Cartrivision Memories by George R Steber
George R. Steber
In the days before my family had television, I remember sitting on the floor in the living room listening to the “The Shadow”, “The Green Hornet”, “Jack Benny”, “Dragnet”, and many other radio programs. It was around 1950. We had seen this newly introduced invention called TV in the stores, but few could afford it. As the years went by and it became less expensive, my parents eventually got one, in spite of my mother’s protestations about Howdy Doody. She didn’t care much for that puppet. She thought we would spend most of our time watching TV instead of doing homework and other necessary things, and, she was mostly right.
As I grew up with television I thought, from time to time, about recording programs and being able to play them back on demand. All that was available at the time was crude kinescope recording, a sort of film system that captured the image from a TV picture tube. Better than nothing, I suppose, but there had to be a better way. As I grew up I kept my eyes on developments in this field. One group, financed by Bing Crosby Enterprises, had developed a linear longitudinal scan video tape recorder. It ran the tape past the fixed heads at a high speed in order to record the high frequencies of the video signals properly. This naturally led to large tape reels and frequent tape changes. It didn’t seem too practical to me. Other longitudinal scan systems with improvements were demonstrated and described from time to time in magazines such as Radio-Electronics. One major company, Ampex, seemed on a better track than all the others with the concept of scanning heads.
I have been an avid amateur radio operator for many years and there was a large group of us who worked slow scan TV on twenty meters a few times a week in the late1960s. We invariably would discuss all kinds of things but mostly technical stuff. This was way before the Internet. One day around 1972 someone mentioned that an outfit called Cartrivision had developed a consumer video tape recorder with a scanning head that seemed very promising. It was being sold at Sears. But it was very expensive, around $1600 we were told. Never the less, we all kept our eyes on this company and read about it as much as we could. After some time had passed, it was announced, to our astonishment, that Cartrivision was folding. The remaining video recorder stock and parts were to be sold as surplus. Luckily one of the guys in our group found someone in California that was selling this surplus equipment. We were all exuberant about buying this stuff, even though it was virtually sight unseen. It was a unique opportunity. In today’s vernacular I’d have to say it was “totally unique”. I think we paid around $150 for the recorder, with no guarantees. But most of them did work, at least after a little tweaking. When my first Cartrivision unit arrived I was tremendously elated. It was like the old song by Jo Stafford, one of my favorites.
And now, that dream is here… beside me”
(By the way, those lyrics equally apply to my first girl friend.) Cartrivision made our dreams come true! We were in video heaven. You could actually play and record color video with this device! Our ham group became a veritable beehive of activity, exchanging ideas, equipment sources and so on over the air. One of the first jobs was to find good quality video tape. The tape was one half inch wide so there were not too many choices. We experimented with computer tape and finally found some good sources, mainly by trial and error. There was an abundant supply of bare cartridges and so we learned to roll our own tape. Splicing tape became an art form. We found clear leader tape that was needed at the start and end of the tape to control the stopping of the machine in fast forward, rewind or play. A light bulb and photocell arrangement scanned the tape in the cartridge and if the cell sensed light through the clear leader, the tape would stop. Pretty neat way to find the start or end. But sometimes during rewind there was so much momentum built up in the rotating reels that the tape would break off at the end. We got so used to this that we could practically open a cartridge and repair it in the dark.
We had to make up our own video and audio cables to interface to the electronic unit of the Cartrivision, commonly called the fish tank. It used composite video signals. You could record sound in monaural only, but it played back in stereo from a factory tape. Most TVs of that day did not have video or sound inputs. So we had to modify TVs or find the rare ones that did have composite video input. Our group found one source for a 13-inch color TV with both video in and out and many of us bought them at around $300 each. I still have mine. The nice thing is that we could record and play from the same TV without changing cables. Eventually we found some RF modulators but the picture was not as good with those.
When I first got my unit I was elated and scared. What if I should ruin it or blow up something up? This is a very complicated piece of equipment. It was delivered in its own special box with custom foam inserts to securely hold it and protect it from damage. The first thing I did was to make some metal brackets and mount the large, heavy mechanical scanner chassis upright on a piece of plywood. The separate fish tank sat in the back connected by two multi-wired cables. Next, I warmed up my soldering iron, got some shielded cable and began making the power cord and my video/audio interface cable. Checking and double-checking everything, I finally reached the moment of truth. I had purchased an alignment tape and I put it in the Cartrivision. I turned everything on and paused to reflect for a moment. My heart skipped a beat as the motors began to spin. So far so good. I turned the knob to “play” and cautiously watched and sniffed for smoke. Much to my relief the tape arms went upward and threaded the tape around the large scanner drum. I began to see a picture on the TV. It was just some color bars but it was like heaven to me. The picture was quite erratic with lots of noise bursts and flagging at the top of the picture. According to the manual it needed some alignment. I spent the rest of the day adjusting it until I had a fairly good picture.
