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Ampex Signature V, the first home video recorder, produced in 1963
September 1, 2013 12:23 PM   Subscribe

Ampex is a brand name that isn't mentioned much in terms of current video technology, but their history is full of notable innovations, though most are aimed at commercial-grade video production and editing. But 50 years ago, Ampex opened a consumer and educational division (Google books preview), with the pinnacle of their home entertainment offering that year was the Ampex Signature V, a 9-foot-long system that weighed 900 pounds, allowing the home user to record a television program for the first time (while being able to simultaneously watch another, no less). This complete audio/video system was marketed through Neiman-Marcus for $30,000. That price also included professional installation and a plaque bearing the owners name (Google books preview). The system was affectionately called "Grant's Tomb" after Gus Grant, the marketing manager who came up with the idea. According to a user on the Videokarma forum, only 4 were ever made, and only one was sold. posted by filthy light thief (32 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
That is some sweet setup. Would look good at my place.
posted by bongo_x at 12:41 PM on September 1, 2013


> This complete audio/video system was marketed through Neiman-Marcus for $30,000.

$230,000 in 2013 dollars.
posted by ardgedee at 12:57 PM on September 1, 2013


$230,000 in 2013 dollars.

You seem to think that's a deal killer. My boss just walked into the dealership and wrote a check for one of these. When you're rich it isn't necessarily crazy.
posted by localroger at 1:02 PM on September 1, 2013


When you're rich it isn't necessarily crazy.

I dunno, man. $230K? You could buy houses for a couple of needy families or you could watch the exact same crap network TV everyone else watches. But on tape!

That seems really, really skewed in terms of cost/benefits to me. And apparently to everyone else, too, except for one person.
posted by Western Infidels at 1:23 PM on September 1, 2013


Simmer down. It was probably for porn, guys.
posted by sourwookie at 1:39 PM on September 1, 2013


> When you're rich it isn't necessarily crazy.

This is true, but while the number of people who can buy $30,000 toys on a whim is very small, the number who can buy $230,000 toys on a whim is smaller still.
posted by ardgedee at 1:53 PM on September 1, 2013


I don't care how rich you are - buying a Porsche Panamera is crazy.
posted by koeselitz at 2:22 PM on September 1, 2013 [11 favorites]


It's interesting that they used the form of a console stereo, and just made it even bigger, to the point of being so large as to not even fit into a lot of living rooms. That must say something about the prevailing design aesthetic of the time, right? Bigger is better, the optimism of the New Frontier, the mid-century modern affinity for built-ins...help me out here, design-savvy MeFi-ites.

The inclusion of the camera is pretty cool, too. Throw in some lights, maybe a reflector or two, and you've practically got a home TV studio.

After Googling, I see that Ampex around this time did make standalone VTR's too. Someone on the thread at Videokarma linked above mentions owning the VR-660: "2" quad tape [B&W recording], speed is 3.75 ips, and can accomodate up to 12" reels (almost 5 hours of recording time!) And did I mention that it weighs 130 lbs....?" (Emphasis added)

130 pounds! And that's just the recorder, no camera included. Ponder that next time you're shooting some video with your hand-held camera-phone.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 2:26 PM on September 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't have the knowledge of terms to Google this, but there was a very, very early recording device marketed in the 1930s which captured some of the few TV broadcasts available on a phonograph-like system. I saw a clip of this -- it was a wavy, grainy capture of some dancing girls from the BBC, about the same quality as you'd expect if you were trying to capture our broadcasts from an observatory on an alien planet.
I always wondered who ponied up the cash for that in Britain at that time.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:56 PM on September 1, 2013


It's interesting that they used the form of a console stereo, and just made it even bigger, to the point of being so large as to not even fit into a lot of living rooms. That must say something about the prevailing design aesthetic of the time, right? Bigger is better, the optimism of the New Frontier, the mid-century modern affinity for built-ins...help me out here, design-savvy MeFi-ites.

You'd have your giant console hi-fi and your giant console TV; if anything, it's almost more weird that they were ever separate, except that you can probably make more money on two things than you can on one.

It's odd that they didn't make this system modular for that reason alone, nevermind the hassle of fitting it in the house.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:03 PM on September 1, 2013


A slight aside, although Ampex was big in the video market, their ATR102 quarter/half-inch audio mastering machines are still, today, considered sonically unparalleled and final mixes on the ATR simply sound like a record should sound. The best sounding audio I think I have ever heard was a mix playing back very hot off of an ATR102 in an Ocean Way control room in about 1989. It was stupendous.
posted by bz at 4:13 PM on September 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Countess Elena:...there was a very, very early recording device marketed in the 1930s which captured some of the few TV broadcasts available on a phonograph-like system.
It could be documented here. Apparently there were at least five different systems to do this in the 20s and 30s.
posted by Western Infidels at 5:05 PM on September 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Sys Rq, from a practical standpoint, it would make sense to put the stereo in one box and all the video-related gear in another. The only thing you'd need to add is some way to connect the two, so that the audio-for-video could be heard through the stereo speakers.

