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What Year Did the First VCR Come Out?

By Christian Roemer

VCRs are one of those contraptions that my kids will look puzzled over when they’re in their teens.

They’ll check out the huge box that’s about five times bigger than their iPad and wonder, “Why did anyone ever use this thing?”

It’ll be like when a regular human goes camping and has to squat down in the woods.

The answer to why we ever used such crude methods is pretty simple: it was the best we had at the time.

For a while, VCRs were pretty incredible technology. You could record live TV on them, watch home movies, and even rent VHS tapes of Titanic from Blockbuster. Before VCRs, you only got to watch TV, and TV was only 5 channels. Also, good luck watching those 5 channels in a storm or on a generally windy day.

So when were those society-altering boxes called VCRs released to the public? It’s a little bit complicated.

The first widely available VCR-like device was mainly intended for television networks, and it was incredibly expensive. Its 1956 price tag was $55,000, which converts to about half a million dollars in 2022. That’s right: the first VCR analogue was more expensive than a house!

Given that steep sticker price, basically only TV stations owned them. Even though they were pricey, the technology was still easier to use and more convenient than slicing and splicing old-fashioned film.

With the technology invented, it was only a matter of time before intrepid inventors came up with a more economical version. That breakthrough happened in 1972 when the first mass-marketed VCRs started hitting the shelves. The problem was that VCRs didn’t all use the same tapes at that point. Sony had Betamax, JVC had VHS, and a couple other stragglers bounced around too. Sort of like different video game systems, the different home video formats vied for market share and duked it out for a while. By the late 1970s, the public had spoken with their wallets, and VHS won the day. VCRs would eventually be in practically every home worldwide.

To circle back and answer the question, “When did the first VCR come out?” it’s tricky. VCR means videocassette recorder, and the first one of those was released for commercial use in 1956. The technology was used in different formats until the first VHS VCR was released in 1978.

Depending on how you define VCR, the actual year one was first available changes a little. Most people refer to VCRs as weird boxes that play VHS tapes, so we’ll go with 1978.

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