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Who Invented The Videotape?

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By Christian Roemer

Today we’re going to talk about videotapes. Specifically, we’re going to learn who invented it.

But before we get into that too much, we should take a minute to admire what videotape did for humankind.
Before videotape, recording videos was a chore. You had to load cameras with really delicate film. You had to pray that the film didn’t get tangled in your camera, then you had to get the film developed when you were finished shooting. To watch your footage, you had to load the film into a projector and hope that the film didn’t get tangled in there. Then, you had to load the reel back into its canister when you were done and hope that the film didn’t get tangled in the process.

Basically, every part of the process was a treacherous mess.


The weird thing about videotapes is that, when you think of it, the first things that probably come to mind are VHS tapes. That’s totally logical. They were easily the most popular form of videotape technology, and everyone had those tapes in their homes. The only problem is that they weren’t the first videotape. In fact, the first videotape actually looked more like 8mm film reels than the tapes we know now.


Interestingly, the term videotape actually refers to the film itself, not necessarily the entire plastic enclosure device. What really set videotape apart from previous film technology was the fact that, instead of using actual frames of pictures to record, they recorded images magnetically. That’s why VHS tapes could be submitted to sunlight without overexposing and ruining it.


So who invented videotape?


Well, it’s a little bit complicated. Instead of giving a partial and unsatisfactory history, here’s a quick timeline.


1950

Two guys named John T. Mullin and Wayne R. Johnson invented and recorded on the first videotape. This is the first instance of somebody using magnetic technology to record images. Apparently they didn’t do a great job, because you couldn’t actually see any real pictures on playback. They got the ball rolling though, and deserve some credit for that.


1953

RCA--yes, the same RCA that still exists today--invented a magnetic tape recording medium that could record in color and black and white.


1956

Videotape technology continued to improve until a viable solution made its way into the world. This unwieldy and expensive technology was first used with television programs to create broadcasts in different time zones.


1969

Sony invented the first videotape cassettes that look more familiar to the videotapes that we think of today. Called the U-Matic, it put the magnetic tape inside of a plastic case, making it much simpler and safer to use.


1975

Sony developed Betamax, a much cleaner and consumer-focused medium. Betamax tapes were a bit smaller than VHS tapes, and they had better video quality, but they were expensive. That’s one of the reasons they lost a bitter format war with…


1976

VHS hit the market. Developed by JVC as an open-source format, VHS was a very similar--and arguably worse--technology to Betamax. The video quality wasn’t as good, but it was cheaper. Ultimately, the power of the dollar swayed the public, making VHS the default videotape in most folks’ minds still today.


When we look back at who invented videotape, it’s hard to say. As a technology, videotape refers to magnetic tape that can be used to record and play videos. If that’s the case, our two pioneers in the 1950s invented it.


The problem is that nobody thinks of videotape that way. Most folks think of VHS as the de facto videotape. If that’s the case, a bunch of inventors at JVC came up with it as a competing product to Sony’s Betamax. But then should we give Sony credit? Sort of, probably. Not sure, honestly.


Basically, trying to figure out who invented videotape is a weird, complicated answer. Personally, for the sake of simplicity, I’m inclined to just give the prize to John and Wayne (no relation to John Wayne, I’m sure), because who has ever really heard of those dudes? We should appreciate their contribution to history, even though their invention wasn’t very good.


Everyone needs a break every once in a while, you know?

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