Fast Forward

By the end of World War II, several American companies had developed rudimentary techniques for recording sound on tape. The development of television meant that the concept of recording visual images on tape was only a small leap forward, yet the technical complexities of recording the many more datapoints for a picture meant that a home-sized and consumer-priced VCR did not reach the general market until 1976. Most of the major electronics companies worked on the problem of visual recording, but it was the Japanese companies, especially Sony and Matsushita, which perfected the consumer product.

The social consequences of VCR availability followed immediately. Copyright owners were concerned about protecting themselves from pirated copies, mom-and-pop video stores sprang up to rent out copies of films for home viewing, advertisers worried about viewers skipping over their commercials when viewing a program on tape. Ironically, the United States Copyright Act was finally revised by Congress in 1976, just in time to be left standing in the dust from the stampeding VCR technology.

Lardner, a staff writer for THE NEW YORKER, first became interested in the VCR story in 1982, while researching an article on the copyright protection case Universal v. Sony, which concerned off-air taping at home. His account of the development of the invention, the competition, and the background of the case is based on extensive interviews on both sides of the Pacific. Technology is covered in enough detail to demonstrate the cumulative effect of small changes in an existing technology, but without making excessive demands on the non-technical reader. The social consequences and ripple effects are covered in an impartial, nonjudgmental way which presents the issues on both sides.

Those who enjoy their VCR may also enjoy pondering its history and effects.