Good-bye, VCR, You Served Us Well

That still-working but dusty VCR you have on a shelf somewhere? It’s now officially irreplaceable

The VCR: The disputed territory that Ampex, Betamax, JVC, and Sony fought over—and that we all eventually landed on.
Photo: iStockphoto
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The VCR. I wasn’t an early adopter, or an extreme user. But the VCR indeed played a featured role in different stages of my life. It helped me keep my standing date with the U.S. TV show “Thirtysomething” back in the 1980s. In the ’90s, it played “Barney & Friends” over and over when that was the only relief my then 2-year-old could get from the pain of the coxsackievirus. And for at least a decade, it let my mother across the country see her grandbabies take their first steps, sing their ABCs, and reach all sorts of other milestones she would have otherwise missed.

I have professional memories of the VCR as well. I visited the source of the video recording, Ampex, just once, though I drove past its iconic sign for years. That visit was a true pilgrimage: The VCR wasn’t the only thing that came out of that company; so did Ray Dolby, Nolan Bushnell, and a host of other engineers who changed the entertainment industry. Over the years, I also met with engineers at Sony and JVC, the companies that brought the videocassette recording to the mass market, and whose battle over consumer VCR formats is legendary. I told the story about the development of the VCR on the occasion of IEEE Spectrum’s 25th anniversary in 1988, recalling how the engineers at Sony and JVC made different design choices along the way to the same goal. You can read that article here.

I still have a VCR in my cabinet and a handful of favorite obscure movies that never made it to DVD sitting on a shelf. And so this month’s news—that the last-known company to continue to manufacturer VCR hardware is stopping production because it can no longer get parts—sent me gazing fondly at that now-irreplaceable gadget (my current model is a Go-Video VCR/DVD combo).

But my guilty-pleasure TV shows are available for streaming to my laptop (and watching with headphones) late at night. The kid videos were repurchased as DVDs, and now those are mostly obsolete, thanks to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other on-demand services. My mom left this world before the VCR did; I expect I’ll be live-streaming with my grandchildren.

So good-bye, VCR, and thank you. You served us well.

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IEEE Spectrum’s blog featuring the people, places, and passions of the world of technologists in Silicon Valley and its environs.