Be Kind and Rewind: a Eulogy for Lost Formats

The last company in the world that has still been manufacturing videocassette recorders, Japan’s Funai Corporation, is throwing in the towel. They’re saying it’s because it’s too hard to find parts.

When I read this news, I had another one of those little elegaic moments I’ve been having recently. The arrival of VCRs was a thrilling development in the history of the American rec room. It’s hard to express how mind blowing it was to realize you could actually tape shows. The family VCR let me record Saturday Night Live and watch the sketches several times over so that I could recite them verbatim with my other nerd friends. I discovered Lynch, Kurosawa, Greenaway, and numerous other directors thanks to that blocky piece of technology. The sluggish-then-frantic sound of a videocassette tape rewinding is forever recorded in my brain. And, oh, shame on you if you returned the tape to the video store without rewinding it.

When DVDs arrived, they made videocassettes look instantly awkward and pathetic. I’m kind of amazed that there is still a company that’s been making VCRs. But the videocassette is hardly the only video format that died with a whimper.

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Your state-of-the-art, four-sided home movie experience.

Media history is full of weird little branches like laser discs, eight track cassettes, or Betamax, formats that never quite caught on or lasted very long.  My favorite of these lost formats is the capacitance electronic disc, also called the “video disc” by the literally hundreds of people who loved them. This doomed format was essentially a vinyl record protected within a cartridge. You slipped this cartridge into your CED player and flipped it over halfway through. Each disc could hold about an hour’s worth of video, which meant that you had to first insert disc 1, flip it over after half an hour, then remove disc 1, insert disc 2, then flip that disc over after half an hour. The cumbersome CED was no match for the recordable video tape.

I first discovered CEDs a few years ago in a thrift store. I bought a few for a quarter each. They’re like glimpses into a late seventies, early eighties cinema graveyard. I wonder if anybody in the world actually has a machine that can play these things.

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In case you want to watch a tamer version on a lamer format.
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“The Sleeper has awakened!”