1963 is a little before before component stereos became really commonplace, and your average suburbanite who was not an audiophile (or "stereo buff") wouldn't have had much experience hooking up A/V gear. So Ampex would have had to find a way to make that connector relatively foolproof, but it's only one connection, so that seems doable.

The most logical conclusion I can draw about the all-in-oneness of the Signature V is that the size was part of positioning it as an ultra high-end product - only people with big houses (and presumably, lots of money) would even be able to fit the thing into their living room.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 5:07 PM on September 1, 2013


Western Infidels, that's a great link, thanks! I was going to reference LabGuy's World: The Time Line of Extinct Video Tape Recorders, but it seems woefully incomplete, only mentioning one product in that era.
posted by filthy light thief at 5:22 PM on September 1, 2013


The huge JBL Paragon was selling relatively well at the time, so there was a market for monstrously large AV equipment, at least.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 5:28 PM on September 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I stand amazed that this has been up this long without a single reference to Bob Crane.

So there, I did it, sue me. Yes I know his shenanegans came later but as was said upthread, PORN.
posted by localroger at 5:53 PM on September 1, 2013


I dunno, man. $230K? You could buy houses for a couple of needy families or you could watch the exact same crap network TV everyone else watches. But on tape!

They did only ever sell one.
posted by GuyZero at 6:25 PM on September 1, 2013


Fabulous post, thanks.
posted by Wolof at 6:27 PM on September 1, 2013


Would look good next to this contemporary kitchen computer.
posted by Nomyte at 6:49 PM on September 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I for one, would like to have "words" with the gentlemen that formulated Ampex 456 professional magnetic tape. So much music, turned to mush.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:12 PM on September 1, 2013


The same catalog had a his and her submarine for $18,700, (a pair of Sony transceivers were advertised along with it [$149.95] - do not work underwater).
posted by unliteral at 7:15 PM on September 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Western Infidels, thank you for that. I was definitely thinking of this 1933 Silvatone recording of what may have been the world's first TV special.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:18 PM on September 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ampex 4 evar
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:26 PM on September 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


$230,000 in 2013 dollars.

hmm.

Something like this(which will probably be around 100k when it launches) + a top of the line surround sound system(since i'm imagining that this ampex rig is similar to say this of it's day + electronics, a screen, etc.), a high end media server like this with a built in multi tuner cablecard DVR(i believe they offer that? if not as a separate unit), plus a high end CD player, turntable, etc. I'm probably missing some minor functions this setup had as well. And to really recreate it in spirit you'd need to be able to handle streaming, etc.

You're easily at 230k if you go for close to the best out there stuff now. You have to remember you also need to include a 1080p-ish low end but professional video camera(trying to find an analog to it not recording color TV), and the hardware to handle the data that creates. Maybe a canon xa25? Red scarlett depending on what your budgets ends up looking like? From what i've read and heard a color TV in 1963 was like a 4k/3D TV now. There wasn't even a ton of content out there to play back on it.

This ampex rig was a pretty damn high end setup. Even if it wasn't at the apex of home audio, as an overall package it seems to have encompassed a lot of really high end tech.
posted by emptythought at 8:30 PM on September 1, 2013


I for one, would like to have "words" with the gentlemen that formulated Ampex 456 professional magnetic tape. So much music, turned to mush.

Oops, your spell check must have substituted "to mush" for "fuckin’ kick ass, and sounding like a record".
posted by bongo_x at 10:10 PM on September 1, 2013


Ampex had a few employees who went on to do well for themselves.
posted by vacapinta at 4:26 AM on September 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oops, your spell check must have substituted "to mush" for "fuckin’ kick ass, and sounding like a record".

There was a specific problem with professional tape becoming unplayable over time due to bad binders being used in its manufacture. I have lost some very expensive multi-track sessions as a result of this, and it has caused mayhem in the industry that supposed their multitracks were archival, as people scramble to bake & transfer original tapes to digital while they can. Ampex 456 was the most popular tape to suffer from this pretty devastating problem.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:23 AM on September 2, 2013


There was a specific problem with professional tape becoming unplayable over time due to bad binders being used in its manufacture.

Ah, I thought you were talking about the sound.

Tape doesn’t last. Neither do hard drives. Or people.
posted by bongo_x at 10:32 AM on September 2, 2013


The problem was limited to a few years, and a few specific brands- there's plenty of older tape that will play back fine -it was a malfunction that really screwed up a lot of stuff recorded in the late 70's and early 80's specifically. A bit of a derail, though. Just not Ampex's proudest moment.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:58 AM on September 2, 2013


I'd consider Ampex' least proud moment to be when they surrendered the VTR industry to the Japanese by refusing to adopt solid-state electronics until it was far too late to compete effectively. They held on to enough commercial business to stay afloat because quality was more important than price, but they never got a foothold in the consumer or portable markets.
posted by localroger at 11:02 AM on September 2, 2013


It always surprised me that Bing Crosby was the West Coast representative for Ampex. It appears he also funded Ampex in the early days.
posted by mdoar at 4:10 PM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Bing really, really wanted to pre-record his show. Ampex's first two commercial recorders ended up in his studio.
posted by localroger at 4:12 PM on September 4, 2013


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