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How VHS Beat Betamax

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 13, 2024 3:02 am

How VHS Beat Betamax

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 13, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, here’s Bill “Engineer Guy” Hammack telling the story of how Betamax was defeated by the VHS tape.

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See website for details. This is Lee Habib and this is our American Stories. And we tell stories about everything here on this show, from the arts to sports, and from business to history and everything in between, including your story, send them to our American stories.com. Over the years, there have been many format and console wars, including Nintendo versus Sega, PlayStation versus Xbox, Apple versus Android, but there was one full fledged format war that ruled them all years before we had to decide between streaming the latest video or taking it home on DVD or Blu-ray. A format war between Sony's Betamax and JVC's VHS began. Battle lasted for more than a decade with neither Betamax nor VHS giving up.

Bill Hammack is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois. He is known as the engineer guy, is the creator and host of his popular YouTube channel explaining the engineering of everyday objects. And we're telling this story because on this day in 1975 Betamax was released. It catalyzed the on demand of today by allowing users to record TV shows and the machine ignited the first new media intellectual property battle. In only a decade, this revolutionary machine disappeared, beaten by JVC's VHS cassette recorder. Here's Bill engineer guy Hammack telling the story of how Betamax was defeated by the VHS tape. This mighty machine sparked a revolution in our use of media. It's a Sony Betamax video cassette recorder from 1979.

This monster weighs about 36 pounds. The engineer in me finds it fascinating. There's nothing digital. It's a truly analog machine.

All moving pieces and parts. You're obviously a man who's having troubles at home. You're constantly fighting with your family over what TV shows to watch.

Well fortunately you're looking at a simple solution to your problems. Sony Betamax. Early adopters of the Betamax used it to record television shows, a revolutionary concept at the time because prior to the Betamax you had to watch a show when it was broadcast. It threatened the entertainment industry so much that in 1979 they argued that recording television shows at home infringed on their copyright. It all came to a head in a Supreme Court case, Sony Corporation of America versus Universal City Studios where five justices allowed home recording. The Sony Betamax.

It's only purpose is to serve you. Although Sony won this court battle, they ultimately lost out to a machine that used this size tape. This is a VHS recorder made by Sony's great rival, JVC. Both machines solved the same problem, how to store information compactly on a tape. Here's the brilliant innovation used by both machines. The machine grabs the tape, drags it forward as the silver drum starts to spin rapidly. The drum has two electromagnets called heads arranged on opposite sides of the drum that read the magnetic information on the tape. That rotating head allowed for a compact recorder. In many previous recorders the magnetic heads didn't move, only the tape. Because there was a limit to how fast the tape could move, it took a lot of tape, about a seven inch reel to record an hour which meant that a movie would need two seven inch reels inside a cassette.

So the rotating heads dramatically reduced the amount of tape needed, reducing the size to where it could be easily held in a cassette. So if the machines are so similar, why did Betamax lose to JVC? Many thought the Betamax machine would win. It had the better image quality and the Betamax is decidedly better built. Compare ejecting a tape on the Betamax to the VHS. First watch the Betamax.

Note how smooth it is. And then watch the VHS. That's abrupt and will wear out the mechanism. Yet, to my engineer's eye, the VHS was the better solution. First, the VHS was lighter than the Betamax, 29.5 pounds compared to 36 pounds for this Betamax machine. That's a huge difference for a mass manufactured object.

It impacts everything from material costs to assembly time to shipping costs. So at the low end of the market, the VHS machines were cheaper than Sony's Betamax. Second, the earliest Betamax tapes played for only one hour. VHS played for two hours.

Enough time for a movie. The ultimate killer, though, was the rental market. Well, Betamax focused its ads and energies on time shifting. Their ads featured headlines like watch whatever, whenever. Well, JVC, the maker of the VHS system, created relationships with the nascent video rental industry. When this market grew, VHS dominated in titles.

And when you couldn't for a while find both formats, eventually retailers began giving shelf space to the slightly more dominant brand, which then dominated even more. So the Betamax versus VHS dispels the notion that simply being first to market is the most important issue. It reminds us that technical excellence in one area isn't enough. Here, the superior picture quality of Betamax, but that all technical aspects matter. For any mass manufactured object, the winner is usually the one that is just good enough. I'm Bill Hammack, the engineer guy. And that is so true.

Just good enough often does it. And what a terrific story. And all of us were old enough to remember these days. My goodness, just a simple idea that you could tape a show and watch it later for anyone under the age of 35.

This is nonsense to you. You can't even imagine a world where you don't get to watch what you want, where you want and when you want. But back in the day, there were three channels, three ABC, NBC and CBS. And there was a PBS station. And if you held the rabbit ears up to the satellite, you could maybe get a little better picture. And it all turned off at the end of the night with a national anthem.

And then it was just a gray screen. Hard to imagine what progress in this great country as it relates to content and the tremendous amount of creativity that's been unleashed by technology for artists. And very special thanks to Bill Hammack, aka Dear Guy, for sharing this story with us. The story of Betamax, which was released on this day in 1975 here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation. A monthly gift of $17.76 is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to OurAmericanStories.com now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming.

That's OurAmericanStories.com. I'm Katya Adler, host of The Global Story. Over the last 25 years, I've covered conflicts in the Middle East, political and economic crises in Europe, drug cartels in Mexico. Now I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why and what it all means.

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