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Thursday, 22 March, 2001, 18:42 GMT
The rise and rise of the video
Vision Electronic Recording Apparatus
Meet Vera - one of the earliest video recorders
The video recorder is more than just a convenient gizmo that lets us watch what we want when we want to - it has also reinvented how TV is broadcast.

Before the advent of the video, practically all the TV shown during the 1950s was broadcast live.

This was no mean feat - long, complex rehearsals were needed, and presenters and crews worked shifts to keep ensure the studios were fully staffed.

The programme content suffered as a result - live programmes had to work to a particular format, and their variety was restricted to what was physically possible.

There was also the added irritation that no matter how hard everyone worked, not least on the popular dramas of the era, there would be no permanent record of their efforts.

Ant and Dec
Live wires: No pre-recording for Ant and Dec's hit children's show SMTV Live
And programme planners had to deal with the headache of fitting fixed events such as sports matches into their schedules, knowing they could over-run and the next programme would be kept waiting.

If a show did over-run, the next programme was often cancelled, meaning there were surplus minutes that needed filling on air.

With nothing pre-recorded on hand, the production crew often resorted to playing soothing gramophone records or showing a succession of caption cards.

"Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible" or "we seem to have lost that programme... in the meantime here's some music" became familiar phrases.

The broadcasters of today would not dream of running continuously live programmes. There are only a few shows which still hit our screens live, including news bulletins, sports matches, and some children's and entertainment shows.

Walking With Dinosaurs: Impossible to make without video recorders and technology
The transition to video, enabling film to be pre-recorded, took place during the 1960s and 1970s. But it was far from easy.

The high cost of video recording technology, which was still in its infancy, meant that even in 1970, BBC Leeds did not have its own video recorder.

Instead, the television crew had to make do with sharing a video based at BBC Manchester, which recorded Leeds-based shows using a 40-mile cable.

One of the earliest versions of the video recorder was the Vera, or Vision Electronic Recording Apparatus. It was demonstrated at the BBC in 1956 and took six years to develop.

The BBC was at the forefront of its development in the UK, while in the US, the main research was done by RCA and Bing Crosby Enterprises.

child using video
Using a video is now child's play
To record the video signals, tape was rushed through Vera at a speed of nearly 70 feet per second, giving a recording time of only 15 minutes from a 21 inch-diameter reel of tape.

But Vera did not last that long - by 1956, a US firm called Ampex gave a surprise demonstration of its machine which used only a 10-inch wide spool of film for an hour's film.

Compared with Vera's efforts and RCA's 1953 version, which used 1.5 miles of tape for just four minutes' recording time, the Ampex machine was a revelation to the broadcast industry.

Ampex took orders for 80 machines within the first four days (an order book worth $4m/2.7m), and by early 1958 a UK version of the machine was available.

They were initially bought by Associated Rediffusion and Granada TV. The BBC used an Ampex machine on air for the first time in October 1958.

Any opposition to the Ampex system soon died out, but the several opposition companies, including RCA, signed licensing agreements to allow them to market machines using the same format.

A new way of producing and watching television had been born.

Charting its past, present and digital future
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