The collection

28th May 1999 at 01:00
Museum and gallery staff put their favourite artefacts on display. WEEK 20: The world's first videotape recorder National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford.

Imagine trying to fit this under your television set. Developed by Ampex in the US, the first video machines arrived in Britain in 1959 and were bulky, expensive and temperamental.

This picture shows just the tape transport (about the size of four domestic washing machines). It also had two telephone-kiosk sized racks of electronics (three if you wanted colour), needed a supply of compressed air, a vacuum pump and a very big mains plug.

During recording and playback it had to be "driven" by an experienced engineer. With a price tag equivalent to a whole row of terraced houses and a 64 minute reel of tape costing hundreds of pounds, it's not surprising that its use was confined to broadcast TV stations.

At the start of 1950, the only way to record TV programmes was to point a modified film camera at the TV screen and film the programme as it was transmitted. This process, called telerecording, had a number of problems - notably the relatively poor quality of the picture and the time taken to process the film before it could be re-played.

All the early prototype machines suffered from a voracious appetite for tape - in one machine a 0.8m diameter reel of very wide tape sped through the recorder at more than 90mph giving a recording time of less than 15 minutes.

A small team working for Ampex eventually solved the problems. Charles Ginsberg did much of the early development in his garage working with Ray Dolby (who later found fame with his tape noise-reduction systems).

The first production models were available in the US in 1956 but the huge demand for them meant that a modified version capable of working on the UK television system was not available for another three years. It would be nearly 30 years before videorecorders became a common feature in the home.

The Television Collection at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television has more than 90 different examples of video recording and replay equipment including examples of the world's earliest television recordings made by John Logie Baird in 1926.

John Trenouth John Trenouth is curator of television at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford BD1 1NQ. The museum has re-opened after a pound;16million redevelopment with galleries dedicated to all forms of imaging, including the digital revolution. Admission is free. Call 01274 202030 for details. For education packages call 01274 202040

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