Saturday, July 30, 2016

The End of 12:00

We have a tendency to fetishize certain old objects. Long after something newer and shinier has come along, we remember them adoringly. It can be something you wear, be it a dress or an old jacket. Maybe it's a utilitarian item, like a pocket watch or a fountain pen. Or perhaps it's something merely decorative, like a vase or picture frame. That said, the veneration is in the eye of the beholder: one person's antique, classic or collectible is another one's piece of junk.

Technology is no different, though to be fair there may be some concrete reasons. Vinyl records may be fragile, but they have a sound that MP3's can't duplicate. Certain old stereo amps may require hard to find tubes, but have a warmer, more nuanced tone than the most modern solid state replacement. More recently, Blackberries can't hold a candle to current smartphones, but no one has ever made a better keyboard for thumb typing. They call them Crackberries for a reason.

Then there are the emotional reasons for fondly remembering an old piece of gear. For example, while cassette tapes may have been hissy and jam prone, for many of us they represented the first time we able to take control of the soundtracks of our own lives. As best explained in Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity," the mix tape on cassette was low art writ high: "The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don't wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules."

Still, I suspect there will be no tears shed for the announcement from Funai Electric. A large Japanese manufacturer of consumer electronics, it makes everything from Smart TV's to dehumidifiers, and owns such well-known brand names as Magnavox, Emerson and Sanyo. But while it has kept pace with such innovations as home cinema sound systems, it was also the last place on earth where you could get what was once a cutting edge technology now laid low. But as of August, no more: the company announced that it will cease production of that first brick in everyone's home entertainment system, the VHS tape player.

Introduced to the home market in 1977, the Video Home System, better known by its initials, was deemed inferior to Sony's competing Betamax. No matter. It quickly became the dominant format, and just 10 years later represented 90% of the $5.25 billion market for home decks. But just a decade later and the end was beginning: the DVD was introduced in 1997, and VHS was over almost as quickly as it began. Well, not quite: as of 2005, nearly 100 million Americans still had a deck in their homes, likely accompanied by a boxed set of Disney movies.

And now it is no more. No more hearing that "RRRRRRR" as a tape rewound. No more hearing that "zzzZZZZZZzzzzz" as a creased part of the tape passed over the viewing heads. No more hearing that "cccKKKKKRRRSSSS" as the tape unspooled into the innards of the machine. And no more "&%@#*" as you hit the eject button and pulled magnetic spaghetti out of the slot.

Like telephone answering machines with beepers and faxes with thermal paper, it's hard to imagine collectors getting together to admire a Sanyo VWM-710 Player-Recorder in silver, even if it is in mint condition. But it's easy to underestimate their impact. After all, their ability to record episodes of "MASH" or "WKRP in Cincinnati" to be watched later made them indispensable, and established them as the Neanderthal ancestor of Netflix.  

Yet, one vestige of the decks that will survive in song and story is the clock in front. Most models took a degree in quantum mechanics to figure how to set it and program it correctly. As such, it was not uncommon to get the second hour of "Good Morning Minneapolis!" when you were aiming for "Hill Street Blues." Still, even a broken clock is correct twice a day. And so at least you had an excuse to get a sandwich whenever, since half the homes in America had front panels that flashed 12:00 PM all the time.


Marc Wollin of Bedford still has the Star Wars Trilogy on VHS. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

No comments: