Magnetic Tape

Old fashioned tape recorder
Tape recorder in autostation at Casey station 1974 (Photo: John V. Morrissy)
Expeditioner with 1970s-style hair and glasses holding tape reels.

These photos were taken at Casey in 1974 by John Morrissy. They show a reel-to-reel tape recorder. How many readers remember these, let alone still have one in working order?

Of magnetic tape itself, the archives at the Australian Antarctic Division's Multimedia Unit have a huge collection in the form of Betacam tapes and MiniDVs. The collection stores all the film vision that has been shot for the AAD since 1947. In fact we have over 1580 Betacam and MiniDV tapes.

Between 1996 and 1998 the Division's collection of 16mm film footage was transferred to the magnetic Betacam tape format, to allow for better preservation of the 16mm originals and to allow an easier format to work with in digital editing.

The Division's original 16mm film footage is now in archival storage with the National Australia Archive.

The idea of magnetic recording has been around for a long time. In 1878 an American mechanical engineer named Oberlin Smith, seems to have been the first to conceive the idea of recording the electrical signals produced by the telephone onto a steel wire. He later published the idea, and in 1889 the Danish inventor Valdemar Poulsen put the ideas into practice.

The result of this was a machine called the Telegraphone, this machine used a steel wire wound helically on a cylinder rotating under an electromagnet connected to a carbon microphone. The purpose of the Telegraphone was to record telephone messages in the absence of the called party. This was the world's first answering machine, and was demonstrated at the Paris Exhibition of 1900.

The Telegraphone went in to production in America in 1905 but failed to be a commercial success. Like all new technology it was most likely too expensive and had yet to overcome its novelty value.

During the 1920s 30s and 40s there was experimentation with magnetic recording in Germany, Britain and America mostly with steel tape. By 1940 paper-backed magnetic tape was used in Britain to record programs for radio, and the Germans had been using magnetic tape commercially since 1935.

Following World War II the American 3M Scotch tape company, which had been developing magnetic tape during the war, continued the work with captured German technology and input from the singer Bing Crosby's company, Bing Crosby Enterprises. Modern magnetic tape was in use by 1947, being kicked off with a recording of Bing Crosby. Portable audio reel-to-reel tape recorders were commercially available by the early 1950s.

The idea to use magnetic tape to record pictures and moving vision came about in 1948. The M3 Scotch tape company first demonstrated black and white video recordings in 1950.

By 1956 the first commercial video camera was released, it was not very portable, however it revolutionised television and the first broadcast from video tape was in October 1956. The first colour videotape was introduced in 1965.

With the advent of digital recording the days of magnetic tape will soon be over.

This page was last updated on 18 September 2009.