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Decimo Vatman 120D Calc
UT-66 Video Sender, 1984
Multi-room TV was one of those whizzy new ideas that the home entertainment industry liked to wheel out every few years. Nowadays, of course, it is decidedly old hat. Almost any smart TV, smartphone, tablet or PC can display a multitude of live and streamed TV channels and video sources, provided they’re connected to a broadband or mobile network but in the olden days it was regarded as something of a luxury. Indeed, not so long ago even having more than one TV was considered a sign of wealth. Then, in the late 70s the VCR arrived, which changed forever the idea that all TV channels came through a rooftop aerial, beamed from land-based transmitters. With a VCR you could create your very own TV channel, watch what you wanted, when you wanted, but only on the one TV it was connected to. It wasn’t an insurmountable problem, though. The resourceful, and those with money to spare could install cables to distribute the output from a VCR to other rooms in their house. It was a bit of a faff, and the lack of a back-channel meant there was no way to control the VCR, but being able to watch a movie, or a recorded TV programme on a telly in the bedroom was (briefly) a good way to impress the neighbours and your mates down the pub.
It didn’t stay much of a status symbol for long, though. The game changer was the Video Sender, like this UT-66, however this particular model definitely wasn’t one of the common or garden models… Most of those first generation video senders cost between £20 and £30 and comprised two small set-top modules. One was a low-power transmitter that connected to your VCR’s audio and video (AV) output sockets; the other was a receiver that plugged into the remote TV’s AV or aerial sockets. Two-part video senders generally operated on frequencies well away from the UHF TV band, to avoid interference, and typically had a range of around 10 to 20 metres, which was enough for most homes. However, they were illegal in the UK, as was pretty well everything back then that transmitted radio signals. In practice, though those early wireless senders, which were sold openly and legally (you just weren’t allowed to use them…), didn’t attract much attention. But the UT-66 and others like it were another matter. They were specifically banned and some unlucky owners even managed to get a mention on TV and in the national press, and not for a good reason.
The big difference between the UT-66 and the other, less contentious two-part senders, was that there’s no separate receiver module. That’s because it’s a miniature UHF transmitter. Quite simply it re-broadcasts signals from a VCR on the same band of frequencies as the main TV channels. It was a useful sounding feature as it meant there was no need to plug anything into the TV, just tune it to the UT-66’s output signal. Unfortunately it had a couple of rather serious flaws. Firstly there’s the potential for interference to adjacent TV channels, and in some areas it was theoretically possible to wipe out several close neighbours TV reception. The real problem, though, and the one that made the authorities sit up and take notice, was the very real possibility that what you were re-broadcasting on your sender could be picked up on the neighbours TVs. If you happened to be watching a porn movie or X-rated material then you could be in big trouble, and there would be little difficulty tracking you down.
The UT-66 is actually very simple and basically just a more powerful version of a common or garden device called a RF modulator. These could be found in every VCR, video game and even early DVD players. Their job was to turn AV signals into very weak UHF signal – typically a few microwatts -- tuned to channel 36 in the early days -- so those devices could connect easily to any TV through its aerial socket, and no matter how challenged it was in the socketry department.
The UT-66 works in exactly the same way as an RF modulator, except that it operates at significantly higher output power levels of a few milliwatts, transmitted from its built-in telescopic aerial. Range is claimed to be in the order of 30 metres or around 100 feet, and because the audio and video can be tuned separately it can be used on a wide range of 625-line UHF TV systems, here in the UK across Europe and many other countries. As you can see there’s not much inside the box, just a small circuit board with four transistors, a few coils and a handful of passive components. It comes with a set of connecting leads and a 12-volt DC mains adaptor, and it’s ready to go straight out of the box. If you were lucky you could use it on the default channel, but shifting to another channel was no problem with just one pre-set screw adjustment, through a hole on the top of the metal case.
This one was a swapsie, with a fellow gadget collector, it cost me a couple of new and still sealed VHS tapes, with a street value of around £10.00, which is precisely what my friend paid for it at a car boot sale. It was in as-new condition and still in its original box and packing, with the instruction leaflet, but no mains adaptor. Incidentally, the instructions claim that frequency stability is maintained by ‘crystal oscillation’. If there’s a quartz crystal or any kind of crystal controlled circuitry anywhere on that PCB it has been extremely well hidden… It’s in full working order, but it’s not going to get much, if any use since there is still the potential – albeit quite small -- for it to interfere with weedy digital TV broadcasts.
What Happened To It?
Video senders are still widely available but only as paired transmitter–receiver outfits, operating on 2.4 and 5.8GHz, with both analogue and digital encoding. Ironically the new generation of legal senders are perilously close in frequency to 802.11 Wi-Fi signals but instances of interference appear to be relatively few and far between, or at least, if they are a problem, no-one is making much of a fuss about them, yet...
UHF senders, like the UT-66 remain strictly illegal to use, but still perfectly okay to buy and sell and occasionally one turns up on ebay. Prices are variable and the few I have seen recently go for as little as £5.00 and as much as £30.00, though why you would want one, and what you might use it for is best left unanswered. Just be aware that should you be tempted there’s a fair chance it could cause interference and tick someone off, and you will be quite easy to find!
First Seen: 1984 (Manual)
Original Price: £20?
Value Today: £5.00 (0718)
Features: low power UHF transmitter, tuneable channels 21 – 68 (474 – 850MHz), composite video and audio (mono) inputs – phono sockets, external power – 2.1mm DC power socket, 6- section telescopic antenna, claimed range approx 30 metres
Power req. 12v DC mains adaptor
Dimensions: 125 x 70 x 20mm
Made (assembled) in: Taiwan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
Philips N1500 VCR Home Video Recorder, 1972
Innovative, historic, revolutionary, pioneering: all words that accurately describe the Philips N1500 video cassette recorder. But to that list we can also add things like forgotton, ignored, idiosyncratic and downright scary; the latter comes from my personal experiences, having been on the wrong side on several of them over the years. But let’s focus on this very special machine’s place in the brief history of modern technology. It was, quite simply, the very first home video recorder. It introduced the world to the delights of watching one TV channel whilst recording another, automated time-shifting, ad-skipping, the acronym VCR and as far as I’m aware, it was the first and only home video recorder to be partially made of wood. It’s also has the distinction of being the heaviest item featured, so far, in dustygizmos.
So where to begin? Well, it’s important to put the date of its arrival in to context. It was in 1972, just three years after the first moon landing and the year of such notable events as the miner’s strike and the Watergate scandal. We bopped and grooved to ABBA and Led Zeppelin, watched The Godfather and Diamonds are Forever, lusted after digital watches and were amazed by video arcade games like Pong. In other words to most people under 30, with good memories, who think video cassette recorders came and went with VHS, it was a very long time ago.
In the UK and most other countries there were just a small handful of broadcast TV channels, so the facility to record programmes really wasn’t a big deal, but that wasn’t what drove Philips to take the monumental risk of developing a consumer video recorder. They could see the future and were well aware that the Japanese were busily working on the technology; the race to create a format that could be adopted around the world was on. The Japanese had a head start and Sony was leading the pack with its cassette-based U-Matic system. This was first seen in prototype form in 1969 and it went into production in 1970. Although U-Matic was a bulky professional video recording format, it didn’t take much imagination to see that a more compact consumer-friendly version wasn’t far off.
However, Philips beat them all and there is no getting away from it, the N1500 was a remarkable achievement but now, with the benefit of hindsight, it does feel under developed and rushed into production. In fact it was only around for a year or so before newer, more refined versions appeared, to fix the multitude of glitches and flaws that sadly plagued the first generation of VCRs. But all that was still to come. The N1500 was the first and it triggered the home video recorder revolution with a range of features that became a standard for almost all VCRs for more than a decade. They included a front panel clock with an ‘event’ timer, which you can see on the right of the front panel. And yes, it looks like the type of mechanical clock/timer that used to be fitted to cookers, because that’s precisely what it is. It’s also fairly crude in the way it works because it only turns the power on and off at pre-set times so the machine has to be left in the record mode for it to work. It has a 6-channel tuner, piano key controls, a tape counter, top-loading cassette holder, RF modulator with aerial bypass, audio and video outputs, tracking control and so on, all of which would become familiar to future home video recorder owners.
One thing didn’t make the cut, though, and that was the idiosyncratic tape cassette. Philips abandoned the traditional side-by-side or ‘tandem’ reel layout, which they successfully pioneered with the audio Compact Cassette a decade earlier. Instead they went for stacked or ‘co-axial’ reels, one on top of the other. There is a slim technical argument for this arrangement. Video signals contain a lot of information, compared with audio recordings and there are only two ways to squeeze them onto magnetic tape. The first is to run the tape past a stationary recording head at ridiculously high speed, which would require a vast amount of tape on mammoth reels. The second method is to run the tape slowly but make the head move quickly by mounting it on a spinning drum. This means recordings will be laid down on the tape as a series of short slanted tracks and the co-axial layout means the deck mechanism can be made small enough to fit into a living-room friendly sized box. However, this was more than offset by the increased complexity of the transport mechanism and the stresses and strains it puts on the tape, which resulted in very serious wear, reliability and quality problems.
Ultimately the design of the cassette contributed to the demise of the Philips VCR format but that was only one of a number of reasons this machine didn’t hang around very long. In order to get it onto the market as quickly as possible Philips resorted to some rather bizarre solutions to the problem of extracting the tape from the cassette and wrapping it around the head drum. This involved a Heath Robinson style ‘string and pulley’ mechanism, and gears that had a nasty habit of cracking under the strain. The recording heads also proved to be fragile and prone to clogging. Problems with the design of the cassette were also made worse by the simple practical and commercial needs to have running times longer that the meagre 30 minutes of first generation cassettes. The use of a thinner (and more fragile) tape and on later models an LP recording mode extended it to 60 and eventually 180 minutes but it didn’t help. And then there was the price. At launch it sold for a whopping £499, equivalent to around £6500 in today’s money, and well beyond the pocket of most consumers, then and now!
For all of its faults it remains a remarkable piece of engineering and as you may be able to see from the photographs the case is packed to the gunwales with complex mechanical and electronic assemblies. The deck mechanism alone takes up a good 50 percent of the available space but it’s the densely packed circuit boards and thick wiring looms that really impress. The printed circuit boards are effectively most of the innards of a colour television, and it is worth pointing out that regular colour TV broadcasting in the UK had only begun a couple of years before the introduction of the N1500. There is also a fair amount of circuitry devoted to video recording and replay plus all of the control systems, needed to take care of all the moving parts. This was several years before specialised microchips were developed to carry out these tricky operations so you can imagine the problems faulty machines posed to engineers, most of who had never encountered such complex contraptions before. Indeed, expert help was also needed to get them working. Philips routinely sent out engineers to install new machines and show owners how to use them.
Faults were very common but that had little or nothing to do with build quality. It’s a masterpiece of engineering with a sturdy metal chassis; the main circuit boards are mounted on hinged frames to make them easy to get at and most parts can be quickly exchanged, which is just as well. Even the case was finished to an unusually high degree with a veneered wooden (well, chipboard) sub-frame. This is semi-structural too; responsible for adding rigidity to the case and probably quite helpful in damping down noise from the many moving parts. All that metal, wood and plastic had a big impact on the weight, a little over 16.5 kilograms or around 4 or 5 times as much as an early 80s VHS VCR. In short it’s a wonder so many of them were sold and to mangle one of Samuel Johnson’s best quotes: it’s a lot like a dog that walks on its hind legs. It’s not so much that it can do it, but that it does it so well…
This is the third NV1500 to have passed through my hands. One and two were basket cases, given to me in the late 70s and early 80s after they became uneconomical to repair. Prices quoted at the time were quite a bit less than a brand new mid-range VHS video recorder, and in those days repairs came without any sort of guarantee. I had a go at fixing them but it quickly became obvious that there were multiple faults, and I wasn’t the first. Replacement parts would have cost a small fortune so their scavenged remains ended up in the dump. I wish now I had kept them as some parts were salvageable and might have helped get this one back on its feet.
I found it at a Brighton flea market around 10 years ago. It only cost £10.00 but I decided it was worth it because it was in good condition, appeared untouched and hopefully potentially repairable. As it turned out it was almost completely dead though a few bits and pieces, like the power supply and drive motors seemed to be working, which gave me some hope. After several wasted hours I gave up when the loading mechanism threw a strop and chewed up a tape, followed by the transport mechanism’s string and drive belts. I dug it out of the garage recently, to have another look. It’s still in fair to good cosmetic condition but things hadn’t improved inside the box. Quite the reverse; it was still pretty much lifeless and what remained of the drive belts had turned into an evil, gooey mush. It took more than half a day to remove the worst of it using over 50 cotton buds, half a litre of Isopropyl alcohol, at least 10 pairs of disposable rubber gloves. I also managed to ruin a perfectly good pair of trousers in the process and hefting it around gave me backache. I have tracked down a relatively cheap source of replacements belts, and a video on YouTube shows how to re-string the loading mechanism, but it’s not a job I’m looking forward to any time soon. I’m even less inclined to waste much more time or money on it as it is clear that even if by some miracle I did manage to get it working picture quality is going to be awful and it would be unlikely to last very long before something else failed.
What Happened To It?
The high price, the design of the cassette and reliability issues all contributed to the N1500 and the VCR format’s eventual demise. It never really took off in the crucial US market due to unresolveable technical difficulties that resulted in even shorter tape running times. However, what finally killed it off was the arrival the Beta and VHS formats in 1975 and 76 respectively. At launch both Japanese systems were more or less fully formed. They had none of the wrinkles and quirks that plagued the VCR format – I would like to think the Japanese learned from Philips experiences – nor did they suffer from to the same extent from high prices and lack of reliability. VHS quickly became the dominant format, mainly due to JVC’s strategy of licencing the technology to other manufacturers. Its success was also accelerated by the fact that cheaper, more widely available VHS machines spawned a fast growing market in pirate and pornographic videos.
To their credit Philips didn’t throw in the towel straight away and resisted the temptation abandon their small slice of the market. Production of VCR machines finally came to an end in 1979 but at the same time Philips launched an entirely new home grown format called Video 2000. This was another highly innovative system, using an almost conventional cassette, only a little larger than a VHS tape, but it could be flipped over, effectively doubling running times. It had other (at the time) novel features, like rock-steady freeze frame and picture search but it was also beset with reliability issues. Only Philips’ long-term partner Grundig grudgingly adopted the format (and got it to work properly) but it was just too late and VHS was too well entrenched for it to have any real impact.
It was the end of an era and Philips started marketing badge engineered VHS recorders in 1982 and manufacturing them, under licence from JVC in 1985.
Working N1500s are by now extremely rare and if you can find one it will probably set you back the thick end of £1000, with no assurances that if it is actually used it will last longer than than a few months. Basket cases like this one are still sought after, though, as a source of spares and static display, providing they are cosmetically in good shape. Prices vary widely but you are very unlikely to see a complete one, with a slim chance of restoration, for less than £100. Second and third generation VCR machines tend to be more reasonably priced. N1700 models, from 1977 onwards, are a much better bet. The deck mechanism and electronics are much more reliable and easier to fix. Repairables start at under £100 and working examples occasionally turn up on ebay for under £200. They are not a bad investment either; they should only increase in value and may even earn their keep, transcribing and recovering old VCR tapes to more recent formats or digital media.
First seen: 1972
Original Price: £499 (approx £6,700 in 2018)
Value Today: £100 - 1000 (0318)
Features: Co-axial tape cassette (running times 30 – 60 minutes at standard speed of 14.29cm/sec), slant-azimuth video recording system, top-loading deck mechanism, built-in 6-channel varicap UHF tuner, clock with single event mechanical unattended recording timer, UHF modulator with RF bypass. Tracking control, Colour Killer mode (for black and white recording), moving coil audio level meter. Audio and video inputs and output (DIN sockets)
Power req. 110 - 245 volts AC
Dimensions: 560 x 335 x 160mm
Made (assembled) in: Austria
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
Standard SR-V307 Miniature Portable TV, 1967
It is easy to get into a tangle with miniature TVs, however, I can say with some certainty that following its launch in 1967 the Standard SR-V307 briefly became the World’s Smallest TV. This was thanks to its 73mm (3-inch) screen and compact case, trouncing the previous record holder’s, (Sony’s 4-204UW from 1965), 102mm (4-inch) screen. Needless to say the glory didn’t last, but for a short while if you wanted a quick way to drain your bank account, go boss-eyed and be the envy of your mates down the pub, this was the way to do it. Think of it as the sixties equivalent of the latest tech gadget, and like its modern counterparts, it was quickly forgotten as soon as the next big (or small) thing came along.
Credit where it’s due, though, and the SR-V307 is a really impressive example of sixties miniature electronics. Remember this was at least decade before microchips found their way into consumer products and as the badges on the front and back proclaim it uses transistors. In 1967 most TVs were hulking great things and far from portable; the majority still used valves and we had only just got used to pocket transistor radios. The V307 isn’t quite pocket-sized, but it’s not far off.
Thankfully previous owner(s) of this fine specimen must have got bored with it quite early on, put it into storage and forgot all about it because more than half a century after it was made it is still in great condition. It works too, though there’s not much to watch on it these days, but more about that later on. It was ahead of its time in other ways. It’s a 625-line design with a UHF tuner, and again this has to be put into context. In 1967 625-line services had only been up and running for four years and many people were still watching 405-line VHF or 'dual-standard' 405/625-line TVs. On a historical note, the last 405-line transmitter was switched off in January 1985.
But back to the V307 and apart from the tiny black and white picture tube and UHF tuner, other features of note include portable battery operation using nine 1.5-volt C cells. These are housed in a detachable battery pack occupying around a quarter of the TV’s case. These can be either normal disposable types or rechargeables, thanks to its built-in charger. It can also operate from an external 12-volt DC supply, using a mains adaptor or car battery lead. There’s a telescopic antenna on the top and a connector for an external aerial on the back. On the front panel and in addition to the usual rotary on/off volume, brightness, contrast and tuning controls, there are knobs for fine-tuning horizontal and vertical hold. They’re a real sign of the times and it would be a few years before they disappeared completely from the front panels of TVs, with automatic circuits taking care of such fiddly adjustments.
In the top of the case there‘s a folding carry handle and around the back are sockets for an earphone and the external 12-volt supply plus some recessed pre-set adjustments that are clearly best left alone, unless you know what you are doing…
Removing the case sides reveals a sturdy metal chassis supporting half a dozen circuit boards and the miniature picture tube. It’s superbly well made and most areas are fairly easy to get at, should a fault arise, though thankfully this wasn’t something I had to put to the test as it worked the first, or rather the second time power was applied. I found it in a box of bits and pieces, including some very manky looking 60s cassette recorders, at a Midlands antique fair. It appeared to be part of a house clearance and when asked for a price, the stallholder didn’t even realise it was a TV and definitely had no idea if it worked or not. He wanted £3.00 for it, which I felt obliged to haggle down to £2.00 since at the time, although it didn’t look too bad on the outside, I had no idea what state the insides were in. As it turned out all it needed was a sweep out and clean up.
The first test, using a bench power supply, was a bit of a disappointment as nothing happened. However, I noticed that it was drawing just a few milliamps, but over the course of a minute or so this started to rise. This is not uncommon on old electronic gadgets that haven’t been powered up for several years. It’s often a sign that the vintage electrolytic capacitors are ‘re-forming’ (or about to pop), so the PSU was quickly switched off. Before switching it on again the output was reduced to a just couple of volts. The idea is to slowly increase the voltage over the course of several minutes up to the normal working voltage. This reduces stress on the circuitry and can help to revive long dormant components. Fortunately it worked and at around 8 volts the current consumption stared to rise quickly and a single bright horizontal line appeared on the screen. At 10-volts the line started to expand and by 12-volts the screen was fully lit, with a loud hiss coming from the tiny front-facing speaker. Without any analogue UHF broadcasts the screen showed only noise, though turning the tuner knob resulted in some vague patterning in the background and changes in the hiss from the speaker, which suggested that the tuner was also working. The final test was to hook a VCR’s RF output to the TV’s external aerial socket, and at or around channel 36 a sharp, but very unstable picture appeared. A few moments spent adjusting the two Hold controls locked the picture and tweaking the brightness and contrast knobs displayed an unexpectedly crisp image.
I’m afraid my pix do it no favours whatsoever. It’s been a long time since I tried to take photo of a CRT screen. To be honest I was never very good at it. Lighting can be quite tricky and you have to keep snapping away, experimenting with shutter speed and exposure in the hope of getting at least one shot that’s not too dark, and without the characteristic ‘banding’ blotting out much of the screen…
What Happened To It?
The V-307 appeared in several guises and a near identical model, with a dual VHF/UHF tuner, appeared in the US and parts of Europe as the Minni TV-5050. The Standard Radio Corporation of Japan also became well known for its range of Micronic Ruby miniature radios, but it couldn’t compete with the Japanese mega brands. It was eventually sold off in the mid 70s and renamed Marantz Japan, which today markets a wide range of mid and high-end hi-fi products.
The fad for ultra small TVs continued well into the 70s and 80s with milestone products from the likes of the UK’s Clive Sinclair, and Sony and Panasonic and later, Casio, Citizen, Seiko and Sharp, as LCD screens took over from CRTs. For the most part anything with a screen size under 100mm had to be regarded a novelty product; they’re almost impossible to watch comfortably for more than a few minutes, but for several years there was a healthy demand for portables with screens over 150mm, for camping and caravanning. By the early noughties portable TVs, of any size, had all but disappeared from the marketplace. This was due to several factors, including the switchover to digital broadcasting, the increasing abilities of laptops, notebooks and netbooks to display video and web TV and more recently tablet PCs, smartphones using high-speed broadband and 3G and 4G mobile connections.
In spite of the lack of broadcast analogue TV channels there are still plenty of things these old TVs can be connected to, including VCRs and DVD players with RF outputs, old video game consoles and so on. Of course they don’t have to be useable or working to be interesting and there is a small but thriving collector’s market. Prices for rare, unusual or groundbreaking models can easily get into three figures, and occasionally four, for something really special. Equally there are enough of them around for those with shallower pockets to start a decent collection. There’s even the odd bargain to be found, especially if you don’t mind fixer-uppers and know your way around soldering irons and multimeters.
First seen: 1967
Original Price: £85.00
Value Today: £25.00 (0617)
Features: Monochrome 73mm (3-inch) CRT display, 625-line CCIR video standard, analogue UHF tuner (channels 21 – 70), variable vertical & horizontal holds, contrast brightness & volume, earphone & external antenna sockets (3.5mm jack), external 10 – 12-volt DC socket (2-pin proprietary), telescopic antenna, internal battery charger, folding carry handle
Power req. 9 x 1.5v C cells or external 12-volt DC adaptor
Dimensions: 168 x 180 x 88mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest) 7
Philips VLP-700 LaserDisc Player, 1982
Those of us who lived through the bitter video format wars of the late twentieth century may remember, with a shudder, the seemingly never-ending battle of the video discs. Between 1970 and 1995-ish there were getting on for a score of systems vying for attention. Some of them even made it into production – in most cases only briefly. They included: CD Video, CED, DiscoVision, DVD, Laserfilm, LaserVision MovieCD, Thomson TVD, VHD, Video CD and VISC, to name just a few. There were plenty of others too, that never went much beyond the prototype stage, but it was obvious to almost everyone following the antics of the consumer electronics industry that a frantic search was underway for a successor to the video tape recorder, and vast fortunes....
With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see why most of them failed but at the time it was easy to get caught up in the excitement and marvel at the ingenuity of each new system as it was announced. Some of them were clearly no-hopers, though, and there were many raised eyebrows over the ones that had inadequate running times, grooved discs, mechanical styluses or discs so delicate that they had to be protected from clammy-fingered punters, by encasing them in clumsy plastic caddies. One of the early systems did show a lot of promise, though, and it went on to become a moderate success. That was LaserDisc, a joint development between MCA in the US and Philips in Europe, what’s more LaserDisc technology prepared the ground for other, even more successful optical disc systems, including CD-ROM, Compact Disc and later, DVD and Blue-Ray.
But it’s back to late 1978 when the first LaserDIsc player, called the MCA DiscoVision, went on sale in the US. Originally it was hoped that a European model, built by Philips would follow in early 1980 but the development of a version for the PAL colour TV system ran into unexpected delays; there were also problems with disc manufacture, so the launch was delayed, several times. Eventually the first European machines rolled off the production line and into the shops in the spring of 1982 and here is one of them, the Philips VLP-700. In fact there were two models to choose from in May '82, the other one, the VLP-600 was slightly cheaper as it didn’t come with the a wireless remote control facility (though the handset for the VLP-700 was an optional extra, costing an additional £50…)
The LaserDisc format, later rebranded LaserVision, comprised a two-sided disc, 30cm in diameter, with the capability of storing up to 55 minutes of high quality video and stereo audio per side. That was barely sufficient for most feature films and a lot of movies ended up on two discs. Bear with me now as it gets a bit complicated because there were actually two types of disc, known as CAV (constant angular velocity) and CLV (constant Linear Velocity). Only CLV discs had the full 55 minutes per side playing time. The cost of squeezing all that information on to the disc was that the speed at which the disc rotated had to vary as the laser pickup tracked from the centre of the disc to the rim. This also meant that the available trick frame facilities were next to useless (just a wobbly pause and juddery picture search). On the other hand CAV discs, which spun at a constant 1500rpm, ran for only 36 minutes side, but because a single frame of video could be recorded on each revolution of the disc it was capable of storing high quality static images, with very stable variable slow-motion and seamless fast picture search. This facility was meant to be used for information retrieval, in business, research and education and so on, and was the storage and display system chosen by the BBC for the ground-breaking Domesday Project, in 1986.
We won’t delve too deeply into the technology but it’s worth mentioning that like CD ROM, audio CD, DVD and Blu-Ray etc., information is stored in the form of a long spiral of microscopic mirrors or ‘pits’ etched (or pressed) on to the reflective surface of the disc. These are ‘read’ by a finely focussed laser beam; there's no contact between the pickup and the disc as it tracks across the surface so the disc never wears out, in theory. Unlike later incarnations of the optical disc, LaserDisc is a purely analogue system, with picture and sound encoded as an FM signal, represented by varying the distance between the pits, rather than as a stream of digital data. It was capable of excellent – for the time -- picture quality, with around twice as much detail and colour information as a VHS video recorder. The audio was fairly ordinary, though. European PAL discs initially had only basic stereo sound but because there were fewer picture lines in the NTSC system, used in the US and Japan, there was room on the disc for additional sound channels and even digital soundtracks but it would be several years before this facility was available on PAL discs.
Before we move on, a quick mention of the laser. As you may be able to see from the photos the one used on first generation models like the VLP-700 is a pretty impressive size, mounted on a sliding platform or 'sledge', underneath the spinning disc. Inside the metal tube there’s a sealed glass cylinder, with precision mirrors at each end, filled with a mixture of helium and neon gasses. The beam is produced by ‘exciting’ the gasses with a massive 15,000-volt charge. The beam emerges through a tiny hole at one end of the tube and directed, by a complex arrangement of prisms and lenses, onto the surface of the disc. There is much to go wrong and it’s a wonder that it ever worked, let alone so well. The laser tube was notorious for failing, mainly due to leaky seals, the lenses and prisms were glued in place and prone to fall off – refitting them was a highly skilled job requiring a lot of expensive equipment -- and the complex circuitry responsible for tracking and focussing the laser required expert alignment and frequent attention. The rows of circuit boards housed in metal boxes is enough to scare the pants off most electronic engineers… Fortunately gas lasers didn’t hang around very long; players with smaller and more reliable solid-state lasers, simplified pickup heads and microchip-based circuit boards started to appear in 1984.
The styling of the VLP-700 owes a lot to Philips VCR format video tape recorders, and some said at the time, a top-loading washing machine. It was an ugly looking swine, and a real lump, weighing in at almost 14kg, however, it was very easy to set up and use. There’s an aerial bypass for connection to almost any TV, and separate video and audio outputs for those with more sophisticated display setups. To play a disc all you had to do was switch it on, pop open the lid, place it on the spindle and close the lid. Play starts automatically and all you have to do after that is flip sides or swap the disc when it reaches the end. Most of the playback controls do nothing when playing CLV discs but on CAV discs there’s the option of rock solid free frame, forward and reverse play, variable slow motion and silky smooth fast picture search
During my time editing and writing for various technology magazines I had many encounters with video disc players but they always seemed a lot more trouble than they were worth and at no time was I tempted to buy one. To begin with they weren’t cheap; at launch the VLP-700 sold for £500, plus £50 for the optional remote. Then there was the cost of buying discs that you would probably only watch once or twice – they generally sold for between £20 and £30 in the early days. On top of that there was the simple and unavoidable fact that unlike a VCR, it couldn’t record and that was what people wanted. This, therefore, is the first and only LaserDisc player that I have ever owned, and the only reason I bought it was because it was being sold, at a car boot sale a few years ago, for the ridiculous price of £7.00, and that included half a dozen discs, I couldn’t even bring myself to haggle. I had absolutely no expectations of it working after all these years, but thought it would be interesting to fiddle around with it. I was pretty confident that the laser would be shot, like as not the mechanics were gummed up and there was a next to zero chance of the electronics still working. I didn’t even bother hooking it up to a TV for the first test and I wasn’t at all surprised, when I plugged it in and switched it on, to hear ominous noises coming from inside the box.
Rather than wait for the smoke to appear I quickly switched it off and whipped off the lower part of the case. The main circuit board is mounted on a heavy-duty metal chassis and it opens into a service position to reveal all of the gubbins inside. Surprisingly it appeared to be in near-pristine condition, it was probably the first time it had been opened up. I spotted the first problem straight away. The drive belt connecting small motor to the gearbox on the laser tracking sledge had come adrift. It had stretched and hardened so it wasn’t going back. The belt appeared to be a fairly specialised type but a small elastic band turned out to be just the right size, and it worked perfectly, though for how long, who can say?
It was connected to a TV and powered it up for a second time; the disc spun up to speed and a picture, of sorts, appeared on the screen. The image was highly unstable, and in black and white, but this was an unexpected result that suggested that the laser was doing something and major mechanical parts and the bulk of the electronics were mostly still working. It was a great start but to get it to a fully functional state is going to be a nightmare and it will take a great deal more expertise, and specialised test equipment than I have available. Searching through archived technical forums suggests that it could be due to a low output laser, mis-aligned optics and failed electronics, in short just about anything. Maybe one day, if I haven’t sold it for spares or repair, I’ll have a proper go at it, especially if I ever manage to find a donor machine at a similar price, but for now it’s going to have to wait its turn in the depths of my garage…
What Happened To It?
The UK launch of the VLP-600 and 700 was a fairly understated affair, arousing comparatively little public interest. That was mainly down to a combination of factors; those in the know were frustrated by the multiple delays, the price was too high for the VCR-buying mass market, there were only a hundred and fifty or so movies available, and they were expensive. The superior picture quality wasn't such a big deal in the early 80s and didn’t make up for the fact that it couldn’t record TV programmes, nor could it compete with the thousands of pre-recorded movies available on VHS tape. A cynical observer might also add that one of the reasons VHS took off so quickly, and saw off rival formats, was the early availability of porn videos; the very high costs of disc mastering and manufacturing meant that this simply wasn’t an option with LaserDisc, though I seem to remember a few slightly ‘racy’ title did become available in later years.
