Larry Lee comments
Last edit: 18:45, 21 August 2013
Comments and Suggestions for Milestone Proposal: Ampex Videotape Recorder – 1956
My comments may look to be extensive, but they are primarily minor tweaks that I think will strengthen what is already a strong proposal. In some cases, it was easier for me to write my suggested text out than to address each phrase or question individually. Obviously, you are free to accept or reject any of it as you wish.
Under Are the original extant?
While the recorder and plaque are to be at Stanford’s Green Library, that is not the building about which the question asks. You noted in the previous section that, “the original Ampex sites essentially do not exist,” but I am not sure what “essentially” means here. Not being certain about this, I must ask a question or two. In answering “yes,” what building are you referring to? Do we know which building(s) housed the actual development of the Mark I – IV recorders? If so, please give its address or description. The large Ampex campus in Redwood City was nowhere near as extensive in 1956 as it was later, and I am not certain that the early development lab occupied any of those anyway. Was the building one of the campus that is now occupied by another business? (Except for the big sign, the last time I visited Redwood City, one had to search for an office with an Ampex sign on it. Most of the appeared to be occupied by others or vacant. I’m sure there have been many changes since.)
Under Plaque citation summarizing the achievement and its significance:
Paragraph 1 – In the second sentence, insert a comma after “editing.” The third and fourth sentences would be more effective reading,
For the first decade of broadcast television, beginning in the mid-1940s, the only technique available for programs was movie film. To accommodate transcontinental time zones in the United States, it was necessary to record a live broadcast in the Eastern Time Zone and then replay it at the …
Paragraph 2 – I suggest changing the first two sentences to read,
The process, known as “kinescope” used a movie camera at each local station to film the picture on a monitor as it was transmitted live. The film was then rushed to a photo lab for rapid development and returned to the station for editing. At the appropriate time, the station would project the film into a camera and broadcast the signal to area sets.”
Keep the last sentence of this paragraph as is.
Paragraph 3 – Minor edits have the paragraph reading:
The negative aspects of this whole scheme were many. To start with, film was very expensive, and it could only be used once. It was, however, easy to archive for future needs. Another serious drawback was the poor quality. For high quality, 35mm film was used, but most programs used 16mm file to hold costs down. Sometimes, a film of a live program was made and the developed film mailed to the station that would broadcast it later. This made for better quality, especially after color was introduced, but this, too, was very expensive.
Paragraph 4 – I suggest the following for this paragraph:
Since was an electro-magnetic signal, several prominent , including RCA, GE, 3M, and Bing Crosby Enterprises in the United States along with Bausch, BASF, and the BBC in Europe, began trying to develop a method of signals onto tape. While spending large amounts of money, none enjoyed any real success. Their biggest technical problem was that their devices all moved the tape past fixed /playback heads. Because of the large needed for signals, the tape had to move very fast, typically 360 inches per second, which required massive amounts of tape and produced only unstable, poor-quality pictures for short periods of time.
Paragraph 5 – This paragraph needs to be fleshed out quite a bit, since it is the core of your proposal. I suggest the following:
In 1951 the Ampex Electric and Co. (later Ampex Corp.), a small California company started by Alexander M. Poniatoff in 1944, started a project to investigate . was not very enthusiastic, but saw the effort as a way to acquire some experience in . Then, when one of the major developed a viable process, Ampex engineers might be in a position to build on it. Led by Charles Ginsburg, the Ampex team decided to place four heads on a rapidly rotating drum and transport 2 inch-wide tape axially across the drum’s surface. As the tape passed, the rotating heads would write parallel tracks across its width. Audio and tracks were recorded linearly.
Their first prototype, the Mark I, showed promise, but after about a year of development the project was shelved while the company developed an improved sound system for theaters. It was revived in 1954, and Ginsburg’s team, including Alex Maxey, Fred Pfost, Shelby Henderson, Charlie Anderson, and Ray Dolby, improved their technique through the Mark II and Mark III models. With a practical system in the Mark III, they repackaged it into a stylish cabinet suitable for public demonstrations.
This Mark IV, soon renamed the VRX-1000, was unveiled to great acclaim on April 14, 1956, at the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters convention in Chicago, and Ampex garnered orders totaling $2-million in only four days. The model VR-1000 became the prototype for a family of video recorders, and this “Quadruplex” system remained the standard format throughout the world for the next twenty years. Ampex trademarked the term “Videotape” for its process, but the term soon fell into common usage. Kinescope quickly became a thing of the past, saving broadcasters millions of dollars.
Under What obstacles (technical, etc.) needed to be overcome?
Paragraph 1 – Good as is. No comments.
Paragraph 2 – The technical discussion, especially about , is good. It does not, however, discuss the problem of and playing a tape using different heads. Without a time base corrector, the and differences between heads, minute though they were, generally prevented one head from playing a tape recorded with another one. The earliest solution was to use removable head assemblies that plugged into the VR-1000s, and ship heads along with tapes for replay. Reusable, wooden boxes were used to protect the heads during shipments. The addition of time base correction allowed the interchange of tapes between heads without picture . (Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten which model introduced TBC. It may have been part of the Allen package added to VR-1000s.) You may wish to cover this in a separate paragraph—your call.
Paragraph 3 – Good as is, except remove parentheses around “other than Ampex”.
Paragraph 4 – Since this is a single-sentence, you may wish to have it be the last sentence of Paragraph 3 instead.
Under What features set this work apart from similar achievements?
While true, the claim of “copied their unit illegally” will need a legitimate historical source at some point. I assume you have at least one source. In that sentence, I would delete “just”.
Your reference sources are all solid!
This is a well-researched and prepared nomination for a very significant IEEE Milestone. My compliments to you. Please feel free to contact me directly (202-354-2161, firstname.lastname@example.org) if you have any questions or comments. Thank you for your hard work and support of IEEE’s Milestones program.
J. Lawrence “Larry” Lee, Ph.D., P.E.
From Peter, re the buildings:
There was no "original building"; there were many. Ampex was founded in San Carlos, but moved to Redwood City in 1950 before the VTR was even conceived. The company was always scattered over many structures in that Redwood City neighborhood, most of which still exist, but under changed ownership. The VTR work was done in two buildings, 820 Charter St. and 940 Charter. 401 Broadway -- the 1963 HQ building not in existence during the VTR's R&D -- has been taken over by Stanford Medical.
The area today is pretty dreary, not exactly a "nice" place, and it attracts few casual visitors.
The current Ampex building is owned by Stanford, and there's no guarantee there'll be there for any length of time. The Ampex sign visible from 101 is in the middle of a planter bed at the end of a parking lot on a lightly traveled frontage road, so there'd be low foot traffic and the area would require modification (i.e., paving).
I have not visited the Charter St. locations, but am quite familiar with the area, and dreary is perhaps the best way of putting it.
The San Mateo County History museum could not guarantee a long-term spot for the plaque when I talked to them. Of all the options, Stanford's Green Library was the most open to working with us, has a VTR on display, and, I think in the long run, will be one of the institutions around here most committed to the preservation and display of technological history.
So while a physical building or two where the work actually occurred may still be standing, I think Stanford is an overwhelmingly better choice for both traffic and long-term maintenance.