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Tales In Tech History: The Betamax Revolution

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

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Every week we look back at an iconic piece of technology, and start with one that revolutionise home TV viewing and lost a bitter war – Betamax

In the first of a series of articles looking at technology from a bygone era, TechweekEurope examines the devices that were once considered to be cutting edge, fast, and modern.

Unfortunately most of it now lies on the scrapheap of history, and is regarded as old, slow, heavy and clunky. But back in the day much of this technology was considered to be cutting edge and heralded genuine changes to the way we lived our lives.

TV Revolution

BetamaxAnd because of the decision in July by Japan’s last video cassette recorder maker to halt production of VCR recorders, we have opted to examine the humble video cassette, in particular Sony’s Betamax format.

The decision to kill off the VCR machine was made despite the fact that three quarters of a million VCR units were still being sold annually, which seems strange considering the raft of more modern alternatives such as personal video recorders (i.e. the Virgin Tivo box or Sky HD box), as well as DVDs and Blu-rays.

But back in the 1970s, television was much more basic than it is now. There were a limited number of TV channels, and there was no ability for the average household to record a TV program if they happened to be away from the television at the time of broadcast.

And it goes without saying that there was also no “TV on demand” or streaming option back then. You had to view the TV program, as and when it was broadcast. Or miss it completely as it likely would not be repeated.

Into this vacuum stepped the Japanese electronics giant Sony, when it released the first Betamax (often referred to as Beta) machine back in May 1975 that was both affordable and reasonably user-friendly for the US market (the first standalone betamax VCR arrived in the UK in 1977).

It is fair to say that the arrival of these machines triggered a media revolution. Until then, if the homeowner want to play a movie in their house, they had to rent a 8mm film projector and hang up a white sheet on a wall, and change film reels on a regular basis.

But the arrival of betamax meant that people could now play movies on a tape just measuring 156 × 96 × 25 mm. It also triggered the arrival of video rental shops on the high street (anyone remember Blockbuster?).

But its biggest impact was in the way that TV was consumed in households across the land.

People could now actually record their favourite television program, and view it later. And they could do on colour TVs (remember black and white was still around in the seventies). Early machines were the size of suitcase and were very heavy and clunky affairs. But over the years they became slimmer and smarter.

Format War

Betamax 2Of course the biggest thing that people remember about Sony’s Betamax format nowadays was the fact that it eventually ended up losing the “format war” with the VHS cassette.

Betamax was widely considered to be the superior technology with better picture and sound recording capabilities compared to VHS. But Betamax was more expensive, and it had shorter recording time than the VHS format from Philips, all of which proved fatal for the format.

It may surprise some that Betamax VCR machines ceased production back in 2002, but Sony only stopped producing Betamax tapes in 2015.

However the technology (in the guise of Betacam) continued to be used in the television and media industries, until it was eventually replaced by digital alternatives.

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