A little over a year after the launch Philips tried hard to jump-state sales by slashing the price of the player, down from £500 to just £300, and that included £50 worth of discs but it had little effect. They tried reducing the price again in the summer of 1984, this time down to £230, and the price of discs dropped to between £10 and £15 but still the only takers were the handful of people who took picture quality seriously, plus a steady steam of business and educational users. LaserDisc received a very welcome shot in the arm in 1984 when Pioneer got in on the act with a selection of re-badged Philips machines, and their own models, which tended to be more sophisticated and a lot more reliable. Some aficionados also claimed Pioneer players had superior picture performance but it was features like built-in disc auto changers and later, the facility to play audio CDs, that kept them in the game, and ultimately, made them the market leader – not that there was much competition.
The decline of LaserDisc had already begun long before Pioneer’s involvement and the supply of new titles slowed down throughout the late 80s and 90s. Nevertheless Pioneer stuck grimly to the format, supported by a small but devoted band of enthusiasts – many of them in Japan -- and it wasn’t until 2009 that they eventually stopped production.
Early Philips players in good working order are few and far between and collectors are prepared to pay upwards of £150 for one, depending on its condition. Faulty machines are not uncommon but unless you have the necessary technical knowledge, specialised test equipment and a good source of spares, or know someone who has, plus very deep pockets they’re best avoided. My one, which shows some promising signs of life would could fetch between £50 and £80 on a good day, so it was a very decent investment but it’s probably not an area collectors of old tech should get into without knowing exactly what they are doing and unless you are extremely lucky most boot sale bargains are likely to end up being giant 14 kilogram doorstops.
First seen 1982
Original Price £500 (£550 with remote control)
Value Today £50 (0416)
Features LaserDisc/LaserVision format video disc player compatible with 30cm CAV (constant angular velocity) and CLV (constant Linear Velocity) discs, Helium-Neon gas laser, PAL-only replay, variable slomo & single frame playback (CAV discs only), fast play (fwd & rev), fast picture search, RF in/out (coax), stereo audio out (phono), video out (BNC), optional remote control
Power req. 220 VAC
Dimensions: 565 x 410 x 155mm
Made (assembled) in: Netherlands
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Maplin YU-13 Video Stabilizer/Enhancer, 1988
You might be surprised, nay, shocked, to learn that Maplin Electronics, that bastion of high-street technological probity have a slightly shady past. Allow me to explain. Back in the late 1980s, at the height of the VCR boom, Maplin was openly selling a device, called the YU-13 Video Stabilizer & Enhancer. Its only real purpose was to defeat the anti-piracy measures used to stop people making copies of Hollywood blockbuster movies. To be fair at that time video piracy was still a bit of grey area and the legislation that would make it, and devices like this, illegal was still to come, but everyone knew it was wrong, and truth be told, almost everyone was doing it.
By current standards video piracy was very much an amateur pastime, in the early days at least. It depended on someone, somehow acquiring a copy of a movie, connecting two VCRs together and producing, in real time, a single copy. Remember, this was back in the bad old analogue days, when VCR playback was already quite whiskery. Making a copy of an already inferior picture on a domestic VCR degraded the quality still further. Even though pirate recordings were almost universally awful it was quite a thrill to see a movie days or weeks ahead of its official release. However, because the quality was so poor more often than not you would still end up paying to watch the movie at the cinema or renting or buying it when it was released.
At first the studios didn’t seem overly concerned but eventually the criminals moved in, with back street VCR ‘farms’ churning out thousands of illicit copies on an industrial scale, some of them even used sophisticated high-speed copying and duplicating equipment. The studios started to take it seriously; the impact it was having on their revenues became hard to ignore and they set about developing systems designed to stop piracy.
A lot of them were ineffective, though and embedded ‘spoiler’ signals or tinkering with the video information recorded on the tape often made them unplayable on ordinary VCRs or unviewable on older TVs. However some systems did make the grade, the most popular being Macrovision. It went through several stages of development but the most successful method, widely used on European PAL standard recordings, was to insert pulses into an unseen part of the video signal called the vertical blanking interval. The idea was these pulses would fool around with the duplicating VCR’s automatic gain control, resulting in a dark and unstable picture. Macrovision wasn’t perfect, though and it could also mess up the picture on some VCRs and TVs but legend has it that shops selling and renting videos kept a stock of unprotected tapes under the counter, to placate irate customers. In the end the Macrovision system probably wasn’t a big concern for the professional pirates but it probably acted as a deterrent against casual home copying.
So, back to the Maplin YU-13, which appeared towards the end of the 80s, by which time copy protection was widespread. Camcorders had also become very popular, so they could claim, wink, wink, that it could have an application in making copies of home movies. Everyone knew what it really was for, though; it even spelled it out (or rather misspelled…) on the box: ‘Eliminates picture roll casued (sic) by copyguarded tape…’.
It’s not much to look at, just a small off-the-shelf plastic box with three largely self-explanatory knobs on the front, labelled Audio Gain, Stabilizer and Video Gain. On the back panel there are six phono sockets for the AV in and out cables -- it connects between two VCRs -- plus one other socket for an external 12-volt DC adaptor. There’s quite a lot going on inside the case. Most of it is fairly easy to figure out with a fair amount of the circuitry devoted to the audio and video gain functions. There’s also an NE556 dual timer chip. This is almost certainly used to regenerate the incoming video signal’s horizontal sync pulse as it gets mangled by VCRs and the copying process. There’s possibly some cleaning up of the blanking interval as well, though this would be unusual on a comparatively cheap ‘stabiliser’ like this one.
It’s very well made and this one, which I must have acquired during my stint as editor of Which Video? Magazine looks like it has never been out of the box. It probably hasn’t; I can’t remember the exact circumstances of its arrival but it was probably sent to the magazine for review but due to its, shall we say, ‘sensitive’ nature, it was never tested. It probably still works, though how effective it is remains a mystery. To find out would involve digging out a couple of VCRs, AV cables, hooking it all up and finding a copy-protected to tape to try it out on. Maybe one day but it’s a lot of faff for little or no purpose since there’s nothing useful or interesting it can do nowadays.
What Happened To It?
I cannot say for sure how long Maplin stocked this device but it probably wasn’t very long, no more than two or three years. By the early 90s the movement to crack down on large-scale video piracy was well established. The major studios, law enforcement and agencies like F.A.C.T (Federation Against Copyright Theft) were very busy closing down pirate operations, with some very high-profile fines and prosecutions. Maplin would have been well aware that continuing to sell the YU-13 could get them into trouble so it just quietly disappeared. It was the end for high street sales of low-end stabilisers -- you could still get them from less reputable outlets. If you really needed the facility most of the functions used to clean up copy-protected recordings were available on a new generation of digital video processors, used for editing video recordings, but these cost significantly more than products like the YU-13. What really killed it, though, was the emergence of DVD in the mid 90s, which eventually put paid to whiskery old analogue VHS, and ushered in the new era of digital piracy.
There can’t be many YU-13’s still kicking around, which it is not surprising as it is practically useless in the age of digital video. No doubt there are still a few analogue diehards out there but I suspect that even they would be hard-pushed to find a use for it. Possibly it has some cachet as a quirky ornament though it’s not very interesting to look at. So what is it worth? I’m being charitable giving this one a value of £5.00, and that’s only because it is in pristine condition and still in its original box. If you ever come across one that’s less than mint, I would say your best offer probably shouldn’t exceed 50 pence…
First seen 1988
Original Price £29.99
Value Today £5 (0316)
Features Video stabilisation (sync pulse regeneration), video & audio gain adjustment, AV inputs & outputs phono socket external DC supply socket
Power req. 12 volt DC (external adaptor)
Dimensions: 140 x 95 x 45mm
Made (assembled) in: Taiwan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
FVF VTC-200 Video Tape Cleaner, 1985
It is worth checking the title again; note that it says video tape cleaner, not video cleaner tape, and for the benefit of those who never tangled with video cassette recorders (and count yourself lucky…), here’s a brief history lesson. Before DVD, DVRs, Video On Demand, digital downloads, the Internet, and so on, if you wanted to watch a movie, that wasn’t currently being shown on one of the three or four broadcast TV channels you either had to have recorded it, rented or purchased it on video tape, and the chances are it would be on a VHS cassette. VCRs came and went in roughly 25 years, between the late seventies and early noughties and whilst they mostly worked quite well for the first year or so, performance tended to tail off quite quickly after that.
The problem is VCRs are an unholy mixture of temperamental electronics and complex mechanics, with lots of whirry bits to go wrong. Dirt and dust getting into the works could quickly clog the delicate moving parts and dry out lubricants on the deck mechanism. Airborne contaminants would get in through the ventilation slots but the biggest threat was the stuff imported directly into the machine’s innards via tape cassettes, especially if it was on the actual tape, from where it would be smeared all over those delicate moving parts.
At the height of the video boom popular rental tapes could pass through hundreds of grubby hands in just a few weeks. It wasn’t unknown for a cassette to be returned to the rental shop in the morning, coated in a film of sugary drink, tea, coffee, oily finger marks and all manner of damaging substances, only to be rented out again later the same day, still carrying its noxious payload. When picture quality got really bad VCR owners would often resort to cheap VHS cleaner cassettes, but the results were generally disappointing as by the time you noticed how bad the picture has become the damage had been done.
In fact the only way to make sure the picture quality on a new VCR didn’t deteriorate after a few months was never to feed it with rental tapes, or invest in gadget like the VTC-200. It’s the consumer version of professional videotape cleaners, used by some (a few) of the better video rental shops and it’s pretty obvious what it does. Tape is drawn out of the cassette and passed over a pair of soft fibre brushes, soaked in a cleaning fluid that removes all but the most stubborn grime from the surface of the tape. It is really easy to use; just fill the circular reservoir with cleaning fluid – more on that in a moment – pop a VHS tape onto the capstans (the left one is connected by pulley to a small motor) and lock it in place. Insert a dry washing brush and slide the switch to the On position. When it gets to the end of the tape it switches itself off and the cassette can be removed, rewound and safely used.
The outfit comes with a bottle of cleaning fluid labelled 1. 2. 2. Trifluorethane. It’s not a chemical you come across every day but you may have heard of its by another name, CFC 113. It is one of the notorious chloroflurocarbon family of chemicals, blamed for the damage or ‘hole’ in the Earth’s ozone layer. It was widely used as a refrigerant and it also happens to be a very effective solvent and cleaner; apparently it was also popular telephone sanitizer. Under international treaty CFCs were phased out in the late 1980s but they hang around in the upper atmosphere for decades and a lot of it is still with us. I seriously doubt that the VTC-200 had any measurable part to play in the destruction of the ozone layer but it’s fortunate that the VHS format died out when it did, and – as far as I can make out – few VTC-200s were ever sold.
I found this one in box in a dark and scary corner of my loft. As far as I recall it was sent to me for review, for one of the video magazines that I was involved with back in the 80s and 90s. The selling price is an educated guess but it’s probably not far off; one day I will dig through my pile of old mags to get an accurate figure. For the record it still works, there’s really not much to go wrong with it, and the bottle of cleaning fluid is still half full but rest assured, and for the sake of the planet, the cap is on tight!
What Happened To It?
I cannot say for certain how many VTC-200s were made or when it finally disappeared from the shelves but it’s not the sort of accessory that would have sold well, or hung around for very long. In fact I would be surprised if it lasted much into the 1990s as by that time VCR owners had become accustomed to the steady drop in picture quality. Budget and mid range models tumbled in price and it was often cheaper to replace an ailing machine, rather than splash out on maintenance, repairs or accessories. It’s a pity because if accessories like this had been more widely adopted by rental shops and home users a great many VCRs would have survived into retirement age. I doubt that many VCT-200s lived to tell the tale; I have never seen another one, though sadly that doesn’t make it valuable and I’m am probably being optimistic with my £10.00 valuation. There is no denying it has curiosity value, though, and it serves to remind us of a time when a clumsy, slack-jawed, sticky-fingered idiot could really ruin your Saturday night viewing.
First seen 1985
Original Price £30.00
Value Today £10.00 (0515)
Features VHS format, manual tape unlace and threading, pulley driven tale-up reel capstan, auto power off, LED indicators, cleaning fluid reservoir, removable cleaning brushes
Power req. 220VAC
Dimensions: 22 x 22 x 70mm
Made (assembled) in: Germany?
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Panasonic AG-6124 Timelapse VCR, 1997
The history of video recording is very well documented and there’s little that hasn’t been said about the legendary VHS vs Betamax format battle of the early 1980s, but one of the less well-known stories of VCR technology concerns its role in video surveillance. In this area there was no competition; VHS was the outright winner, almost from day one.
Using what was basically a home video recording system for an application as demanding as security and surveillance might seem a strange proposition but it actually made a lot of sense. By the early 80s the picture quality of the VHS system had reached the point where it matched and even surpassed the performance of the general-purpose CCTV cameras of the day and mass production had reduced the cost of hardware to a fraction of that of industrial video recording equipment, but there were a few hurdles along the way.
The first one was recording time. The best that consumer VCRs could manage was 3 hours, or 6 hours in low quality LP mode. Clearly this would not be enough to keep watch on business premises that might be left unattended for 12 hours or more. The second problem was reliability. It didn’t really matter if a cheap home VCR packed up after a couple of years but a surveillance video recorder has to operate continuously, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, with minimal intervention or maintenance. No home VCR could manage that and it looked like a very tall order, but by the late 1980s several companies, and Panasonic were early pioneers, had solved all of the problems. VHS surveillance VCRs quickly became the backbone of the video security industry, and it remained that way for more than 20 years, until digital recording systems started to take over in the early 2000s
Extended recording times proved to be a relatively simple problem to solve and it basically involved precision deck mechanisms slowing down the tape transport to a crawl or incremental steps, whilst keeping the head drum spinning at its normal speed. This is to maintain the format's specified writing speed, which ensures a VHS quality picture. The net effect was time-lapse recording, and instead of the consumer/broadcast standard of recording 25 fields per second, some surveillance VCRs would record a single field once every 8 seconds. There were some spectacular feats in tape duration and during my time reviewing equipment for security magazines I routinely tested high-end machines that could record non-stop for up to 960 hours (40 days!) on a standard E-80 (3-hour) VHS cassette.
Ruggedness and reliability was more of a challenge for the manufacturers and it would involve making parts to higher tolerances, using more durable materials, rigorous quality control and regular inspection and maintenance procedures. Needless to say this was reflected in the price and surveillance VCRs typically costs between 5 and 10 times as much as a top of the range home VCR, but in general it was regarded as a small price to pay when it came to protecting stock, personnel and businesses from criminal activity.
The Panasonic AG-6124, which we’re about to look at here, was aimed at small and medium sized companies, retail premises and so on, which may be unoccupied overnight or for just a few hours every day and where it is useful to make full motion real-time recordings, with accompanying audio. It has four speeds, for 3, 6, 12 and 24 hours recording time on a standard E-180 cassette. It is also quite compact, just a little larger than a portable VHS deck, very easy to set up and use via a menu-driven on-screen display, and keenly priced, which made it very attractive to small businesses. It also had an excellent pedigree and when this model first appeared, in the mid to late 90s, Panasonic were established market leaders with an excellent reputation for reliability, aftermarket service and support.
