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|Memories of VideoDisc - CED Folklore|
I got the idea for doing this section of Memories of VideoDisc after perusing the cool Folklore site put together by the developers of the Apple Macintosh computer. This page is for CED developers and those involved with RCA VideoDiscs when they were on the market to submit stories about their experiences. Although every page of the Memories section has a form to submit stories, some people have mentioned that they would like to submit a story that does not apply to any of the existing pages, and since there are about a thousand pages on the Memories site, some simply do not have the time to look through them all.
To submit your story, please email me, and if possible, include a photograph or other picture to include adjacent to your story. Please submit the photo in JPEG format with a .jpg extension. Do not send the photo in ZIP format with a .zip extension as it might be identified as spam. If you have a photo, but lack the means to scan it, you may mail it to me at the address on the contact page and I'll scan it and mail it back to you.
When submitting stories where you talk about specific VideoDisc co-workers, managers, or other associates, try not to be overly critical. A good rule of thumb is to not say anything on this page you would not be willing to say to someone face-to-face. I reserve the right to return for further editing submissions that use harsh language or are overly critical.
Author: Bob Huck
Time Frame: 1959-2004
Forward: I think my experiences in RCA were typical. I enjoyed nearly 30 years with the company and learned something new every day. Despite the demise of the company, the people of RCA were an extremely interesting bunch. Now some 20 years later, all have scattered to the four winds and some have gone on to their eternal reward. In this narrative, I try to include some obscure bits of 'folklore' and some bits of history during the time when I was involved in the early development of the RCA CED video disc. Time fades memory, so I hesitate to name too many names in fear of omitting many who deserve much more than footnotes in the dusty pages of... folklore!
In my own history, I joined RCA as an Electrical Engineer in 1959 at their Cherry Hill (NJ) operation. After 5 years in their Computer Systems Division, I transferred from New Jersey to help develop magnetic tape manufacturing capability at an RCA Magnetic Products facility on East 30th Street in Indianapolis. Over the next few years, I led some engineering teams to develop manufacturing processes for computer tape, helical-scan video tape, quadruplex video tape, and eventually, magnetic disks for the computer industry. RCA already had some audio magnetic tape manufacturing capability, so there was some basis and rationale for expanding the magnetic tape product lines. We manufactured the magnetic disks in Bryn Mawr, South Wales, U.K., but OEM'd the disks from other manufacturers for the U.S. market. In a few years, RCA terminated their Computer Division in Marlboro, Massachusetts and in New Jersey and, with it, eliminated much of our customer base. So the Magnetic Products Division was next on the chopping block and it was shut down in 1970. I was the next-to-last employee of that Division. But I jumped from this sinking ship by immediately transferring to the RCA Record Division next door on East 30th Street. There I worked directly for Al Stancel in the video engineering group under the direction of the RCA Records Engineering Department Manager, Warren Rex Isom.
Early Folklore... as I remember it: My initial assignments there involved development of video signal mastering processes for manufacturing various pre-recorded media, including holographic tape, magnetic tape, and something called a video disc. This made some sense because the RCA Record Division was heavily involved in manufacturing LP audio records at the time. Looking ahead, it was apparent that some form of video product was the wave of the future and RCA needed to prepare for that day. But it was not clear which video technology was going to eventually succeed. In RCA Marketing, there was strong sentiment for a video tape home recording system involving a cassette. RCA Engineer Ray Warren was instrumental in developing a videotape cartridge version, but RCA eventually abandoned it in favor of VHS. At the time, we seemed to be in a "3-way horse race" to see which video technology would eventually "win" in the consumer market. Video magnetic tape, being farther along in development, came to the market first (remember the Sony Betamax vs. VHS war!). Holographic (named Holotape) tape never made it to the consumer market. Video discs would come later.
In early 1971, I recall that one of my first tasks was to develop a flying-spot scanner which was to be used to derive composite 3-color video signals from 35-mm movie film... at 10 to 30 times slower than real time! The premise was to lower the video bandwidth to a frequency range which could be accommodated by the video disc mastering capability at the time. At 30 times slower than real-time, it would take 30 minutes of recording time to produce 1 minute of video playback! Consequently, all the initial recordings were very short. And the mastering process was electron beam recording on photo-resist coated substrates, a process which required clean room facilities. The technology for the electron-beam recording process was developed at RCA's Princeton (NJ) Laboratories and was considered to be the automated way of the future. Meanwhile, the disc player was being developed in parallel to the disc. The playback styli were very unpredictable and some consideration was given in 1971 to using a "pressure pick-up", a piezo-electric device, which had been developed by Matsushita and used in the early Teldec players. Throughout the early 1970's, a number of field tests were conducted to determine the viability of video discs and players in the home environment (more about these disc field tests later). The small-team atmosphere allowed us to be both creative and objective. Like Edison and the electric light bulb, our failures were only lessons about those things that did not work!
