Anyone who was around in the 1980s will most likely remember the video format war between VHS and Betamax. But did you know there were other formats around too? One of these lost formats was U-matic, which has a special place in history for being (possibly) the first cassette-based video system, introduced by Sony way back in 1969 and arriving in the UK around 1971.
U-matic was originally a consumer format. However the high price of the machines was prohibitively expensive for most people, so it would be at least another decade before VCRs were a common site in many homes.
One of the benefits of U-matic over later formats was a surprisingly good picture quality. This led to the format being adopted by television stations, especially in news departments, giving rise to the system we now commonly know as electronic news gathering.
The machine in the picture above is a Sony pro-sumer grade unit dating from the mid-70s. I got it because I have some U-matic master tapes that originated from Elstree Studios and I wanted to know what was on them. So I spent weeks scouring E-Bay before a suitable machine appeared.
When it arrived the VCR was in a fairly poor condition. One of it’s plastic feet was missing and when powered up not much seemed to happen. A motor started up inside and an internal light came on but that was about it. So an evening was spent freeing off all the moving parts that had jammed up through years of inactivity. This in itself is not easy. The presence of precision recording heads and delicate sensors means that squinting everything with penetrating oil is a definite no no. So every moving part was made to move again by carefully working it backwards and forwards.
Over the period of a few hours the machine gradually came back to life. First the eject mechanism was sorted. Next came the tape loading system that wraps the tape around the head drum. After a whole evening’s work the mechanics are now working as they should. That is as far as I’ve got for now. The next stage will be to couple it up to a TV to see if there is any kind of picture.