My First VCR

This is the third in a series of articles about my recent quest to replace a broken VCR in this era of DVDs, DVRs, and other newfangled gadgets. Click here for the beginning of the series.

When Sony first introduced the Betamax video recorder I immediately began reading up everything I could about them and later about the competing VHS format introduced by JVC. It was very interesting to watch the battle between these two incompatible tape formats. Although VHS was of inferior quality, it became more widely accepted. Eventually VHS pushed Betamax out of the marketplace thanks to restrictive licensing policies by Sony and the porn industry’s acceptance of VHS. Check out this article about the rise and fall of Beta. The current a battle between incompatible competing Sony BluRay DVD and HD DVD formats is reminiscent of the old Betamax versus VHS battle.

I kept hoping that prices would come down so that I could someday afford one of these dream machines of either format. I remember talking to a salesman about a $450 Betamax and he assured me that never in my lifetime would I see a VCR cheaper than $400. “They are just too complicated a machine to be made any cheaper than that” he insisted. I had spent too much time working with computers and their ever falling prices and ever-increasing capabilities to know that that was a ridiculous assumption. As I said earlier, VCRs bottomed out at about $50-$60 before their untimely demise.

RCA VFP 170 VCR advertisement

Thanks to a rather generous disability insurance policy from when I worked at IU Genetics Research, I managed to find myself with an unusual amount of disposable income and ended up paying about $1300 for my first VCR. It was an RCA SelectaVision convertible VCR model VFP-170. I’m not sure when I purchased it but here’s a press release dated February 1981. The image on the right is an advertisement for this model. It was called convertible because it was designed to be used as both a tabletop and a portable VCR to be used with a separate video camera. My friend Stu Byram (the one who recorded me singing ” I’m a little Teapot” as a toddler) also had been that same model VCR and had a camera to go with it On a couple of occasions he loaned me his camera to use with my portable recorder.

Amazingly this machine was so primitive that the remote-control was hardwired. That’s right… to work the remote-control you had to drape a 10 foot wire from your TV set to your easy chair. Below are some images of another almost identical model VGP 170 NR which did finally come with a wireless remote. This recently listed on eBay with a minimum bid of $19.95 and it include a camera but it had no bids! As I said earlier I paid $1300 for it.

In this image the piece on the right is the tuner which remained connected to your television and your antenna (this was pre-cable days). The piece on the left was the “portable” recorder which connected to the tuner by a thick cable in the back.

Note that the tuner section had a series of about a dozen buttons which were used to select the channel to record. If you opened a little access hatch on top they were a series of a dozen tiny little thumb wheels that you used to manually tune in your stations. There was a little tiny toggle switch to select VHF channels 2-13 or UHF channels 14-82. The concept of a “cable ready” device was still years off. You could program the device to record anything up to 14 days in advance and not only would it record in standard SP two-hour mode it would also record in four-hour LP mode but it also would use the new six-hour SLP recording mode!

A few years later my uncle Keith bought the RCA model VJP900 which is shown here.

RCA VJP900t showing docking station

Rather than connect the two pieces using a cable, this one had a sort of docking station that you used to connect the portable section. The model shown here sold on eBay recently for $1.75. Ironically Keith never did buy a camera to go with his “convertible” VCR.

Eventually I did buy an RCA camera of my own to go with it. Note in these days they didn’t call them camcorders because they were not camera and recorder all in one. Dad created a camera mount that allowed me to connect the camera to my wheelchair armrest. We would hang the recorder section on the back of my wheelchair in a bag and even supplanted the battery power of the recorder by plugging a cable into my wheelchair battery. We had to wire in three little buttons on the end of a cable so that I can use the pause/record, zoom in, and zoom out functions. I will have more on these famous the buttons in a later installment here.

I really liked my uncle’s VCR because it had stereo sound capability and you could audio dub to put in narration, music or sound effects. I borrowed his VCR one time so that I could do tape to tape editing of some video I shot in the garage area at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I put music in one stereo channel and did narration in the other channel.

I recently dug out that old edited videotape that I had shot at the Speedway which included in narration. Much to my surprise the narration was no longer there. That old stereo VCR used linear recording tracks instead of the flying heads that modern hi-fi stereo VCR’s used today. apparently current VCRs can’t handle that kind of stereo any more.

I don’t remember why or when I got rid of that VCR. At some point I replaced the camera with a new 8mm camcorder. I seem to recall my next big VCR was a very fancy model for which I paid about $900. Its claim to fame was something called “digital effects”. It had some sort of digital frame buffer that when you hit the pause button it would digitally capture the frame and display it perfectly clear from the buffer. It also had some other digital effects built in similar to the kinds of special effects you find built into today’s camcorders. I thought I would use these effects in editing videos but it turned out I never really did any more of that kind of thing.

Well that’s enough nostalgia for now… in the next installment we will talk about about my quest to replace my Toshiba VCR with a VCR/DVD combo even though I didn’t need the DVD section in my bedroom. I will discover it’s not as easy as I expected it to be.

My Passion for Recording

This is the second in a series of articles about my recent quest to replace a broken VCR in this era of DVDs, DVRs, and other newfangled gadgets. Click here for the beginning of the series.