In an ironic twist of fate, one lone experimenter (Jerry Halter) at the RCA Laboratories had developed an electro-mechanical recording process which, while interesting, was largely ignored by the massive effort to develop electron-beam recording (EBR). Despite the general consensus that it was impossible to record video bandwidths (even slowed-down video bandwidths) by electro-mechanical means, Jerry continued his experimental work. In early 1972, Jerry was "un-funded" by the Laboratories and, subsequently, accepted a transfer to the Engineering Department of the Indianapolis RCA Record Division, headed at the time by Warren Rex Isom. Thus, Jerry was able to continue his work in the back room at Indianapolis.
His electro-mechanical mastering process initially involved a diamond-tipped PZT cutterhead (on a precision lathe) used to "over-cut" spiral grooves in lacquer-coated aluminum substrates. A highly-skilled Dutch diamond cutter, Cory Knottenbelt, was hired for the critical diamond facetting requirements. Cory's contribution to the final success of the electro-mechanical recording process is little-known to the outside world, but it is another story of extreme skill and dedication. There are many others.
Historically, the major developments in electro-mechanical mastering then took place over a 5-year period. The first reasonably good video recording with the electro-mechanical recording technique was made at Indianapolis in July 1972. It was recorded at 30 times slower than real-time at a groove pitch of 2,000 grooves per inch. The first color video recording with sound was made in November 1972. The first good recording from 35mm film signals (using my flying spot scanner) was made in March 1973. Continuing improvements were made in cutterheads and by December 1974, test recordings were made at 20 times slower than real-time and at 5555 grooves per inch. The first electro-mechanical recording in a metal substrate (amorphous copper), a significant process enhancement, was made in March 1974. By February 1977, the first 30-minute composite video and audio recording was made at real-time. This meant that the video signals no longer needed to be "slowed down" for the recording or mastering process. Also, by this time, the groove pitch was almost 10,000 grooves per inch! In August 1977, the first 1-hour recording was successfully mastered. The impossible had become reality!
In summary, Jerry Halter's principal contribution to the video disc program was the development of electro-mechanical cutting heads capable of operating at the frequencies in the video band. During the early 1970's, when RCA's major video disc mastering effort was directed at electron beam recording, he was essentially a one-man team on high-frequency cutterheads. His work led to the development of a recording method that was more reliable, easier to operate, less costly, and gave a better signal to noise ratio in finished discs than electron-beam recording. The final disc recording system that went to market was an outgrowth of his work. He had four U.S. patents, all used in the introductory system. Jerry's effort was eventually recognized. He (along with a number of Princeton Researchers) received the David Sarnoff Award for Outstanding Achievement.
I will regress here to insert an article from a Consumer Electronics flyer from March 22, 1976 which describes the state of RCA's video disc development at that time. The influence of RCA Records people was obvious. RCA was about ready to produce 30-minute-per-side metal-coated polyvinylchloride (PVC) discs which were mastered with electron-beam recording. Also, the discs were not in caddies, but were in audio-record type sleeves or boxes and the discs were to be loaded into players by means of finger holes located near the disc center. I awaited with great interest the autobiography of VP Richard Sonnenfeldt who bravely demonstrated these first CED video discs to the world in 1975. During this period, I only met him once or twice to demonstrate our state of disc development at Indianapolis. His autobiography provides a glimpse of the many vagaries of RCA's upper management at that time and of his own trepidation about the market-readiness and the reliability of the fledgling 30-minute-per-side video disc. Looking back, it clearly was a classic case of how not to bring a product to market! Fortunately, reality seeped in and RCA did not bring the video disc to market in 1976 or 1977. We were painfully aware that there were a number of significant issues that needed resolution.
