, and roll the drums. The digital video disk, or DVD, is here.” Within five years, sales of DVDs had surpassed those of video cassettes.
But less than a decade after DVDs began their reign, the shadow of streaming video loomed. A 2011 headline in The Times made the decline of the hardware explicit, as technology’s circle of life continued its churn:
“Goodbye, DVD. Hello, Future.”