The video cassette recorder (VCR), a once popular device that has been in ill health for a while now, is finally dead. This is because the Funai Corporation of Japan, the last known VCR manufacturer, rolled out the last new device at the end of last month.
The official cause of death? Difficulties in acquiring parts. However, it is more likely that Funai has had difficulties finding customers. Did you even know that there was some company still manufacturing VCRs? You probably last saw one in a museum. What about the tapes? Probably thrown out with the trash many years ago. Let’s stop for a minute and take a walk down memory lane and review the birth of the video cassette recorder and its impact on the world.
Where the VCR Story Began
Despite coming to an end, we recognize the VCR as one of the most important electronic devices in our history since it played a pivotal role in freeing viewers from the tyranny and monotony of a network TV schedule. The VCR ruled living rooms across the world in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. The TV on demand that we take for granted today, can trace its roots to the introduction of the VCR.
Back in 1956, the Ampex Electric and Manufacturing Company showed off the first demonstration of what would evolve into home VCR technology, according to a report in the New York Times. At the time, Ampex engineer Fred Pfost secretly recorded and then played back a speech made by a network president to a gathering of executives.
The following is how Pfost described the reaction of the executives when they watched the replay: “Everybody was totally silent for about 10 seconds before they finally realized what they were seeing on the monitors that were located in the room. Then pandemonium broke out among the group, with five minutes of the execs wildly clapping and cheering.” For the first time, a large group outside the people who worked at Ampex had seen a high-quality and instantaneous replay of an event.
A Device That Changed the Face of Home Entertainment
The introduction of the VCR to living rooms across the world, was nothing short of exhilarating. Who could forget the pop-up cassette bay on the RCA model? It was a magnificent beast which was not only huge and heavy, but it also came with a cryptic instruction manual that required an engineering degree to decrypt.
Back in the day, the choice of VCR revealed a lot: The proto-hipster crowd preferred the higher-quality, shorter-running and (allegedly) pricier Beta tape, while almost everyone else opted for the cheaper, longer-running VHS.
Whatever the choice, the wondrous device would whir to life at whatever time the user wanted (as long as they could figure out how the timer was set). Then, after a few hours or days, they could sit down and enjoy an episode of ‘All in the Family,’ ‘MASH’ or ‘Miami Vice’ at any time of their choice.
The VCR era also meant that anybody could now be a producer/director. New video cameras could now capture birthday parties, weddings, proms, bar mitzvahs, graduations, first steps, christenings: a huge leap in convenience when compared to the Super 8 film.
Shortcomings of the VCR
However, there were some pretty obvious shortcomings. The video tapes in sturdy plastic containers quickly started filling cabinets and shelves. Collections would grow and grow, even if you never watched any of the tapes. Taping appealed to people’s inner hoarder.
There were other limitations as well. The plastic outer shells would crack and the tape quality itself would deteriorate with the passage of time or after repeated viewings. With tapes growing murkier and grainier, though, their content became even more precious.
This realization led to the birth of an industry of converting tapes to DVD, catering to parents who were desperate to preserve precious memories of their children growing up, or to couples who wanted the images of their wedding day to be saved onto something that would last forever.
Unfortunately, nothing ever does.
Funai, the Last Stand for the VCR
An anonymous spokesman for Funai confirmed that the company had ceased manufacture of VCRs at the end of July. He said that although the company would have liked to continue production of the devices due to customer requests, it had become impossible as key component makers were pulling out as demand for VCRs continues to shrink.
The Funai VCR factory, located in China, is a facility that the company has placed off limits to the media for security reasons, since there are other products manufactured at the same plant.
Funai started producing videotape players in 1983, and started manufacture of videotape recorders in 1985. According to the company, VCRs have been among its all-time best selling products. Last year, the company produced 750,000 VHS tape players and recorders.
Interestingly, Panasonic Corporation, another Japanese electronics giant, stopped manufacturing VCRs several years ago, leaving Funai as the only manufacturer of the devices. Funai has said that it will continue to sell VCRs through a subsidiary until its inventory runs out, while providing maintenance services for the foreseeable future.
So for now, let’s bow our heads and honor the sheer brilliance of the VCR and the important role it played in many people’s lives over the years.