One of these issues involved video disc handling by the consumer. Remember, the RCA LP Records people preferred a low-cost "bare" disc so it could be handled just like an LP audio record. In early 1976, I was directly involved in conducting several significant video disc field tests at different locations around the country. Results of all the field tests were the same, and very bad! The tests all indicated that fingerprints from handling the bare disc and the typical long-term home environment were very detrimental to disc playback performance. So, despite the optimistic prediction in the above industry flyer, fingerprints on discs were a major problem. My report "Fingerprints - Their Effect on Video disc Performance", published on June 15, 1976, concluded that:
...One of the problems with fingerprints (on discs) is their wide variability in chemistry, pressure, foreign material (hand cream, oil, dirt, etc.), and size of contact areas. This has discouraged a lot of testing due to the difficulty of quantification of fingerprints. At Indianapolis, we have observed that certain individuals almost always provide highly-visible, heavy fingerprints, however, there does not appear to be any way to determine all the human variables involved. Instead, the approach generally taken is to utilize the "worst" fingerprints and attempt to survive them.
Scuffs, scratches, and debris of infinite types present an additional hazard in association with fingerprints, Not only do these conditions introduce the potential of poor playback, but also increase the potential for disc wear and stylus failure. Our present experience indicates (it has not been proven) that the disc wear and stylus failure rates increase with time after exposure to these hazards.
The concept of exposing a videodisc to the same environments as an audio record is questioned. We have shown that the videodisc will be generally treated in the same way by the same range of consumers. For this reason, consumer education on disc handling will probably not be very effective (already demonstrated in a prior Private Field Test I).
Some techniques will probably be partially effective. These include improvements in disc coatings, fingerholes, deeper grooves, etc., stylus configurations, player features, and/or package design. Some of these which were involved in the Private Field Test I, probably were partially successful but even that is debatable.
Finally, the only totally effective way to prevent fingerprints will be to utilize a disc-in-the-package or cartridge concept where the disc is always retained in the jacket outside the player. Although this is not currently being considered as an alternative because of cost or drastic re-design of the player, it does provide the best long-term answer to disc quality relating to fingerprints, other handling damage (scuffs, scratches, debris), and airborne dust and contaminants which can affect the disc surface and can affect disc playback performance.
When management saw these results, a major effort was made to overcome this problem. Many things were considered and tried, but the major improvement (despite the added cost) was the development of the disc caddy by Fred Stave and his engineering team. As a result, consumers would never again have to handle bare discs. Thus the fingerprint problem was bypassed.
Another major problem was that disc play performance suffered greatly in high humidity-high temperature conditions. We even had an environmental test called the "New Orleans high-temperature-high humidity" test that was supposed to simulate typical hot, humid summer days in New Orleans! Discs exposed to these conditions all showed high incidences of "locked grooves" and stylus skipping during playback.
One long Friday afternoon in July 1978, after some very poor playback test results, I was contemplating the moisture sensitivity problem and came up with the thought that "immersing" the disc in water would either ruin or help the disc. Taking a couple of discs into the men's room, I washed both sides of the discs under the cold-water faucet. The "folklore" that sprung up later was that I had used the urinal. That is not true! Anyway, we were totally surprised when these "washed" discs performed very well even after extended high humidity and high temperature conditions. This then led to more experiments to verify the effect and eventually led to the use of rinsing and drying steps, prior to lubrication, in the manufacturing process. You can see this process on the video disc manufacturing section on the "Memories" disc, side 2, during minute 9. The final rinse process was a series of conveyorized rinse steps (deionized water with a Shipley additive). The rinsing process removed the low-molecular lubricants in the disc formulation that tended to be on the surface of newly-pressed discs. his is described in U.S. Patent #4,472,337. One of the co-inventors, F. Russ Nyman, was very instrumental in refining the final disc rinsing process and another individual, John Prusak, developed the manufacturing machinery to do the rinsing and lubrication processes.)
Delaying disc production until 1981 allowed for these technical issues to be resolved and for a new management team to take the videodisc into the market. Along with the development of the conductive (carbon-loaded) formulation by Princeton's Len Fox, the need for the "Autocoater" with its expensive clean-room requirements was eliminated. Compression molding was utilized rather than injection molding. The disc caddy was introduced. The disc play time was extended to 1-hour per side. Significant player enhancements and improved testing techniques were made. The new "groove-skipper" allowed the stylus to skip through defects and also provided "interactive" and "banded" capabilities. With these and other enhancements, the quality of the discs and players was improved enormously. It was also time to introduce the electro-mechanical mastering process. The rest is history and the CED video disc entered the market with a major splash in early 1981.