The next day I decided to record a movie off the air. The classic film “African Queen” with Bogart and Hepburn, would start playing on channel six later in the day. I warmed up all the gear for about ten minutes before the start of it and waited. And then, right on the hour, I pressed record and began taping. I know it sounds prehistoric with all the video recorders we have today, but this was a very exciting experience for me. After the taping and rewinding, I called my family in to see the results. I proudly turned the knob to “play” and we watched in awe. There, in front of us, was a complete Hollywood movie in gorgeous color and sound for us to enjoy. I’ll never forget that moment.
The Cartrivision cartridges were notorious for sticking, squealing and freezing up. It usually happened because of the unusual cartridge design where the two tape reels are rotating on top of each other, a necessity I suppose to make the cassette case smaller. These reels did not have two sides like an ordinary tape reel but only a single side and hub. The tape was expected to spool properly because of the guides inside the cartridge. But when the tape doesn't spool on the hub correctly that causes a major problem. What happens is that the tape shifts slightly off the hub and rubs against the other reel and freezes everything. Tapes won't play. Rewind or fast forward will not work. This problem could be caused by warped cartridges, reels or sometimes by the tape itself. One usually had to completely rewind the tape by hand after removing it from the cartridge in order to fix it. I built a re-winder but it’s long gone now. Some cartridges had no problems at all. But it was hard to tell the good ones from the bad. There is a mechanism inside the cartridge that prevents the tape from moving until its inserted. Sometimes it doesn't release which is another problem. If a tape freezes, it is almost impossible to free it up without opening the case. Lubricants would not work and could only gum things up. Occasionally the freezing cartridge would cause the main drive belt to break. It happened often enough that I stocked quite a few belts. Replacing it involved removing the main motor and capstan belt. It was a tricky job.
Occasionally the tape heads would clog. You could clean them by removing the protective black plastic cover over the scanner and rubbing them gently with tape head cleaning solvent. I bought many spare heads and a head height gauge. There were three heads on the scanner wheel. They needed to be set for a protrusion height of 1.5 mils in the scanner drum and closely matched. The heads were made of ceramic and could easily be broken. I got to be good at replacing heads. Often times a poor choice of tape would clog the heads. I eventually bought two other Cartrivision units, to use as backups, just in case. But it turns out that I really didn’t need them. The first unit was very reliable until just recently.
A small monochrome camera was made to be sold with the Cartrivision system. I managed to obtain two of those cameras. They plugged right into the fish tank. In retrospect they were poor performers. They needed a lot of light and did not handle color. But they did work and I used one for making all kinds of home videos. I recorded my kid’s birthday parties, my parents, and family affairs in my living room. I even sent video messages to my fellow hams through the mail. I recently transferred all of my personal Cartrivision tapes (about 12 cartridges) to miniDV. They came out quite well. I make all kinds of videos as a hobby including making sound tracks for silent films. I will include these Cartrivision videos in a family history tape or DVD to be made later. Fortunately you can enhance the video quite a bit in a program like Premiere. Many times the Cartrivision video is too dark or hasn’t enough contrast because of the poor camera. But this is easily fixed in software.
The Cartrivision also had a built in timer so that you could record videos while you were away. I used this feature several times. The Cartrivision unit was so easy to use I had my oldest daughter record material for me. One time, in 1976, she recorded the Marquette Warriors (my alma mater) winning the NCAA basketball championship.
Most of us Cartrivision users stuck together. We had a users newsletter and we discussed lots of modifications to the basic unit. For example, there was a long time delay before the sound would begin. This was controlled by a resistor, which if the value was changed could vary the delay. Some fellows made copies of tapes. One popular bootleg video was “Gone With The Wind” complete in two cassettes. It was great. Another fellow offered porno tapes. There was all kinds of activity. But time marched on. A few years later the Sony Beta recorder came on the scene. I have always felt that Sony used Cartrivision as a stepping-stone. In any event, interest in Cartrivision began to diminish. Beta was the new kid on the block. I eventually got one too and stopped using my good old Cartrivision.
I am donating all of my Cartrivision gear in the hopes it will be preserved and so that others will be able to see the equipment that started a true consumer video recorder revolution. I think this web site is a great reminder of that heritage. It has been great fun writing this story and very enjoyable reliving the good old days once again. I wish to thank Luke Perry for encouraging me to write this narrative. Without his help most of my Cartrivision equipment would have ended up in the landfill.
This is the end of the story for me. It has been the abbreviated tale of my involvement with Cartrivision, distorted only by the vicissitudes of memory. I sincerely hope you enjoyed reading about it.
GRS June 21, 2003