I’ve always been fascinated by tape recording ever since I was about four years old and our family friend Stu Byram recorded me singing “I’m a Little Teapot” on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder. When I was about 8 or 9 years old I got a small 3-1/2″ reel-to-reel machine for my birthday. Being the pioneer that I am… I remember taking the tape recorder to the drive-in movie with me to record music from movies like “Mary Poppins” and “AHard Day’s Night“. I swear I’ve never taken a camcorder into a movie theater but I sure was ahead of my time when it came to bootleg soundtracks. It’s a shame that drive-in movies are so rare these days. It sure would be easy to sneak in your camcorder into a drive-in. However the sound quality sure would leave a lot to be desired.

When I was about 12 or 13 years old I moved up to a regular audio cassette player/recorder with a built-in AM/FM radio and my bootlegging ways continued. I would sit there listening to the FM radio waiting for my favorite songs to come on and I would flip it to record as the song started. In fact I would sit there for hours sometimes hitting record just as the DJ would stop talking in hopes that I could catch more of the beginning of the song. If it was a song I didn’t want or already had, I would simply stop the tape, backup little bit, and cue it up for the next song. I was very popular among the kids in the neighborhood because I had a great collection of the latest music and it didn’t cost me a dime.

Another favorite pastime I had was making comedy recordings in the form of a man-on-the-street interview where all the answers to my questions were a line out of a song. I had figured out how to wire into my record player so that I could directly connect it to my tape recorder even though the record player didn’t have a “line out” jack. I would use a microphone to ask a question like “What is your name Miss?” And then I would record a brief few seconds from the Beatles song “Elinor Rigby” from a 45 rpm record. I would then ask “How are you today?” And I would play few seconds of James Brown screaming “I feel good!” And the comedy would deteriorate from there.

I always figured if I was a little bit smarter I could figure out how to connect a television to a cassette recorder but of course if that was possible, somebody would have done it. Audio cassette recorders barely have enough capability to record decent audio let alone the amount of bandwidth you needed to do video.

Fisher Price PXL-2000 camcorder

It turns out that in 1987 Fisher Price did make a toy black-and-white camcorder that used a standard audio cassette for recording. It was called the PXL-2000 PixelVision KiddieCorder. I never owned one because by that time I already had a real camcorder. But I always thought it was great they figured out how to do it. One recently sold on eBay for about $50. Also check out this article from Wikipedia.

Later in high school my fascination with video recording led me to hangout briefly with the high school Audiovisual Club at Northwest High School even though it was the nerdiest group of people in the school. They had a black-and-white camera and video tape recorder that they used to tape basketball and football games for the coaches. Unfortunately all of the tape to place high in the bleachers or a press box so I couldn’t help out with that and I really didn’t have much time to participate in extracurricular activities because the bus would pick me up about 15 or 20 minutes after my last class.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that my dream of video recording in the home would come through when I purchased my first VCR. Read all about that in our next installment.


This is the first in a series of articles about my recent quest to replace a broken VCR in this era of DVDs, DVRs, and other newfangled gadgets.

There are currently four VCRs in my home in addition to a DVR/cable box in my living room. You would think the loss of one VCR wouldn’t put a crimp in my style. After all there are still three other VCRs and the digital recorder in the cable box can record two different programs at once. The VCR in the living room we rarely use anymore because we have the DVR/cable box. The living room VCR is mostly used these days copy things off of the DVR on to tape so that I can watch them in my bedroom. The VCR in my office is used for transferring things from my computer to tape. It’s connected to the computer using a Pinnacle Studios Dazzle 150 analog video converter box. In my bedroom I watch a lot of tape in bed at night but sometimes there’s something I want to record while I’m watching so I really need two VCRs in the bedroom. It’s also nice to have two VCRs in the same room connected to each other so did you ever wonder copy something from one tape to another it is easy to do so. Also there have been times when I needed to record as many as four shows while watching a fifth one cy do really need several VCRs.

The living room, office, and one of the bedroom VCRs are all JVC which is really handy because my multifunction remote control can handle all of them using just one device on my a device remote. The other VCR in the bedroom was a Toshiba and it was probably my favorite one in the house. It seemed to handle old crinkly tapes or poorly recorded tapes better than any machine in the house. I liked the fact that every time you hit play, stop, rewind, or fast forward it would briefly display the tape counter onscreen. You did not have to hit a display button to get the tape counter to show. It was the VCR in the bedroom that I used while watching TV in bed and the JVC model was a backup.

So the other day it started making funny noises and it ate up a tape and refused to eject it. Dad tried to take apart and figure out what was wrong but it kept eating tapes and jamming the eject mechanism. So I decided to go online to to pick out a new one.

They didn’t have any!

Neither did Circuit City… or H.H.Gregg… or anywhere else I looked.

I couldn’t believe it but nobody makes just plain VCRs anymore! You have to buy a DVD/VCR combination. In fact there are very few models that are just DVD/VCRs. Most of them nowadays are DVD recorders with a built-in VCR. It used to be you could get a really nice 4-head hi-fi stereo VCR for about $50. The VCR/DVD combos cost as much as $100 and the ones with DVD recorders are as much as twice that.

I think the signs are very clear that the VCRs days ar e numbered. That amazing old friend of ours the VHS VCR is going the way of BetaMax, and 8-track audio tapes… and come to think of it regular audiocassettes have pretty much disappeared as well. It’s not just good by VCR… it’s goodbye to tape in general!

This horrifying revelation has prompted me to reflect on my personal history of VCRs. In the next installments we’ll talk about my passion for recording and my first VCR. Then we will discover an even more amazing secret about VCRs and even DVD recorders that are losing one of their greatest features. Stay tuned as the mystery reveals itself!