From my notes and memory regarding the early RCA CED video disc development, history and folklore seem to be inseparable. Yet neither can adequately describe the dedication, the ingenuity, and passion of the RCA people who put their careers on the line for this "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to do something that had never been achieved before. This is perfectly described in Dr. Jay Brandinger's introduction of the "Memories" commemorative video disc! In some ways, the CED development is akin to the situation described in Tracy Kidder's famous book, "The Soul of a New Machine" which tracked a team of engineers at Data General Corporation working on an innovative new computer. The situations were very similar: "a gripping tale of hope and anxiety, of will power and despair, and of immense dedication."
Author: Darrell Johnson
Time Frame: 1981 to Present
My experience with the RCA CED VideoDisc began in early 1981. Our family-owned RCA Brand TV Sales and Service store sold the original SFT100 player. Having been an RCA TV Dealer since 1975 we were one of the original RCA Dealers nationwide to roll out the CED player.
When RCA announced in early 1981 that the CED Videodisc player was ready for the market the distributor we purchased our TVs from informed us that the player would be introduced nationally in March. Our Dad went to the open house our distributor had debuting the new CED player. If I remember correctly we had about 10 of the SFT100 players in stock when they were introduced. We also had a CED SelectaVision demonstration kiosk where there was a 19-inch RCA Colortrak TV and a SFT100 Disc player mated together in a rather large RCA Dealer CED display. We also had several posters, consumer pass outs, etc. that RCA furnished to us. On the day the player was offered to the public we had about 10 to 15 disc titles in stock, just enough to show customers that you could buy Hollywood movies and watch them at home. There were some movies, cartoons, and maybe a music VideoDisc. We didn't sell very many SFT100 players on the roll out date even though it was a major event across the country and RCA had done their best to advertise the new CED player. There was quite a bit of interest in the player, but I think the fact that VCRs were firmly in the marketplace hurt the sales of the player.
During the remainder of 1981 we began to get more and more videodisc titles and it definitely helped player sales. They weren't great but we did sell approx. 40 players in 1981. Funny thing is the disc themselves sold at a faster rate than RCA had predicted. For every player we sold it resulted in 4 or 5 discs being sold, and at $25.00 to $30.00 each a typical customer was spending over $100.00 on discs when they bought a $499.00 player.
The model SGT200 (Stereo) player was introduced in 1982. Can't say that it dramatically increased player sales but when the SGT250 (Stereo/Remote) player came out it did pep up sales somewhat. Disc sales continued to be strong throughout 1982.
1983 brought the AUTO LOAD player to the market with the SJT 100, 200, and the remote model SJT300. Also new to the market was the SJT400 player with its on-screen displays, Digital Command remote and stereo sound. I remember when we saw the first SJT400 we were blown away with the Random Access and Seek features and with the Interactive discs that RCA had introduced - it was a great selling point for our customers.
By late 1983 and early 1984 the writing was on the wall as far at the future of the CED player. Deep discounts, consumer rebates, free discs, etc. were being offered by RCA just to sell players. You could buy a player for as little as $99.00. When they announced the end of CED player production in 1984 we weren't surprised as our player sales were pretty much over - we would occasionally sell a player but there was very little interest from the public. In total we sold around 150 CED Players in the 4 years they were on the market, and approx. 500 discs.
When RCA announced that player production was ceasing we then sold all of our remaining discs at a discount. Sold them one at a time until we had about 150 left. We then sold those to one of our customers who had previously purchased a 400 model player. I think maybe we sold them for $3.00 each, what a bargain! By the time RCA abandoned the CED player, home VCRs were being sold by the millions, and in fact, our VCR sales in one year exceeded the total CED players we had sold in four years.
We also had an RCA Authorized Service department and did work on the CED Players both in warranty and out of warranty. As I recall the players were quite dependable as the most common problem was a defective stylus and occasionally a bad audio processing IC. I do remember on the SFT100 that RCA had a turntable platter revision to prevent intermittent speed problems which caused color fade and rainbow, but other than that they were good players. Don't remember working on many of the J or K model players other than changing out a worn stylus.
I never thought that the CED format would one day be a collectable. When player production ceased in 1984, I thought that was the end of that. It was forgotten by me until the late 90s when I found a player on eBay. Having been an electronics technician for over 20 years, and remembering the CED players back in the 80s I found that there was a need for someone to repair the players again. I started offering a repair service on the players and have been doing it ever since. For me the CED format is just so amazing. Think of it, a needle that picks up picture and sound from a disc that looks like a phonograph record!