In spite of its size the AG-6124 is well specified with comparable, if not superior, performance to many of its contemporaries, and although it only has single video input and monitor outputs, it could be connected to and synchronised with a CCTV camera switcher or video multiplexer for recording from multiple cameras. Other options include a programmable timer, so that it can be set to record at pre-determined intervals; it has fail-safe recording that automatically resumes after a power cut, an alarm mode that switches to 3-hour real-time recording when an external alarm is triggered and to ensure reliable operation there is an hour-meter that shows how long it has been in use and remind the operator when it is time to have it serviced; items like the tape heads need to be inspected at 1000 hour intervals, for example. Installation and operation are as simple as it gets and once it has been connected to a camera or video input and the date, time and duration settings programmed, using the on-screen display, it can be set to record and left to get on with the job. The tape can either be automatically overwritten or manually ejected and replaced at the end of the interval. If a recording needs to be reviewed it works just like a regular VCR with fast tape search and still frame functions, and because it largely conforms to the VHS technical standard, tapes can be played back (albeit without the same degree of replay speed control) on any domestic VCR. Recordings are indelibly time and date stamped, for evidential purposes, and interestingly the VHS tape medium made tampering very difficult, compared with modern digital video recording systems.
I purchased this machine in the late 90s machine from a friend who worked for security installation company, It was second hand but had been regularly maintained; I can’t remember exactly how much I paid for it but it was likely to be less than £100. It was used in my own office CCTV setup, more or less continuously for five years, without a single failure or glitch and that was without it ever being cleaned or serviced. After being in storage for more than 10 years I was not in the least surprised that it powered up and worked straight away. Picture and sound quality is still pretty good too – for VHS anyway -- and that really is everything you need to know about how well these things were built!
What Happened To It?
The first digital surveillance recorders started to appear in the early 1990s but the first generation machines were incredibly expensive, complicated and unwieldy and lacked the near-universal compatibility and familiarity of VHS tape. The video surveillance industry was (and to some extent still is) resistant to change for change -- if it 'aint broke etc. -- and it was a while before the technology improved to the point where it rivalled VHS on the most important areas, namely image quality, reliability, features and cost. However, it had to happen, and by the early noughties surveillance DVRs using a mixture of recording formats (DVD, hard drive and solid state memory) were starting to have a serious impact on the market, and by around 2005 it was pretty much all over for VHS. There are still plenty of tape systems in use but most of them are now on borrowed time, and even this little AG-6124, whilst in good working order, and probably with a few years left in it, is no longer any use for serious surveillance operations for the simple reason that the on-screen day/date display only goes up to 2009.
You don’t have to look very far for cheap, retired timelapse VCRs, but it can be a risky purchase if you actually want to use one for its intended purpose. These machines will almost certainly have been heavily used and it is likely that maintenance routines became lax towards the end of their working lives. Machines older than 10 years old won’t have much time left, but that’s not necessarily an issue for collectors of vintage video equipment and prices are often extraordinarily low, considering how much they cost originally.
First seen 1995?
Original Price £500.00
Value Today £20.00 (0515)
Features VHS recording system, 4-heads, 4 speed recording (3, 6, 12 & 24hr modes), PAL format, 300-line resolution, audio recording, record after power fail, day/week timer, external timer record, alarm record, emergency record, event/repeat record, menu-driven on-screen display, external switcher connection, hour meter, recording lock.
Power req. 220VAC
Dimensions: 270 x 120 x 345mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 4
Prinz TCR20 Portable BW TV & AM/FM Radio, 1982
Normally it takes between five and ten years for a consumer technology to become totally extinct but there’s one product category that went the way of the Dodo almost overnight. Portable TVs suffered a devastating double whammy; the most serious one was the digital switchover in the early noughties and although analogue TVs can be kept going by connecting them to digiboxes, this makes little sense for an old-school black and white portable TV. The more recent nail in the coffin was the smartphone and tablet PC. Nowadays if you want to watch TV or a film on the move then one way or another just about anything you might want to see is available over the Internet on your portable device.
These developments probably wouldn’t have affected many Prinz TCR20’s though, as this 4.75-inch portable monochrome TV & radio came and went long before the advent of digital broadcasting and Internet streaming. Although this one still works, if memory serves Prinz products were never noted for reliability of longevity. Incidentally, Prinz is not the name of the manufacturer; the Hong Kong firm that made it has long since vanished into obscurity, but Prinz products were moderately popular as it was one of Dixons (now Currys PC World) house brands from the 1950s to the mid 1990s.
The TCR20 just about qualifies as a genuinely portable TV – as opposed to a transportable TV -- as it can operate independently of a mains supply on a set of 8 1.5 volt D cells. However, unless you were prepared to shell £10 or so out for expensive alkaline cells, ordinary torch batteries tend not to last much longer than an episode of a weekday soap opera. In addition to the black and white CRT-based TV there’s also a two-band (medium wave and FM) radio built in. What makes it a bit different, though, is the inclusion of a LCD clock with timer functions, for turning the TV or radio on at a preset time, or switching it off automatically, by pressing the ‘Sleep‘ button. The styling is quite eye-catching and at a distance it makes a passable attempt at mimicking the look of a professional/industrial video monitor. Leaving aside it’s unhealthy appetite for batteries it can also be powered by a 230VAC mains supply, and there’s a socket for a 12-volt DC supply, which would prove useful to caravan owners and campers. In both cases they would have to park, or pitch up fairly close to a TV transmitter, as the on-board telescopic aerial needs a good strong signal to produce a decent TV picture. There is a socket on the back panel for an external aerial, but carting one around with you wouldn’t be much fun on a camping holiday.
It’s very easy to use with rotary tuning controls linked to a pair of circular channel displays. If the picture gets a bit wobbly there’s manual vertical and horizontal hold controls on the back panel, along with brightness and contrast adjustments. The clock/timer has a row of buttons all to itself on the right side of the front panel and bonus features include the sturdy carry handle, that doubles up as a tilt stand, and on the right side of the cabinet there’s a earphone socket for personal listening. The batteries live in a compartment in the back panel and there’s a space for a single AA cell, which provides power for the LCD clock.
My elder brother Peter, who is fast developing a keen eye for vintage technology, found this one for me at a large car boot sale on the South coast. He nabbed it for £8.00, which was about right as it was in a fairly shabby looking state. Luckily it was mostly just shed or garage grime and it cleaned up fairly easily, though removing the many paint specks took a while. Other than that it was good to go and worked first time on a mains supply, as you may just be able to see from the photo it produces a decent enough picture from a VCR playing an episode of Dad’s Army.
What Happened To It?
The portable TV market has always been fairly small -- in more ways than one -- but when it comes down to it relatively few people need such things. Ultra small pocket TVs are virtually unwatchable for more than a few minutes at time – unless you already have a squint – and larger models, like this are just about okay for use in a caravan, providing there’s only one or two people watching, but the novelty soon wears off. The radio and alarm functions are quite useful, though. The point is, though, small TVs were always expensive, and given the limited appeal, relatively short lifespan, and now an inability to receive TV broadcasts without an external digital adaptor, suggests that not many of them are still around. Sadly in this case comparative rarity doesn’t translate into rising prices, not yet at least. One day perhaps really well kept examples might increase in value, but as always, the main criteria are condition and working order; bear in mind if you come across a really cheap non-runner many parts are no longer available and the folks who can repair these things are a dying breed.
First seen 1982
Original Price £50?
Value Today £10 (0915)
Features 125mm/4.75in B/W screen, UHF tuner (chans 21-69), MW & VHF/FM mono radio, LCD clock with alarm & timer functions, telescopic antenna, folding carry handle/stand, RF external aerial socket, 3.5mm earphone jack, controls (rear) vertical & horizontal hold, contrast & brightness, (front) rotary tuning & volume, TV/band selector, power, push-button LCD clock timer functions
Power req. 230VAC, 12VDC, 8 x 1.5v D Cells & 1 x 1.5v AA cell (clock)
Dimensions: 290 x 250 x 123mm
Made (assembled) in: Hong Kong
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Satvrn TDM 1200 Satellite Receiver, 1984
One of the strangest periods in the recent history of technology has to be the 1980s. It was a bit like the old Wild West with a frenzy of new and often untried developments appearing almost on a weekly basis, and sometimes disappearing just as quickly, leaving a lot of disappointed and out of pocket punters in their wake.
Satellite television was a prime example; at the start of the eighties it was a free for all with scores of companies selling expensive dish systems for picking up the then unscrambled TV transmissions from low-power communications satellites. These were actually meant for distribution to cable networks, international links and studio feeds, rather than for home consumption, and you needed a large receiving dish, typically 1.5 metres or more in diameter, to pick up the extremely weak signals. It was also technically illegal for homeowners to operate unlicensed TV receiver satellite (TVRO) systems, though I cannot recall anyone ever being prosecuted. By the end of the eighties satellite television (STV) was starting to mature into a consumer technology. This followed the launch of powerful direct to home (DTH), or direct broadcast satellites (DBS), like the Astra and Thor series, though it would be another couple of years before the two competing systems (BSB and SKY) amalgamated, and later moved to more reliable (encrypted and subscription based) digital platforms, but that’s another story.
Back to those early frontier days and one of the first companies into the emerging home market, and notable for being the first British manufacturer of STV receivers, was Satellite TV Antenna Systems or Satvrn. It’s first, and as far as I am aware, only home set-top box receiver was the TDM-1200, shown here. At the time the STV products from the US and Japan, where domestic satellite had taken off several years earlier, dominated the market so this home brew kit was something of a rarity. However, thanks to ex BBC engineer Steven Birkill, Satvrn’s Technical Director, they hit the ground running and unlike many rival receivers, it was designed specifically for satellite transmissions receivable from the UK and Europe, which largely operated on a different frequency band (KU-Band) to those in the US (C-Band).
It’s not much to look at and that’s to its credit because STV was still rightly regarded as a hobby for technically-savvy enthusias; most 80s STV receivers were a far cry from the near idiot-proof black box technology we have today. To set up and use one of those early STV system you needed a fair amount of knowledge, and a lot of patience as channels and stations would come and go with little or no warning; signals would disappear entirely in bad weather and large ground mounted dishes required constant adjustment and realignment. On more advanced systems dish alignment could be remotely controlled using motorised actuators, but you still needed to be handy with a spanner and screwdriver, especially in windy conditions or if local wildlife took a fancy to your dish or cables.
Compared with most other STV receivers the TDM-1200 was refreshingly straightforward. It had the bare minimum of controls – channel change, scan tuning, channel memory, volume up/down etc – and a fairly approachable back panel, with a fraction of the sockets and connectors fitted to many rival set-top boxes. It was as close to plug and play as things got until the Sky and BSB boxes and mini dishes appeared in the high street. As you may be able to see from the internal photo it is constructed to a very high standard and the case is pretty well packed with metal boxed modules and crowded circuit boards with hardly a microchip in sight. This would have made it quite expensive to make and factory alignment would be a time-consuming and skilled business. The high component count probably didn't do much for reliability and heat from that fat mains transformer wouldn’t have been healthy for electronic components. If you get the chance have a look inside a modern STV box, they’re mostly filled with air with just one small circuit board sporting a few chips; but where’s the fun in that?
This TDM-1200, possibly the last one left in captivity, came my way during a stint as launch editor of Satellite TV magazine. This was in the early to mid 80s, in the first wave of home satellite TV. It came with a 1.5 metre dish and all the necessary fixed ground mounting ironmongery. At the time I was reviewing two or three systems a month, making my small back garden look like a mini Joddrel Bank (much to the alarm of an elderly neighbour who was convinced I was working for the Russians…). Systems would usually be hauled away once the review and photography had been completed, but occasionally they took root, possibly because it was easier (and cheaper) for the company that supplied them, to write them off. This was one of those that were left behind and the receiver spent the past 30 years or so in my loft. (The supplied dish, along with several others and a half a ton of metal stands were snapped up several years ago by a scrap merchant who must have thought it was Christmas…).
Unfortunately I didn’t keep a copy of the magazine it appeared in and I cannot recall how it performed but it wasn’t outstandingly good, or bad or I would have remembered it. Sadly I have no way to test it now, though it fires up but even if I had a big dish handy the chances of there being any unencrypted analogue satellite signals for it to pick up, are next to zero.
What Happened To It?
The downside to such a simple design was that it could never be as versatile or tinkerer-friendly as the all-singing and dancing receivers that were coming onto the market and that was, perhaps the main reason Satvrn and the TDM-1200 never made the big time. It lacked a number of important features that would have allowed it to pick up more TV channels (connections and inputs for multiple or more advanced low-noise block converters or LNBs – the box of tricks mounted on the dish -- or controller circuitry for a dish actuator).
The TDM-1200 was still being listed in a 1987 copy of the Satellite TV that escaped the recycle bin, though by that time the market had moved on. The world and his wife was making (or badging), advanced STV receivers that made the TDM-1200 look rather dated. I doubt that very many were built and it seems that Satvrn quietly disappeared, Steven Birkill moved on and his new company, Real World Technologies, began designing and building satellite boxes for the SKY and BSB DTH markets.
It is extremely unlikely that early satellite TV hardware will ever become collectable. Apart from anything else these old bits and bobs became practically useless when the early low power communication satellites were replaced and broadcasts switched to encrypted digital services; maybe someone will find it interesting in 100 years time, who knows, but for now it’s pretty much worthless, and doomed to be forgotten by everyone except a dwindling handful of enthusiasts who were around at the time. It was fun, though, and there was enormous satisfaction to be had installing and aligning those big dishes, and it was quite a thrill to stumble across an undocumented satellite channel or raw news feed. And how many people can say they’ve seen not one, but two eighties megastars picking their noses as they waited for a studio link to go live? I’ll spare their blushes as they’re still around…
First seen 1984
Original Price £1,144 (system price, ex installation)
Value Today £1.14… (0615)
Features KU Band (12 – 18GHz) receiver, manual/scan tuning, time display, control lock, volume, RF in/out, LNB input, line audio out, clamped video out, 1.5m parabolic offset dish antenna (supplied with system)
Power req. 220 VAC
Dimensions: 320 x 260 x 70mm
Made (assembled) in: UK (Staines, Middlesex)
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Hitachi MP-EG1A Camcorder, 1997
Technological firsts always have pride of place in Dustygizmos, and in the wider world most of them usually get the recognition they deserve but here’s one that got away. It’s the Hitachi MP-EG1A and it was the world’s first PC-friendly digital camera and camcorder.
That may not sound particularly significant, and truth be told, few of them were sold and it virtually disappeared without trace after just a few months on the market, but back in 1997 a small handheld device that could record stills and videos in JPEG and MPEG formats, connect seamlessly to a computer, transfer digital files and with supplied software, create multimedia presentations, was impressive stuff. More importantly, it paved the way, or softened us up – depending how you look at it -- for virtually all of today’s digital cameras, camcorders, smartphones and tablets.
The MP-EG1A was unlike anything that had come before and it was brave of Hitachi (possibly a little too brave…) to try and sell such a radical and unfamiliar product. The strangeness begins at the top with the camera, which sits on a swivel mount, so when you pick it up it is facing you, much like the front/user-facing cameras in today’s smartphones and cameras. It was handy for taking selfies – though this wasn’t something that many people did back then – so to use it as a conventional camera or camcorder the camera module has to be twisted through 180 degrees, and because it is mounted at an angle it forces the user to tilt the screen. The handling and controls also took a bit of getting used to; there is basically nothing to grab hold of and most of the controls are mounted on the rear panel – not where most camcorder users would expect to find them – and at first this makes it quite tricky to hold and operate comfortably. There were a few familiar points of reference, though and it has a 6x zoom (3x optical, 2x digital zoom), colour LCD screen for viewing recording and playback, a built-in microphone and a small speaker, it came with a full accessory pack, which included a small remote control, PC software and it is powered by a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, borrowed from one of Hitachi’s 8mm camcorders.
Recording and replay options were new territory for most users though. Digital files on the MP-EG1A are stored on a compact PCMCIA 260Mb hard drive, which slots into the base of the device. This holds around 20 minutes worth of video, at a resolution of 352 x 240 pixels (30 fps) in compressed MPEG-1 file format. Alternatively it can store 3000 JPEG still images (704 x 480 pixels) or 1000 pictures, each with 10 seconds of audio. Unlike analogue tape, where video clips are recorded in a linear sequence, digital clips can be individually deleted, and later, when moved to a PC, edited and fiddled around with. Managing the hard drive’s limited storage capacity was one of the biggest hurdles for those accustomed to recording on cheap and plentiful videocassettes. In theory you could carry spare hard drives around with you, but these were horribly expensive, so the only way to re-use or free-up space on the drive was to selectively delete clips or download the recordings to a PC. The problem, back in 1997, was that very few PCs had a suitable digital interface. USB connectors were still comparatively rare, and unable at that time to handle real-time video; Serial ports, although common, were unsuited to video and the only connector format that could do the job was SCSI (‘scuzzy’), but this was only found on high-end PCs. In theory it was also possible to take out the hard drive and plug it into a PCMCIA slot but again these were comparatively rare and only fitted to a very small number of laptops.
Hitachi’s solution was to supply (an optional extra in the UK) a connector kit with a scuzzy interface card that plugged into a spare ISA slot on a desktop computer’s motherboard. Fitting and configuring the card would have been quite a challenge for the average PC user, and that, combined with the high price and unfamiliarity with digital video drastically limited its appeal. However, those weren’t the biggest drawbacks, but we’ll return to that in a moment. Once files had been transferred to a PC it was possible to turn them into a watchable video using a suite of supplied software, which included Pure IV, for transfer and file management, MediaChef and EasyCut for editing, PhotoSuite SE for editing still images, Authoring Master for creating presentations and MediaChef Print, for printing images.
Following brief encounters with review samples of the MP-EG1 prior to its launch, it quickly fell off my, and almost everyone else’s radar, as developments in high-performance analogue (S-VHS-C, Hi-8) and digital video (DV, DVC, Mini DV etc) flowed thick and fast. I came across this one by accident on ebay a few years ago. It was clear that the owner didn’t know much about it and had simply described it as a vintage digital camera. Needless to say it didn’t attract much (any) interest and I snagged it for the opening bid of £15, which included free postage. It was in remarkably good condition, hardly any signs of use and it looked as though it had been carefully stored for the intervening years. Unfortunately it didn’t come with any accessories, but charging the battery (still surprisingly healthy) didn’t pose any problems, and I had a PCMCIA adaptor to hand, so I was able to check if it was still working. And it was, and as far as I recall, performance is still as good as the day it was made, which brings us back to why it didn’t set the world alight.
Video picture quality is terrible! MPEG1 compression was one of the first attempts to cram large digital video files into small spaces and it shows; it doesn’t handle rapid movement at all well, resulting in a jerky image full of digital artefacts (pixellation, stuttering and blocking). The resolution is also pretty dire and even on the relative confines of a laptop screen it still looks fuzzy and whiskery – even when there’s little movement. Still pictures are a little better and do not stack up too badly against digital still cameras of the day, when 1 megapixel image sensors were just coming on stream and the audio quality for video clips and stills isn’t bad either, given the position of the mike and lack of provision for an external mic. However, what really lets it down is the lack of any manual control over focus and exposure, which basically means it can only be trusted to capture images in unchallenging and well-lit conditions.
What Happened To It?
To be fair to Hitachi the MP-EG1 was never seriously touted as a consumer product. The primary market was meant to be corporate and business users, for adding video clips to computer presentations and maybe for upload to the Internet, which in 1997 was still a bit of a novelty (it was so new that it had an entry in the handbook’s Glossary of terms…) but given the device’s limitations, and the rapidly advancing sophistication and performance, not to mention the falling prices, of conventional camcorders and PC based editing systems, it was doomed.
Ironically, though, Hitachi got almost everything right, except their timing and the MP-EG1 was around 5 years ahead of its time. In that very relatively short period there were massive advances in digital image processing, sensor resolution, solid-state memory, PC connectivity, and above all, the Internet, which drove up consumer demand for digital technology and online media and forced down prices.
What it is worth today is anyone’s guess. Considering its rarity and importance by rights it should be up there with other technological firsts and steadily increasing in value. However, I doubt that it will progress much beyond the notional £50.00 price I have put on it, and that would be for one that is in good cosmetic condition, full working order and preferably accompanied by the accessory pack and PC interface. Sadly, scarcity doesn’t count for much in this case and its influence and impact are unlikely to carry much weight outside of the industry and gadget collecting community. Practically there is very little you can do with one, and even if it works, as it is outperformed by the lowliest smartphone or tablet, but as always, if you see one for a sensible price, give it a good home
First seen 1967
Original Price £2000
Value Today £50 (0415)
Features Lens: f/2, 3x optical zoom 3.6 – 10.8mm: image sensor ¼-inch CCD, 390k pixels, sensitivity 20 – 100k lux,1.8-in colour LCD, 260Mb PCMCIA hard drive storage, 20minutes video recording (MPEG-1 352 x 240 pixels at 30 fps) or 3000 still images (JPEG, 704 x 480 pixels) or 1000 still images with 10 second audio clips. Mono audio recording
Power req. MP-BP1A 7.2v Li-ion rechargeable battery pack (run time approx 40 mins)
Dimensions: 145 x 80 x 50mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Boots CRTV 50 TV Cassette Radio, 1984
The high street chemist Boots probably doesn’t spring immediately to mind as a manufacturer of multi-media electronic entertainment systems, nor is it, but it certainly used to lend its name to what was, in the early 1980s, some (almost) cutting edge entertainment technology. This is the Boots CRTV 50, a portable combination TV, cassette player/recorder and AM/FM radio, housed in an eye-catching, and some might say, rather garish, bright red box.
Needless to say the Boots name on the front panel is simply an example of badge engineering, which was rife in the late twentieth century. It seemed as though the world and his wife were branding electronic products, some of which seemed to have little or no connection with the companies concerned core businesses, though, to be fair, Boots has always sold a fair number of electrical bits and bobs, batteries, cameras and so on, so perhaps it wasn’t too far out of place.
Boots wasn’t the only company to badge-engineer this particular Taiwanese-made box of tricks and it made several appearances under a variety of names, like Ingersol, but apart from minor cosmetic differences they were all exactly the same. Inside the box there is a pretty decent monochrome 625-line UHF TV with a 105mm (4.5-inch) CRT screen, a stereo cassette deck with mechanical piano-key controls and auto-stop mechanism, and an AM/FM radio.
As these things go it is a fairly basic design but this was reflected in the selling price, which was just under £110, or between a half and third as much as better-specified and usually more solidly built TV combos from the likes of JVC, Hitachi and Panasonic. The styling is also noticeably different from many of its contemporaries, most of whom went for a semi serious pro/military-tech look, with grey, brown and black cosmetics, chunky controls and rugged styling. The CRTV 50 is unashamedly bright and breezy, almost certainly aimed at the teenage market, which fits in with the price tag. It looks and feels very plasticky, which it is, but this one, at least, has weathered the years well and the build quality isn’t half bad.
What it lacks in fancy features it makes up for with simple to use controls, though regrettably it has one of those horrible volume sliders. These were one of the worst aspects of 80’s electronics, virtually guaranteed to become noisy and scratchy, sometimes even before the products they were used on were unpacked. The fact that the TV and radio tuner mechanisms have survived is also a testament to how well made it was. It has two tuner scales on the front panel, with the pointers driven by a pair of knobs on the right side of the case. Both have a fairly complex pulley system, and more often than not these fail because the string breaks, becomes unlaced or the pulleys seize up; in this case they’re both intact and working as well as the day they were made.
The cassette deck has a row of mechanically-linked piano key controls and again these are prone to failure; common faults include broken or perished rubber drive belts and seized bearings and levers, but everything works as it should on this one, though the moving parts were treated to a precautionary dab of light machine oil. The deck is a very simple affair, and the only feature of note is an auto-stop mechanism. A couple of things deserve a special mention, though. These include a folding carry handle on the top and a wire tilt stand on the base; the latter puts the TV screen at just the right angle for tabletop viewing. The manufacturers have given it a useful array of power options. In addition to 250-volts mains there’s a socket on the back for a 12-volt DC car adaptor, and a compartment for ten 1.5-volt D cells takes much of the back panel up, which can be either ordinary throwaway types or rechargeables.
I found this one at a car boot sale some time ago. It’s not the sort of thing I would normally buy untested, or working, just on the say-so of a stallholder, unless it was ridiculously cheap and only worth buying for spares or repair. It cost me just £2.00, so need I say any more? At that price it was hardly a gamble but as it turned out it was in very good shape and worked first time, hooked up to an Atari 2600 video console. All it took to bring it back to life was the previously mentioned oiling, a thorough mucking out with the airline and a wipe over with a dampened soft cloth and some mild detergent.
Watching a 625-line black and white TV picture on a CRT screen bought back some memories; it is surprising how crisp and sharp it looks, and the contrast range of old mono screens has only recently been equalled by modern flat screen displays. There’s also something rather special about an analogue picture. It’s hard to quantify but the combination of noise, and line structure gives it a softer, more natural-looking appearance, compared with the pin-sharp, sterile and almost cartoon-like quality of digital video.
What Happened To It?
Portable TV, radio, cassette combos like this first appeared in the late 70s and were a staple of many manufacturer’s line-ups until well into the 90s. They never made the big-time, sales wise; it was always a slightly uneasy mixture of technologies, and there was no clear target market for them, though I suspect that they were quite popular with campers and caravanners, and cheaper models like this probably ended up in a lot of teenager’s bedrooms. Portability was also a moot point; running one on battery power alone would have proved very expensive, especially with the TV switched on and it could probably get through a tenner’s worth of Duracells in an hour or two.
There was no particular date or reason why TV combos fizzled out, though by the mid 90s tape cassettes were on the verge of becoming obsolete, and CDs decks wouldn’t be an easy fit in this form factor, though I recall that several models were developed. I cannot say for certain how long the CRTV 50 was around but I would be surprised if it lasted more than 2 or 3 years. Big retailers like Boots tended not stick with faddy products like these for very long and would have dropped it the moment the sales graph moved in a southerly direction. TV combos from numerous other manufacturers turn up regularly at boot sales and on ebay, often for very little money as they have two very significant drawbacks. The first is since the digital switchover, which began in 2007 in the UK, the TV part no longer works, though as you may be able to see from the picture, they can still be connected to old video games, VCRs, DVD players and set-top boxes, provided they have a UHF aerial output. The other problem is size and weight, and if you’re thinking of getting hold of one do not forget to factor in a hefty shipping charge if you cannot collect it in person. Although they haven’t yet become a serious collectible, or worth very much, I get the impression that that prices are slowly trending upwards and models from top name manufacturers, in mint condition, are being touted for three figure sums. But they are in the minority, and rarely make that much so my guess is that anywhere between £15 and £50 is about right for most models, depending of course on condition and brand.
First seen 1984
Original Price £110
Value Today £15 (1214)
Features Monochrome TV receiver with 105mm (4.5-inch) CRT screen, UHF tuner (chans 21 – 68), AM/FM radio, stereo cassette deck with auto stop, sockets: microphone & earphone (3.5mm jack), internal/external antenna (coax), 75mm speaker, telescopic antenna, FM/AM & UHF rotary tuning, volume, band & mode selection (sliders), V-hold, brightness & contrast (rotary preset, rear panel), folding tilt stand and carry handle
Power req. 240VAC, 12VDC, 10 x 1.5V D cells
Dimensions: 310 x 185 x 135mm
Made (assembled) in: Taiwan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
BSB Squarial Satellite Antenna, 1989
Remember when the satellite dishes that now sprout from the walls and rooftops of millions of UK homes were regarded as a hideous eyesore and little more than a passing fad? After all, who could want more than four TV channels? How could they ever find enough programmes to fill ten or more channels, and who in their right mind would pay to watch them when they were already paying for a TV Licence?
There is no need to dwell on how it all turned out but for the companies vying to get direct to home (DTH) satellite TV off the ground in the late 1980s it really was a huge gamble. For a while it looked as though it was all going to end in tears; for one very high profile company that is exactly what happened.
British Satellite Broadcasting or BSB won the franchise to launch a direct broadcast by satellite (DBS) TV service in the UK and it made an ambitious decision to leapfrog well established analogue technologies and go straight to an advanced digital system, known as D-MAC (digital multiplexed analogue component). This was cutting-edge and at the time largely unproved – in the consumer market at least. However, it promised higher picture quality, stable reception in adverse weather and for broadcasters it provided greater control over encryption, subscription and pay-to-view services. The only problem was that existing high power TV broadcasting satellites lacked the capacity to handle digital channels, so BSB took another huge leap of faith and partially funded not one, but two satellites, called Marcopolo I and II, and it goes without saying, satellites don’t come cheap… Incidentally, they didn’t really want to stump up for two satellites but the economics of running a DBS service are such that the very real risks of losing one during launch or something going wrong once it is up and running mean that a second one has to be built, and launched, as an in-orbit backup.
Anyway, while BSB was putting together its package of 5 high quality digital channels a rival system was taking shape, developed by media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s cable channel SKY. He had been an early supporter of BSB but for various reasons decided to go his own way. The SKY system would use simpler off-the-shelf analogue PAL technology, which had slightly inferior picture quality and the signal would be less resilient in bad weather but the trade-off was more channels, and the hardware would be cheaper. Unable to get a UK franchise Murdoch’s multi-channel service was to be broadcast from the Luxembourg-based SES consortium's Astra 1 satellite, which was launched in December 1988, a full nine months ahead of Marcopolo 1.
The stage was set for a battle between two the DBS systems, and BSB, already suffering from delays and technical problems, needed an edge if it was to recover from Sky’s early lead. And here it is. It’s the infamous Squarial, a square aerial, and a determined attempt to undermine the perception that satellite dishes, even small ones, were nasty ugly things that you wouldn’t want on the side of your house. The Squarial was marketed as a key element of the whizzy new digital TV revolution. It was designed to be less intrusive, even aesthetically pleasing, and appeal to what BSB hoped would be a more discerning, middle class audience, who would prefer 5 high quality channels to the cheapo mish-mash of fuzzy old analogue programmes and channels being pumped out by SKY. The problem, and it was one of many, was that in the early days Squarials were in very short supply and didn’t work very well…
It wasn’t a new idea and so-called flat plate or phased-array antennas had been around for decades before the Squarial appeared and were in widespread use in military and commercial applications. A conventional metal parabolic dish antenna works like a concave mirror. It captures and concentrates the incredibly weak signal coming from the distant satellite to a single focal point, where a highly sensitive electronic tuning device or Low Noise Block converter (LNB) amplifies and converts it into a form that can be fed by cable to the set-top receiver. In a flat plate antenna, behind the thin plastic weatherproof cover there is a sandwich of perforated metal and foil sheets. These are cut into precise patterns that together form a collection of tiny antenna elements, called dipoles and waveguides. The dipoles are basically small aerials, precisely tuned to the specific wavelength of the satellite signal, and the waveguides combine and direct the received signals to an LNB, mounted on the back of the plate. Suffice it to say it is a highly complex design that calls for great precision in manufacture, and that’s basically why it took so long, and cost so much to get right. Satellite dishes, on the other hand, are cheap and simple to make. I once managed to get a perfectly decent picture from a dustbin lid, with an LNB mounted on a broomstick, the whole thing held together with Jubilee clips.
