I recently moved to a new house and, as I’m still unpacking my things, I found my last VHS tapes. One is a documentary about The X-Files (I don’t remember where it came from), and the other is the first season of South Park. I got rid of the rest a long time ago, replacing my collection with DVDs–and now the DVDs are replaced by Blu-rays. Anyway, a lot was said about the end of the movie-renting business that was born with the VHS boom, but I don’t remember exactly who created the VHS, so I had to look that up.
Who Invented the VHS?
Let’s start by going back to 1898. The first magnetic recording of a human voice was created in the early years of magnetic recording by a Danish inventor by the name of Valdemar Poulsen. This innovation gave rise to a number of audio recording formats over the following few decades, but it wasn’t until the 1930s that magnetic recording and reproduction began to find widespread use. The capabilities of capturing and replaying both audio and video material emerged during this period.
As research and development for video tape recorders (VTRs) intended for broadcasting purposes started, the 1950s represented a critical turning point. While this innovation was advancing, especially in the broadcasting sector, there were other people with more futuristic goals. Kenjiro Takayanagi, a Japanese inventor who desired to record pictures on magnetic material, was one of these people. Others were Yuma Shiraishi and Shizuo Takano, engineers of Victor Company of Japan, Limited (JVC).
Meanwhile, the first commercial reel-to-reel videotape recorder was launched in 1956 by an American firm called Ampex. Television took a giant step forward when this ground-breaking equipment, a four-head VTR using a two-inch-wide tape, made it possible to record programs and transmit them later. For the typical customer, it was nonetheless unfeasible due to its size and complexity.
Not too long behind was Sony. They launched their own iteration of the Ampex machine in 1958, capturing a sizable portion of the Japanese VTR market. One-head and two-head helical scan VTRs were among the advances that other businesses like Toshiba and JVC used to get into the market. The size and price of these devices were still far from being suitable to the general population, despite the fact that these improvements were notables.
JVC was heavily involved in the advancement of VTR technology throughout the 1960s. A color signal recording system that could down-convert signals was created by the business in 1970. This technology was used in the U-format cassette VTRs, which Sony, Matsushita, and JVC standardized and sold in 1971. Although these businesses worked together, their efforts to market a 34-inch tape recorder for residential usage were unsuccessful.
Despite that, the JVC video products division, headed by Shiraishi and Takano, began work on the creation of VHS in 1971. They provided a detailed what they called the “VHS Development Matrix,” a list of specifications that covered technical aspects, cost, simplicity of manufacture, and societal relevance. VHS, which initially stood for Video Home System, set out to meet these many demands and proved to be a strong contender.
But it was not the only one. In 1975, Sony introduced the first Beta format home VTR, the SL-6300, targeting individual consumers. While Sony’s Beta format gained recognition, JVC strategically employed its technology and marketing prowess to promote VHS as the new standard. With a two-hour recording capability, the JVC-developed VHS format found its niche. On September 9, 1976, the first VHS-format home VTR, the HR-3300, was unveiled, ushering in a new era of home video recording.
From The Format War to VHS’s Dominance
As the 1970s progressed, the battle between VHS and Betamax heated up. Sony’s Betamax offered certain advantages, such as a smaller cassette size and theoretically higher video quality, but it had a significant drawback: its shorter recording time. Original Betamax machines using the NTSC television standard could record only one hour of programming.
In contrast, the first VHS machines, with a slightly slower tape speed and longer tape, could record for two hours. Sony later introduced slower tape speeds to achieve longer recording times, but by then, VHS had already gained momentum.
Another advantage of VHS was its simpler tape transport mechanism, making rewinding and fast-forwarding faster compared to Betamax machines. These factors contributed to VHS gaining traction among consumers who valued longer recording times and user-friendly features.
Despite Sony’s attempts to maintain a competitive edge, VHS’s accessibility, longer recording time, and easier operation won the hearts of consumers. In 1977, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) launched the VHS format in the United States, contributing significantly to VHS’s rapid growth. The proliferation of VHS VTRs turned the home video market into a core business for consumer electronics manufacturers, triggering advancements in the electronic parts industry.
The collaboration between major American movie studios and the increasing popularity of VHS tapes also played a pivotal role. Sales of video tapes began to surpass box-office revenues, leading to the rise of a new business pillar. The diffusion of VHS not only transformed how people consumed entertainment but also reshaped the industry landscape itself.
Throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s, VHS tapes reigned supreme as the primary medium for home video consumption. Families built extensive collections of VHS tapes, storing them in large containers and entertainment centers. The VHS format became a cultural icon, with phrases like “Be kind, rewind” becoming part of everyday language.
The Fall of the VHS
Like all technological reigns, the era of VHS eventually came to an end. The emergence of the DVD format in the late 1990s brought about smaller, more portable discs with improved picture quality. DVDs offered benefits that VHS tapes couldn’t match, including the absence of rewinding and fast-forwarding, chapter selection, and space-efficient storage. This marked the beginning of the decline of VHS.
As the 21st century progressed, digital streaming and downloadable content further accelerated the decline of physical media formats like VHS. The last VHS player was produced in 2016, marking the official end of an era.
Do you know what was indispensable with your VHS player? a remote control, obviously. And I recently wrote about the invention of the TV Remote Control!