My 2 brothers and I still operate our family-owned business selling and repairing TVs and electronics - we're celebrating our 44th year in business. Our RCA days left us with some fond memories, not of just the CED player, but the RCA brand of TVs, VCRs, and audio products, especially the DIMENSIA Brand. We stopped selling the RCA brand of TVs in 2005.
It's a shame that the RCA brand as we knew it no longer exists, as they partnered with a Chinese company and since then the brand has been pretty much a throw away TV found in department stores.
Author: Marvin Bock
Time Frame: 1975-86
I was employed by RCA SelectaVision at the Rockville Rd. Plant from 1975 until the closing in 1986. Injuries received due to ignorance on the part of middle management had left me unable to work in my occupation.
I came to RCA as an expert in the field of injection molding of plastics. I was treated as though I was employed to clean toilets. Somehow, I have managed to survive in spite of my work related injuries. I look upon those twelve years of busting my butt and breaking my back as the biggest mistake of my life.
However, I know that I am not alone in having gotten screwed by RCA Corporation. I wish those others the best.
Author: Richard Sonnenfeldt
Time Frame: March 1975
Philips and MCA included an RCA contingent in a glitzy public demonstration of their laser disk at the Hotel Pierre in New York. There I realized that I was looking at a laboratory model, not a production prototype.
The Philips disk played very well for a few minutes, but when it had glitches, the demonstrator quickly turned the player off and launched into talk. The Philips project was technically under engineering manager William Zeiss, a Dutch colleague of mine from Digitronics days, who let me know, quite discreetly, that he had developed the Philips disk as a communications device, not as a consumer mass product. He said: "The show biz types are a bit ahead of themselves." Zeiss was never given a part in those demos nor was he allowed to speak publicly. At Philips, too, manufacturing feasibility was far in the future. There, in their marriage with MCA, the Hollywood powerhouse, it was the MCA promoters who got ahead of the Philips researchers.
Four days later, on March 19, 1975, I demonstrated the RCA videodisk to more than a dozen writers from "The New York Times," "The Wall Street Journal," "Forbes," "Time" and the trade press. My showing was carefully cast as a "Report of Work in Progress." Though I was sweating bullets, my show went off without a hitch. These were the same viewers who had just seen the Philips demonstration. I showed our good program segments, but I did not disguise the status of our development.
- An excerpt from Richard Sonnenfeldt's soon to be U.S. published memoirs. The German Edition is available now.
- Courtesy of Richard Sonnenfeldt, the complete VIDEODISK Chapter from his autobiography is now available on-line.
Author: Mike Miller
Time Frame: 1981-86
My experience with CED discs was as a retailer. My store (G&M Video, in Speedway Indiana) was one of the largest retailers of CED discs in the country. (We even had a thriving mail order business for CED discs, which benefited from the poor distribution of CED in some parts of the country). We stocked every CED title ever made, and offered discs for both sale and rental. Our store also serviced the players, so I have some experience with the quality of the machines as well.
One thing that helped us was that we were located about two miles from RCA's disc pressing plant. We got a lot of business from RCA employees, who for some reason couldn't buy (and certainly couldn't rent!) discs direct from the factory. Through some of our RCA-employee customers we also got advance information on what was due to be pressed.
When RCA got the player price down to $99, we sold a lot of machines. (Over 100 in one week during one particularly well-advertised sale, if I recall.) In general, customers liked the machines, and tended to put up with the random skipping. The audience tended to be middle or lower class; CED never did attract an upscale videophile consumer. The main attraction was price-- cheap movies on a cheap machine. Quality wasn't much of an issue with the core market.
Unlike the LD market, we tended to have a heavier rental business than sale business. However, we did move thousands of discs each month-- mainly to customers who also rented. When we received real hit movies-- like the initial release of Star Wars-- we would order and sell hundreds of copies a month. While most customers would buy a disc a month or so, we did have a core group of customers who purchased almost everything that was released.
It was a good business.
While it lasted.
When RCA ceased player manufacturing, they promised to support the installed base for three years. Well, it didn't last quite that long. The customers saw they were being abandoned and flocked in droves to buy VHS machines. As the disc business started to dry up, both RCA and CBS scaled back and finally ceased pressing of new discs. We changed our business over to VHS tapes--which was mainly rental, not sale-- and I moved on to another career (publishing computer books, if anyone cares).
The funny thing is, RCA sold more players and discs in a single year than Pioneer did in the first 10 years of LD, yet CED was perceived as a failure. Perhaps if RCA had recruited more supporters-- and worked out some of the technical glitches-- then things might have been different.