I went to BSB pre-launch press briefings in the late 80s and usually the only Squarials on show were wooden mockups, but it got a lot of attention, much of it favourable, especially in newspapers and magazines. The Squarial was being designed and built in the UK by STC but rumours were starting to circulate in the trade and technical press that STC and the receiver manufacturers (Ferguson, ITT, Nokia, Philips and Tatung) were having trouble getting it all to work. Eventually after a number of revisions STC managed to get it right but there were serious supply problems. To meet the expected demand BSB bought in flat plate antennas, manufactured in Japan by Matsushita. At the time it was suggested that these were costing BSB more £200 each, another unwelcome cost, which they had to absorb, and yet another nail in BSB’s hugely expensive coffin. The service finally went public in March 1990, it received a fairly lukewarm response from the public and by the end of the year it was all over.
The Squarial you see here was on my outside wall for a year or so after the launch and spent the last 20 years in my garage so it is still in very good shape and almost certainly still works. It is one of the early Matsushita models sent to me by BSB for review, along with a Ferguson receiver. It was installed several weeks ahead of the official launch, whilst the system was still undergoing test broadcasts and I have to say I was quite impressed by the quality and content of early programming (especially as I didn’t have to pay for it…) but it was obvious to almost everyone that the 5-channel offering was going to be too little, and too late.
What Happened To It?
BSB and the Squarial was killed off by SKY, which had a year long lead, though it too was haemorrhaging cash. It was only Murdoch’s deep pockets that kept SKY afloat and allowed it to dictate the terms of the takeover that resulted in the two companies agreeing to a merger in late 1990, cunningly keeping the old initials, to become British Sky Broadcasting.
Almost overnight Squarials and D-MAC receivers became obsolete. Thousands of BSB systems were sold off cheaply and many were eagerly snapped up by enthusiasts. Several upgrade kits were developed that would enable the receivers to work on other satellites that were starting to broadcast digital signals. Unfortunately the Squarial was purpose designed to work with the Marco Polo satellites. Rumours of mods that would enable them to work on other satellites never really materialised and shortly after the merger the two Marcopolos were renamed as Thor I and II, sold off to Swedish and Norwegian broadcasters and relocated with transmission footprints outside of the UK.
A few Squarials turn up on ebay from time to time but it’s very difficult to say how much they are worth. They are practically useless as satellite antennas, and do not make very interesting ornaments, so I wouldn’t bank on them becoming sought after collectibles anytime soon, but if you ever see one for a tenner, or less, and you have somewhere to put it, it’s probably worth a punt.
First seen 1989
Original Price £250 (with DMAC receiver)
Value Today £10
Features: Flat plate phased-array DTH satellite antenna, integral 10GHz low noise block converter
Power req. N/A (line powered LNB)
Dimensions: 410 x 410 x 18mm (depth 40mm inclusive of LNB)
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
JVC HR-C3 VHS-C Video Recorder, 1982
Often billed as the world’s first portable VHS-C video recorder – and I will come back to that in a moment – the JVC HR-C3 was certainly a milestone in the 1980’s home video movie market, but its impact was relatively short lived. Barely eighteen months after it was launched in late 1982, it was effectively rendered obsolete by another JVC product, the GR-C1 camcorder.
There is no denying that the GR-C3 was a superb piece of kit. Thanks to the compact VHS-C cassette format it weighed around half as much and was less than half the size of rival portables that used full size VHS cassettes. However, at just under £1100 it was rather expensive, and you had to add on the cost of a hand-held video camera -- like the companion JVC GR-N7, costing £650 -- before you could become a back yard Spielberg. For a while at least that didn’t seem to matter, it was super cute and people would mortgage their kids to get their hands on a C3. It was the home movie outfit to be seen with, so you can imagine those early adopters annoyance when the GR-C1 appeared. It packed a video deck and camera into a small box, that was lighter than a C3 and camera combo, and to rub salt into the wound, it cost less than two thirds the price.
Looking back, and with the benefit of hindsight, it seems probable that the C3 was more of a toe in the water exercise for JVC, rather than a serious assault on the home movie market. It was basically the launch platform for the VHS-C format, and that is the real story behind this machine. VHS-C was a genuine innovation, it led directly to the first ‘proper’ camcorder (i.e. one that could playback as well as record), but it was much more than a miniature VHS cassette. The key to its success was a miniature head drum, which allowed the tape deck mechanism to be shrunk in size. However, simply making the head smaller, down from 62 to 41mm in diameter, wouldn’t have worked, so to compensate for the physical differences in drum diameter and head scan angle, the speed at which the head rotates was increased from 1500 to 2250rpm, it has four record/replay heads, instead of the two on a standard VHS head drum, and the tape wrap was increased from 180 to 270 degrees. All clever stuff, and in addition to making the gubbins a lot smaller it also meant that a VHS-C tape could be replayed on a regular VHS VCR simply by popping it into a adaptor cassette.
But back to the C3, Headline features included seamless backspace editing, which meant that there wasn’t a gap or burst of noisy mush between shots; it has audio dub – another bonus feature for home movie makers – and something called Quick Review, which displays the last seconds of the previous recording, so you could check it was okay before moving on to the next shot. There’s a good assortment of connections – the big round 10-pin socket on the top panel is for the camera – and it even has an RF output, so it could be plugged directly into a TV, to playback your latest masterpiece. That was actually very useful in the 1980s since few TVs had video or audio inputs. Whilst recording there’s the option to slide a cover over the transport controls, to prevent accidentally stopping recording, and there's a small LCD for the counter functions. The design, layout and construction are all typical of JVC who at the time were at the top of their game and rivalled in desirability only by Sony, (who, incidentally, was lagging seriously behind in the video market and struggling to keep the doomed Betamax format alive).
It came with a full set of accessories, which included a rather natty carry case and shoulder strap, mains charger, wired remote control, cassette adaptor and a NiCad battery pack that was good for around 30 minutes recording time, whilst powering the camera. It was a delight to use, especially if you were accustomed to hefty VHS portables and the quality was as good as VHS could get, for the early 1980s.
I reviewed the C3 and its badge-engineered cousin from Ferguson when it was launched and was suitably impressed by the performance and ease of use but I recall thinking that gerting on for £1700 for a portable VCR and camera was a bit stiff. The one you see here is a fairly recent acquisition, a freebie from a friend having a clearout. Although cosmetically it is in good shape it is a tad temperamental. Sometimes it works for a while but most of the time it flashes the alarm/battery light. Hopefully it will be a straightforward fix and the guts are fairly easy to get at, but it will have to wait its turn
What Happened To It?
So was this really the first VHS-C VCR? It depends... Looking back through copies of Which Video? magazine, which I was writing for at the time, I found that whilst JVC may have been first to announce a VHS-C portable, the first one that we actually got our hands on, at least a couple of months ahead of the C3, was the even smaller, cuter and cheaper Sharp VC220N. Being first with a new product carried enormous prestige but occasionally it backfired. Companies would regularly preview products to the press when they were barely past the prototype stage, often at least six or seven months ahead of them reaching the shops. Crafty rivals would sometimes take advantage of this situation and fast track a product in development to leapfrog the competition, This may be what happened in this case, in the UK at least, allowing Sharp to grab some early attention. But it’s a moot point, and it was JVC, and the C3, rather than Sharp, which made it into the history books.
As I mentioned earlier the C3’s brief run came to an abrupt end when the first camcorders started to appear. Due to their high cost they would have been well looked after, and stored away when eventually they were replaced. A few make it onto ebay and working examples rarely sell for less than £50. A mint specimen, with all of the accessories, working batteries and a camera can go for £100 or more. It’s definitely something vintage video enthusiasts will want in their collection but maybe it’s a little too recent to make it an investment. From a practical standpoint on its own it is of limited use without a camera, and not really up to being used as a source deck for editing or digitising home videos; more up to date VCRs do a much better job. But don't let that put you off, like any old item of technology, especially when it’s the first of its kind, it will be worth something, one day, probably, maybe....
First seen 1982
Original Price £1070
Value Today £50 0214
Features Compact portable VHS-C video recorder, mini 41mm, 4-head drum ¾ wrap helical scan, auto backspace edit, auto quick review, audio dub built-in RF converter, power save function, LCD tape counter with memory function, RF output
Power req. NB-P3U/NB-PU4 12 volt NiCad rechargeable battery packs
Dimensions: 182 x 75 x 203mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Triumph CTV-8000 5-inch Portable Colour TV, 1984
The flat screen revolution and digital switchover has left in its wake countless perfectly serviceable big screen TVs destined for a sad and early demise at the local amenity tip. I was astonished recently to see a vast Toshiba back projection TV dumped in the street. In the mid 1990s this would have been somebody’s pride and joy and when new cost the thick end of £2500. It may even have had a few years life left in it but now it’s simply a worthless plastic box. At the other end of the size scale we have this cute little Triumph CTV-8000 5-inch colour portable and it faces the same ignominious fate. It is from another era and now effectively useless for the job it was designed to do, but this one, at least, won’t be ending its days in a dustbin.
Tiny tellies like this were never in the mainstream of eighties home entertainment and the novelty of watching a 5-inch screen, even one with a colour screen, quickly wears off. However, that is not to say they didn’t have their uses and they were popular with campers and caravanners, where the main attraction is the multiple power options. There’s a socket on the back for a 12-volt DC supply, from a car battery, via a cigar lighter adaptor. It also comes with clip-on 240-volt AC mains adaptor, which doubles as a charger and on the underside of the case there’s a compartment for 10 1.5-volt D cells. Ideally they would be rechargeables, but it happily runs on disposables, though not for very long, probably only around 20 – 30 minutes on a set of alkalines.
The small size and decent assortment of input and output sockets may also have appealed to those seeking a compact colour monitor, for video surveillance or maybe even video editing. But first and foremost it is designed for TV reception, and very specifically in the UK. The single standard tuner only covers UHF channels 21-69 and it is locked on PAL I, so there are very few other countries it could be used in. Not that it’s incapable of multi-standard operation and the large number of vacant component spaces on the main PCB suggests that the same chassis was used for TVs sold in other markets.
It is very easy to use, no menus or new fangled on-screen displays here, just a basic assortment of power, sound and picture controls. There’s even a pair of vertical and horizontal hold knobs on the back, which clearly indicates that it relies on good old-fashioned analogue circuitry. As an aside there’s another throwback to the olden days on the back with a button marked ‘Degauss’. Over time CRT picture tubes develop colour patches and impurities caused by a build up of magnetic fields (from nearby speakers or even the earth’s own magnetic field) on the shadow mask or aperture grille. This a fine metal mesh behind the glass faceplate that directs the electron beams onto the coloured phosphor dots or stripes. Pressing the degauss button energises a coil around the picture tube, which generates a collapsing magnetic field that neutralises the magnetism in the tube. All CRT colour TVs had this feature but it was usually carried out automatically, at switch on, before the tube warmed up.
This one cost me a whopping £1.50 at a local car boot sale and the owner, who had had it from new, assured me it was still working and had only been used a few times in his caravan. All true, as it turned out, it was in excellent condition. It was exceptionally clean inside too, suggesting that it had had led an easy life and stored in a dry environment. It powered up straight away but with no broadcast TV signals there wasn’t much to see, apart from a few wavy lines. Connected to a video source picture quality turned out to be excellent; the tube showed no signs of ageing with plenty of brightness and contrast in reserve. I can be fairly sure about its age thanks to date markers on the case mouldings, and an inspection label on the tube, which clearly shows it to have been made in 1984.
What Happened To It?
By the time this TV reached the shops it was fairly obvious that the CRT picture tube’s days were numbered, though it would be relatively slow decline and take another 15 years before flat screen technology started to have an impact on the domestic, living room TV market. Colour LCD screens were, however, starting to appear on pocket TVs, but they remained prohibitively expensive, and frustratingly small, until the mid 90s, so small screen portables like the CTV-8000 had little or no serious competition for quite a while. But as I said earlier, it was a relatively small and specialised market so they never sold in large numbers. This also means that they are now comparatively rare, though unfortunately, not especially valuable and this and similar models that I have seen on ebay rarely sell for more than £10, even when they’re in good working order. On the plus side collecting tiny tellies doesn’t take up too much room, and as this one shows, it’s not going to break the bank, just don’t expect it to make much of a contribution to your retirement fund…
First seen 1984
Original Price £?
Value Today £5.00 0114
Features 5-inch (125mm) colour CRT, 625-line PAL, UHF tuner (channels 21 – 69), front panel controls: on/off, AFT, volume; top panel: brightness, contrast, colour auto colour; rear panel controls & connectors: AV input/output (phono) 12v DC input, aerial, Degauss, V-hold, H-hold; sides: rotary tuning, 3.5mm mono headphone jack, carry handle, telescopic aerial, folding tilt stand
Power req. 10 x 1.5volt rechargeable D cells/detachable 230VAC mains adaptor/charger
Dimensions: 280 x 220 x 162mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
JVC GX-N7E Colour Camera, 1984
No, it’s not a camcorder; the JVC GX-N7E was one of the last of a dying breed of home video cameras, designed to be used in conjunction with a portable video cassette recorder. Home video went through a number of evolutionary stages before achieving the pocket-size portability that we take for granted. Nowadays we think nothing of whipping out our smartphones and shooting, in some cases, quite decent video footage. Back in the early 80s making a home video involved several thousand pounds worth of equipment, weighing 10kg or more, and it definitely wasn’t the sort of thing you could do on the spur of the moment.
By the time the GX-N7 arrived in the mid eighties portable video recorders like the JVC HR-C3 had shrunk dramatically in size and weight, thanks to the development of the compact VHS-C cassette. This also led directly to the all-in-one camera-recorder or camcorder, the first of which was the JVC GR-C1, and within acouple of years the two-piece combo outfit was effectively dead. The technology that went into cameras like this one hadn’t been wasted, though, and if you look closely at the GR-NX7 and GR-C1 you can see a lot of shared components and it is clear that the first camcorder is little more than a NX7 grafted onto a HR-C3.
Many design elements of those early camcorders are evident on the NX7, including the layout and positioning of key features like the handgrip with its stop/start and zoom controls, the lens, microphone, viewfinder and camera controls. The viewfinder, which uses a microscopic 0.5-inch monochrome CRT slides fore and aft and tilts upwards. Camera functions like focus, exposure and while balance could be left entirely in the hands of the electronic minions, or adjusted manually. The only thing the user had to worry about was to keep an eye on the battery level and the tape end alarm indicator in the viewfinder, which gave around a minute’s warning that the tape was about to run out. The connection to the camera, which carries the video and audio signals, power from the video deck to the camera and control and display telemetry, is handled by a single cable that plugs into a socket on the left side.
The camera uses a Newvicon pick up tube, which was a development of the compact Vidicon tube, used by most video cameras and the earliest camcorders but it was another technology that was on its last legs. Within another couple of years they would be virtually obsolete, replaced by smaller, more rugged and significantly less power hungry Charged Couple Device (CCD) solid-state image sensor chips. Ironically in some ways this was a step backwards and it wasn’t until the late 80s that CCDs started to improve on the picture performance, low light sensitivity and noise levels of the better Vidicon and Sony Trinicon tubes.
This camera was almost certainly a review sample, sent to one of the video magazines that I was working for in the 1980s, and never collected. Sadly the companion video deck is long gone, though I do still have a Canon VHS portable kicking around somewhere and they share the same connector system so I will get around to trying them both out one day. There is no reason why it shouldn’t still work; I doubt that it ever had more than a few hours use and after testing, went straight back into original box, where it has remained undisturbed for the past few decades.
What Happened To It?
By the late 80s camcorders had killed the market for home video cameras stone dead, but tube-based, cameras continued to be made for some time. Mostly they were intended for specialist applications like high-end and professional use, studio operation and video surveillance. Back then the security industry was notoriously conservative and wary of new fangled things like CCD image sensors. As is so often the case the wheel turned full circle and stand-alone video cameras were all over the place by the early noughties, this time used as web cams and within the last few years, featured in low cost home video surveillance systems.
I doubt that many people would give this little camera a second glance, or pay more than £10 for it, especially once they know that it’s not a camcorder and pretty much useless without a portable VCR. Even if you could fine one, with a working battery, the recordings it can make won't be a patch on what’s possible using one of today’s compact digital camcorders, not to mention the better mobile phones. It would be a shame if this exciting period in the development of home video movie making were to be forgotten, though, and if nothing else it brings back a few fond, and some painful memories of lugging those vast machines around. Then there was the magic of seeing a recording that you had just made -- usually just the kids in the back garden, or maybe a friend's wedding -- on the TV in your living room. You don’t just don’t get that kind of buzz anymore, and definitely not on a titchy smartphone screen or computer monitor.
First seen 1984
Original Price £650
Value Today £25 1013
Features 0.5-inch Newvicon colour imaging tube, minimum illum 10 lux, resolution 270 lines. Lens: f1.2 8.5 – 51mm, 6 x power zoom. Manual/auto focus, man/auto iris, man/auto white balance, 0.5-inch mono viewfinder, built in microphone
Power req. 12VDC (line powered by VTR)
Dimensions: 270 x 135 x 75mm
Made (assembled) in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Seiko T001-5019 James Bond TV Watch, 1983
In an attempt to head off angry emails from pernickety James Bond fans, I have to say straight away that the Seiko T001-5019 TV Watch isn’t the exact same model that first appeared in ‘Q’s’ workshop, and in later scenes on Mr Bond’s wrist in the movie Octopussy.
The one that is seen on the screen was almost certainly a one-off stage prop, possibly even a prototype, provided by Seiko. This is the production version, outwardly very similar to the movie watch and sold as the Seiko TV Watch; but it will be forever associated with Bond, Octopussy, and later appearances, including one worn by Tom Hanks, in the 1987 movie Dragnet.
Seiko’s TV Watch differs from the Bond watch in several respects. Firstly, thanks to some movie magic the one in Octopussy has a bright colour display. In actuality, back in the early 1980s tiny (28mm) colour LCD screens were still several years away from volume production; the watch sold in the shops sports a rather dull, non-backlit grey/blue monochrome screen. Second, the movie watch appears to be a stand-alone device, with a built in speaker. In reality there is a fairly thick cable that connects the watch to a companion tuner/screen driver module, and you have to plug in a pair of headphones if you want to hear the TV sound. But don’t get me wrong; back in 1983 even this two-box design was an astounding feat of electronics and engineering. In 1984 it even made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s smallest TV, though that was open to debate. It’s also yet more proof; not that it is needed, that there really is nothing new under the Sun. There’s a definite sense of deja-vu, with the current buzz over ‘wearable technology’ and ‘smart watches’; it was old hat more than thirty years ago, and arguably long before that...
Sadly these days this watch is pretty much useless, at least as far as watching TV is concerned, but it still tells the time. It does work though, and the radio sounds great, but there are two fundamental problems with the TV. The first is the tuner, which was designed for analogue broadcasts. Even if some analogue TV stations were still operating it wouldn’t be much use in Europe as this model only displays 525-line NTSC formatted signals. Apparently a 625-line PAL model was developed and it may even have gone on sale for a short time, but if they exist they must be extremely rare. Not that the NTSC model is that common; it was only on the market for a couple of years and virtually disappeared from sight by 1984, probably due to the high selling price in the US of around $500. I also suspect that potential owners may have put off buying one after they saw the fairly disappointing TV display in the flesh.
And so to the customary guided tour. The watch part has a narrow LCD located above the video screen. It displays time and date and as an added bonus there are basic alarm and stopwatch functions as well. Two buttons on the left and one on the right side of the case operate the watch functions. This was pretty much standard fare for LCD watches in the 1980s and there’s really not much to add, apart from the fact that it is housed in a rather nifty looking stainless steel case, with a stylish metal (also stainless steel) strap. In the top photo you may have noticed a row of small metal dots just above the watch display. They are contacts for the connecting lead, which clips on to the case. The other end plugs into a miniature, round 8-pin EIAJ socket on the top of the tuner unit. This is about the size of a small transistor radio, with two slide switches on the top for power on/off and mono/stereo (in radio mode) and video on/off (in TV mode). There’s also a thumbwheel for tuning and this drives a pointer that moves across a scale marked with both FM/VHF and UHF TV and radio channels. The rest of the controls are on the left side. There are two slide switches for selecting TV or Radio operation, and TV band select (VHF high/low band and UHF). Above that’s there’s a rotary volume control and on the bottom left hand side there’s a socket for an optional mains adaptor. Power for the tuner and video screen is provided by a pair of 1.5 volt AA cells, which will keep the TV running for around 4 – 5 hours.
There is no video input, external aerial or aerial socket (a real pain – more on that in a moment), instead the headphone cable acts as the antenna. Needless to say you would have needed to be fairly close to a transmitter, and not move around too much to get any sort of picture. The reason the lack of an aerial socket is a nuisance is that if had one it would be a relatively simple matter to get an image on the screen by plugging it into a NTSC VCR or DVD with an RF output. As it happens I have a multi-standard/standard converting VCR that can output a pure NTSC-M RF signal. I’ve also cobbled up a Y-cable patch jack lead that connects between the tuner and the headphones but to date, as you can see, the results have been pretty awful, mostly wavy lines and a very brief, wobbly image (but quite good sound). I have found plans on the web for an adaptor box with a video input that you can plug the watch into. Hopefully I will get around to building it one day and if it works out I will update the images.
What Happened To It?
I first encountered the wristwatch TV that was to evolve into the T001-5019 in August 1982. I can be fairly precise about the date because I still have original press release photographs and a copy of the October 1982 issue of Next… magazine, which I was editing at the time, and where my news item on the watch appeared.
The preview model was badged Suwa Seikosha and the tuner module had a slightly different top but otherwise it was the same watch and the only things I got wrong were the price, which I speculated would be around £200, and a UK launch in 1983. As far as I am aware it was never officially marketed in this country.
Needless to say wristwatch TVs never really caught on and whilst I vaguely recall several other attempts by Japanese companies to generate interest in the concept, none of them made it into the shops. More affordable pocket-size portable TVs with larger and more watchable LCD screens did, however, achieve some success throughout the 80’s and 90s. They were always a bit disappointing, though, and were hobbled by the need to be fairly close to a transmitter, and their unquenchable thirst for batteries. It took another 15 years, and the arrival of the smartphone and mobile broadband to make TV and video on the move a practical reality, and now, with tech companies falling over themselves to market smart watches.
Seiko TV Watches appear on ebay every so often and almost always from sellers in the US, which is where this one came from. It is in near mint condition, complete with the original box and accessories and is in full working order. I have been after one for a couple of years but until recently prices have routinely been north of £500, which is way more than I am prepared to pay. Somehow this one slipped past the normally vigilant and highly competitive Bond memorabilia and watch collectors, Lady Luck was smiling on me and I snagged it for just under £100, plus shipping, Customs duty and VAT. In recent weeks one sold for £95, but this was without the all-important connecting cable and in a questionable state of repair. Another, in similar condition to mine went for £300, and at the time of writing a highly optimistic seller had one for a Buy It Now price of £1,200... What you can take away from this is that they cost as much (or as little) as anyone is prepared to pay and in the end finding one for a good price is down to nothing more complicated than luck, timing and persistence.
GIZMO GUIDE (Manual)
First seen 1983
Original Price £450
Value Today £300 - £1000 1013
Features Watch: LCD display, time, date, stopwatch & alarm functions, steel bracelet. TV display: 28mm (1.2-in) monochrome, non-backlit LCD, 31.9k pixels, 10 grey levels, variable contrast. Tuner: stereo FM radio. NTSC-only, VHF (low & high bands) & UHF channels 2 – 83. Accessories: leather pouch for tuner, stereo headphones, watch connector lead, extra bracelet links
Power req. Watch: 1 x SR920W button cell. Tuner: 2 x 1.5volt AA Cells
Dimensions: Watch: (ex strap) 40 x 50 x 10mm. Tuner: 125 x 75 x 20mm
Weight: Watch: 87.5g. Tuner: 186g
Made in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
JVC GR-C1E VHS-C Camcorder, 1984
JVC's GR-C1 camcorder earned itself a prominent place in gadget history for two simple reasons: it was the first all in one portable VHS camera-recorder, and second, it was one of the most blatant, and successful examples of movie product placement. It famously made its film debut in 1985, in the first instalment of the Back To The Future trilogy, somewhat clumsily shoehorned into the plot and featured prominently in several key scenes. It is also notable for being the second consumer camcorder; credit for being first belongs to Sony with its quirky Betamovie, launched several months earlier, but the GR-C1 can lay claim to being the first machine capable of both recording and playback; Betamovie was a record-only device, so you still needed a Betamax VCR to watch your recordings.
It is listed as the first VHS camcorder but it actually uses a variant of the VHS format, called VHS-C, the C stands for compact. For those too young to remember, a VHS-C cassette is around the size of a pack of 20 cigarettes, spooled with standard 12.7mm (1/2-inch) wide VHS tape, enough for 30 to 45 minutes worth of recording. The really clever part, though, and the key development that allowed the GR-C1 to be so small and light, was the miniature tape deck mechanism. This uses a 41.2mm diameter head drum instead of the standard 62.5mm drum used in home VHS video recorders. To ensure compatibility with homedeck VCRs a VHS-C tape drum has four, instead of two record/replay heads, it spins at a higher speed (2250rpm instead of 1500rpm on PAL models) and the tape is in contact with 270 degrees of the drum’s circumference, compared with 180 degrees on a standard VHS machine. To play a VHS-C cassette in a home VCR all you have to do is pop it into a VHS cassette sized adaptor.
Forget all the technical stuff, though, it was, as Doc Brown in the movie put it so succinctly, “…truly amazing … a portable television studio”. It was a real game-changer, both for home video movie making, and JVC, who churned out countless badge engineered clones of this machine for many of the major consumer electronic brands across Europe and in the USA, quickly establishing VHS-C as the only camcorder format in town.
Unlike so many other technological firsts the GR-C1 came to us fully formed. JVC got it more or less right first time and it remained a template for pretty well all compact camcorders for almost a decade. It was intuitive to use and a new owner could take it out of the box and be making very acceptable home video movies in a matter of minutes, without ever needing to look at the instruction manual. It had no serious performance or operational issues, in fact it was a delight to use and it was only the arrival of smaller, lighter and cheaper machines that persuaded owners to upgrade and enticed newcomers into the market. Many survivors, like this one, are still in working order – they really knew how to build them back in the day!
What Happened To It?
The pace of development in the camcorder market in the mid 1980s was nothing short of phenomenal and the GR-C1 was almost out of date before it was launched. The first major advance to have an impact on the size and shape of early designs was the introduction of solid-state CMOS image sensors. These rapidly replaced the bulky and power-hungry Vidicon picture tubes (the GR-C1 used a variant called Saticon) used in first generation machines. Sony regained the high ground with the even smaller and cuter 8mm format. Throughout the 90’s the likes of JVC, Panasonic and Sony tussled with one another with a succession of innovations, improving picture and sound quality, smaller and lighter machines, eventually leading to the present generation of professional quality, pocket-sized HD digital camcorders.
The GR-C1 is a very old friend. Before the official launch I was lucky enough to get hold of one of the first samples in the country and it kept me in beer vouchers for several months. I must have reviewed it, and its cloned cousins, more than a dozen times for various magazines and publications. Sadly they all had to be returned and it was soon forgotten as a constant stream of new machines kept me busy but it all came back to me recently when I stumbled across this one at a Sussex car boot sale. It was, as you can see, in near pristine condition, safely cocooned in its original maroon coloured hard carry case, along with an almost full set of accessories. The only things missing were the mains adaptor and a battery. The owner, who had it from new, didn’t know if it was still working but it hardly mattered. He was asking £20 for it, I couldn’t resist haggling and he accepted £15, not bad for something that cost £1000 when new (around £2600 in today’s money – mid 2013 -- according to on-line inflation calculators). As it happened I had picked up a Ferguson 3V50 (a near clone of the GR-C1) several months earlier and this included a working charger, so I was able to fire it up and check that it was working. It was, and it was a clear reminder of just how far camcorder technology has come. At the time the picture quality of early VHS was astonishing, but I have to say it looks pretty whiskery nowadays…
In spite of the price a lot of GR-C1s were sold and, probably because of the cost, owners have been reluctant to throw them away. They are far from rare, but prices do vary wildly. I would say anywhere between £20 and £50 is a fair price for a decent looking runner, perhaps a bit more for one in mint condition with a full accessory pack, useable battery, manuals etc., but every so often they pop up on ebay for really silly prices, usually because the sellers are hoping to exploit the Back To The Future connection. That may be justified on a genuine movie prop but hundreds of thousands of GR-C1s were made and you don't have to look very long or hard to find one. If you fancy going Back to the Past to sample some olde tyme video movie making keep an eye on ebay, and there is always the chance of a boot sale bargain.
First seen 1985
Original Price £1,000
Value Today £50 - 200 0713
Features Lens: f/1.2, 8-48mm, 6x zoom with macro setting. Auto iris with backlight control with manual override and fader, auto/preset white balance. 0.5-inch Saticon picture tube, min illumination 15 lux. Unidirectional mono microphone, B/W viewfinder with 18.8mm screen (CRT). Deck functions: picture search, pause, counter memory, dew warning, assemble edit, LCD tape counter
Power req. 9.6 volt rechargeable nicad battery
Dimensions: 340 x 17 x 136mm
Weight: 2.2g (with battery pack)
Made in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Sinclair FTV1/TV80 Flat Screen TV, 1983
Timing is everything in the fast paced world of consumer electronics. Gadgets and fads can come in and go out of date in an alarmingly short space of time and it’s something Sir Clive Sinclair knows only too well. Many of his products, like the first calculator and ZX computers were timed to perfection, but sometimes he got it horribly wrong, and the FTV1 flat screen pocket TV (also known as the TV80) was a case in point. It was out of date even before it started rolling off the production line.
Flat screen video displays were rare in the early 80s but everyone knew they were coming. Casio, Hitachi, Panasonic and Seiko, to name just a few, had been regularly demonstrating prototype screens at trade shows and press events. These were all based on liquid crystal display technology (LCD), which by then was well established on watches and calculators. The only question was who would be first to get a flat screen TV into the shops. It was a close run thing but it was almost certainly Casio, in June 1983 with the TV-10, with several other manufacturers hard on their heels. Four months later Clive Sinclair, as was, announced the FTV1 pocket flat screen TV. This was most definitely not a me-too product, though, and it was typical of Sinclair to defy convention with a flat display screen that owed more to old school 19th century physics than late 20th century microchip wizardry.
It was a clever variant of the cathode ray tube (CRT). Basically it’s a valve, a glass tube with all of the air sucked out where a stream of electrons is fired from a ‘gun’ towards a phosphor screen that glows brightly when struck by the beam. The beam can be moved around the screen using magnetic fields or electrostatic charges, and by varying the brightness of the beam, and scanning the beam across and down the screen 50 times a second it is possible to build up a sequences of still pictures that create an illusion of movement. The big difference with the FTV1 tube is that the screen is at right angles to the electron gun, and it is viewed through the sidewall of the flattened glass tube. Electrons from the gun are deflected down onto the screen by an electrostatic charge. The actual phosphor screen is quite small, just 38 x 18mm, and apparently the wrong aspect ratio (16:9 instead of 4:3) but the image is magnified and the distortion corrected by a fresnel lens moulded in the viewing window in the case. It produces a sharp and bright image, but like all CRTs it’s still a fragile glass bottle that needs a lot of high voltages in order to make it work, which makes packing one into a small box that you can fit into your pocket quite a challenge.
The FTV1 was the result of collaboration with several other companies. Much of the key tuning, picture processing and tube driver circuitry is packed into a single microchip developed jointly with Ferranti. The designers overcame the not inconsiderable problem of powering it by using a weird and wonderful flat battery, originally developed by Polaroid for use in instant camera film cartridges. The P500 Lithium Power Pack did indeed manage to pack a lot of power into a small space, but they were expensive (3 for £10), and didn’t last anything like the 15 hours claimed in the marketing guff. Timex in Scotland handled manufacture of the FTV1 tube and Thorn EMI assembled the parts at their Enfield plant. It was priced realistically at just under £80 (that’s where the alternative TV80 name came from, allegedly…). Most who saw it in action commented favourably on picture and sound quality but it wasn’t enough to for it to fly. Sinclair predicted that production would eventually reach 10,000 units a month, rising to a million a year when it went worldwide but there were serious production delays and according to several reputable sources only around 15,000 were ever built.
What Happened To It?
Two things conspired against the FTV1. Slick-looking Japanese LCD pocket TVs had a clear technical edge and a lot more kudos, compared with the rather dull looking FTV1 and this was in spite of first generation LCD TVs being more expensive and having quite poor picture quality. The second problem was the initial production delays, rumoured to be due to high rejection rates, and the subsequent limited availability, leaving the door open for the Japanese. Production limped on for a year or so but, sadly, it was doomed.
I have half a dozen FTV1s, bought mostly from ebay a few years ago were they were selling for £5.00 or less. There are still a fair few of on sale each month though nowadays good ones tend to fetch £20 or more. Mine still work, though there’s nothing much to see since the UK digital TV switchover. You can bodge up a connection to the aerial from a VCR or TV game but it’s not much fun. Power is also a problem, it will work on a mains adaptor but the wacky flat battery is no longer made. I did once manage to extract something very similar from a Polaroid disposable flat torch and graft it into an expired P500 pack, and it worked, but only for a few minutes. No doubt in time they will become harder to find and prices will go up but it’s unlikely ever to excite much interest outside of the handful of members of the Sinclair products and mini TV collector communities...
First seen 1983
Original Price £79.95
Value Today £10 0513
Features 47mm (2-inch) monochrome flat-screen CRT display, 625-line UHC (chans 21 – 68) coverage, telescopic antenna, 23mm speaker, volume on/off & tuning controls, earphone jack (mono 3.5mm), external DV power socket, fold out table stand
Power req. P500 6-volt flat lithium battery pack & optional AC adaptor
Dimensions: 140 x 85 x 33mm
Made in: UK
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Hitachi VM-C1E ‘Twist & Shoot, 1990
Memory can play some funny tricks. I remembered the Hitachi VM-C1 ‘Twist & Shoot’ VHS-C camcorder as being about 50 percent smaller and lighter than it actually is in real life. When it was launched in mid 1990, Hitachi made a big thing about how compact it was, and that was largely thanks to the clever space-saving trick of having the front end of the camcorder – the lens and handgrip – mounted on a pivot, so that when not in use it folded up into a slim lozenge shape and to be fair it was a good deal smaller than most of its rivals. To use it, you literally had to wring its neck and twist the front end through 90 degrees (hover your mouse over the photo to see it in action). Unfortunately this proved to be its undoing, and rumour had it that the joint and the wiring it contained suffered a high failure rate, thanks to over-enthusiastic use of the folding facility.
The VM-C1 was launched, with much fanfare, at a press event held at a go-kart track in deepest Hertfordshire. The only reason I mention that is because I still have the remnants of a bizarre folding cardboard model of the machine that was presented to journalists (that's it on the right of the photo). It may have been a portent because by the end of the day most of them had fallen apart, as the cardboard crumpled and the elastic band that held them together snapped…
Full credit to Hitachi, though, for non-cardboard innovation, and a valiant attempt to breathe some life back into the ailing VHS-C format. By the early 90s it was starting to suffer at the hands of the new, smaller 8mm tape cassette format, devised by Sony. Apart from the folding front end there wasn’t much else to say about the VM-C1. It has the usual compliment of basic features, which included a zoom lens, though this one was a modest 6X, probably due to the constraints of the folding mechanism. It had a twin beam infra-red autofocus system, one of the last to use this system I suspect, as by them most manufacturers had adopted the faster and more accurate (in good light) edge contrast system.
Another feature of note was a flying erase head. This overcame one of the analogue recording systems biggest drawbacks, namely the difficulty of producing clean edits. The flying erase head allowed new segments to be seamlessly dropped into the middle of an existing recording. If you tried that on a regular machine you ended up with several seconds of on-screen mush at the edit in and edit out points. Other oddities, due to the folding mechanism, was the viewfinder. On conventional machines of the day a miniature black and white cathode ray tube is mounted horizontally on the top of the deck mechanism. On this one it is mounted vertically at the back of the deck module, with a mirror on top, angled at 45 degrees to divert the image to the eyepiece.
The controls are mounted in three main groups. Camera functions are on the twisting handgrip; tape transport buttons are on the top and there’s a tracking thumbwheel, buttons for setting time and date and the composite video and mono output sockets on the right side of the body. Power comes from a 6-volt rechargeable NiCad pack that slots into a recess on the right of the handgrip, which also has the record start/stop button and the rocker switch for the power zoom. The microphone and white balance sensor are on the front next to the lens, which has a protective cover that slides into place when the machine is folded.
Performance was good enough and as I recall comparable with most other mid-range and high-end VHS-C machines of the day. This was a fairly expensive machine, though and the price when new was a gnat’s under £800, which according to an on-line inflation calculator is now (early 2013) a touch under £1700.
What Happened To It?
The VM-C1 lingered for a couple of years but sales were modest and it never made much of an impact; the VHS-C format was on the way out and tales of unreliability couldn’t have helped. A couple of years later Hitachi bowed to the inevitable and introduced a range of 8mm models and this marked the start of a very strange period for the company as it sought to retain its presence in the camcorder market. What followed was a succession of highly innovative designs that somehow never managed to capture the public’s imagination. These included what was almost certainly the first all digital machine, the JPEG1 camcorder, which used a hard drive to store video; they pioneered DVD camcorders and were the first with a Blu-Ray model. Then suddenly, in around 2005, after a major shake up and mounting losses, they retrenched back to their heavy industrial roots (they’re still huge in trains and nuclear power stations) and the Hitachi brand virtually disappeared from view in the consumer electronics market.
How the mighty do fall… I bought this one on ebay for just £2.99, plus £10 postage, and that included a charger, spare battery, all leads and cables, several tapes and Hitachi’s own custom carry case. It has a couple of faults that look suspiciously like intermittencies and I would lay money on them being rooted in or around the joint, and possibly quite easy to fix, but it will have to wait for a very rainy, dull day. I don’t know how many were sold, and how many remain but my guess is that there’s not many of them about now, and those that are tend sell quite cheaply when they appear on ebay. If you happen upon a runner for silly money it has to be worth a punt; put it aside for the day, probably in around 50 years time, when it may be worth something...
First seen 1990
Original Price £799.00
Value Today £10 0513
Features VHS-C tape format, 6x zoom lens with manual macro, twin-beam IR autofocus, auto white balance, fader, time/date display, title facility, amorphous flying erase head, quick edit, mono viewfinder
Power req. VM-BP81 6 volt NiCad rechargeable battery pack
Dimensions: 280 x 120 x 65 (folded)
Made in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 8
Sinclair MTV1B Microvision Pocket TV, 1978
Of all the pocket TVs developed by Sinclair Radionics – and there have been a fair few of them over the years -- the MTV1B Microvision stands out as one of the most refined, and least likely to go wrong. That’s high praise indeed, as any Sinclair fan will tell you! This was the second of his tiny tellies, or rather, the second to actually go into production. There was at least one Microvision prototype, and almost certainly several others, developed between Sinclair’s incredibly optimistic announcement in 1965, of his intention to market a pocket TV, and the appearance of the first one, the MTV1A, in 1976.
Although there are a few outward similarities between the MTV1A and MTV1B – they both used the same miniature Telefunken cathode ray picture tube (CRT) and are roughly the same size -- internally, and in terms of features, they are like chalk and cheese. The MTV1A is a full bloodied, metal-cased multi-standard model, capable of working in more than 100 countries around the world, whilst the MTV1B is a simple, UHF only receiver with just two controls (on/off volume & tuning), and housed in an all plastic case. The MTV1B was almost certainly a response to disappointing sales of the MTV1, which was just too expensive and specialised for the cash-strapped 70s. Sinclair clearly believed that what the market really wanted, and needed, was a cheap and cheerful pocket TV, and that’s more or less what we got, but sadly, once again sales were well below expectations.
It was a real shame because it was basically a good product, and unusually, it actually worked. The price, at £99.99 was a tad on the high side but at the time there was nothing to compare it with. The only real drawback was a thirst for batteries. It uses four AA cells, which live in a compartment to the right of the screen and it could suck the juice out of a set of Duracells in under an hour, which made the mains adaptor an absolute necessity. The comfortable viewing distance is under half a metre but picture quality – with a good signal – is pin sharp and there’s plenty of volume, for private listening from the built-in 34mm speaker. Clever design touches include a folding stand on the base, with three height settings. It could be connected to an external antenna using a pair of screw contacts on the back. There are also preset controls for line and frame hold, which helps to stabilise the picture in weak signal conditions.
Sinclair’s engineers put a lot of effort into simplifying the electronics, making good use of microchips, which were still something of a novelty in consumer products in the late 70s. I am pretty sure this helped to improve reliability too, which was always a bit of an adventure with Sinclair’s products. Several versions were made; the MTV1C was produced for the US market and the MTV1D was configured for European TV systems. At around the same time a tunerless model, the MON1A was developed for use as a monitor; however, this was based on the MTV1A chassis and is now very rare indeed.
What Happened To It?
Production of the MTV1B under the auspices of Sinclair Radionics only lasted for a couple of years. The company, which had already suffered serious losses through this and other ventures, had been bailed out by the National Enterprise Board and by 1978 it was close to bankruptcy. Clive Sinclair left the company and a year later the remaining stocks and rights to the MTV1B were sold to Binatone and although a few sets bearing the new name were made, it pretty much sank without trace.
I reviewed both MTV1A and B several times for various magazines when they first launched and it seems as though I always had one or two of them kicking around in the loft. Over the years I have acquired quite a collection of these little tellies. In spite of poor sales quite a few survived and during the 90s I often came across sad and lonely specimens in markets and car boot sales, usually selling for £10.00 or less. This was about the time LCD pocket TVs started to appear and the bulky – by comparison -- Sinclair design looked decidedly old fashioned.
They still turn up from time to time on ebay, and briefly, between around 2003 and 2008, prices went absolutely mad with top-notch examples selling for up to £100. However, since then prices have tumbled, to between £20 and £50 for a decent-looking runner.
This sudden fall from favour was almost entirely due to the switch to digital TV broadcasting, which rendered this and most other analogue TVs virtually useless. Of course they can still be connected to VCRs and video games with RF outputs, but the real charm of these little tellies was their portability, which is somehow lost when they have to be wired up to other boxes. I’m not complaining though, it just means there’s more of them for me, and my cunning plan to corner the market, when they bring back analogue TV…
First seen 1978
Original Price £100
Value Today £20 - £50 0313
Features 45mm (1.75-inch) monochrome CRT picture tube, single standard (CCIR System 1) UHF tuning, 9-section telescopic antenna (fully extended 610mm), volume on/off & tuning controls, line and frame hold presets, external antenna connection, audio out (3.5mm jack) external power socket, collapsible stand
Power req. 4 x AA cell175 x 85 x 53mm
Dimensions: 30 x 25mm
Made in: UK
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Citizen ST555 2.2in Pocket TV, 1997
Here’s a sorry sight. Pocket TVs like this were once high on everyone’s Christmas and birthday wish lists and until the novelty wore off – which it did quite quickly – whipping one out on a train or bus could cause quite a stir. The really sad thing, though, is that tiny tellies like this, even in full working order, are practically useless, in the UK at least, thanks to the digital switchover. That doesn’t make them any less cute or interesting, though, and it’s not all bad news as it’s possible to hook up most models to a VCR, TV game or maybe even a digibox, but that rather defeats the object, as far as portability is concerned.
The concept of a TV that is small enough to pop into your pocket or wear on your wrist goes way back. It had been a staple ingredient of twentieth century sci-fi but it wasn’t until 1970 that you could go into a shop and actually buy a pocketsize TV. From the mid 1960s onwards several companies had shown mock-ups and prototypes but credit for being first off the blocks with a commercial product almost certainly goes to Panasonic for the TR-001. Others swiftly followed, including our own homegrown Sinclair Radionics with the remarkable MTV-1 in 1976, but these were all fairly chunky black and white models, using miniature cathode ray tubes. However, for me, a pocket TV should have a flat screen, and it was the development of liquid crystal display (LCD) panels capable of showing moving video that finally let to practical pocket TVs. LCD technology had been around since the late 60s but it wasn’t until 1984 that one was used in a TV. The first to arrive was the TV10 from Casio, which had become a leading light in flat panel display technology through its dominance of the calculator market. Early LCD TVs were phenomenally expensive, had terrible picture quality (in black and white) and little more than a rich kids toy but developments followed thick and fast. Pocket tellies with colour screens started to appear in 1985 and during the next ten years there followed a series of improvements in picture quality and manufacturing yields, leading to significant price reductions, which brings us to the Citizen ST555.
Watchmakers Citizen was at the forefront of the first wave of affordable pocket LCD TVs that hit the shelves in the mid 90s. There were dozens of them, mostly with 2 to 3 inch colour screens and unashamedly aimed at the mass market, that is to say, cheap and cheerful. The ST555 has a 53mm (2.2 inch) screen (measured diagonally), and is a no-frills design, with twin VHF and UHF tuners. This sounds like quite an upmarket feature but it was incapable of receiving VHF TV broadcasts in the UK (in any event the VHF service was switched off in 1985). More than likely it was a cost cutting measure and allowed the same model to be sold in countries where VHF TV services were still available.
There are just four simple controls; a slide switch for power on/off and VHF/UHF band selection, rotary thumbwheels for screen backlight brightness and volume, and two buttons for up/down tuning. A coloured tuning bar on the screen moves from side to side as it searches for stations. There’s a 7-section telescopic antenna on the side and sound comes through a tiny 30mm speaker or via a side-mounted earphone socket. The cover for the battery compartment on the back panel has a simple tilt stand for table top viewing, and it’s powered by 6 AA type cells, preferably alkaline or rechargeable types as it has a formidable appetite for batteries, or it can run from an optional 6 volt mains adaptor.
What Happened To It?
As I recall picture quality was just about okay, provided you were in a really strong signal area and ambient light levels were low (I was always amused by adverts that showed TVs like this being watched on sunny beaches...). It also paid to keep it still as even small movements could make the picture vanish. Watching it for longer than 5 minutes ran the risk of giving you a headache, but you would be saved the bother of switching it off as the batteries would usually expire after 10 minutes or so. All in all it wasn’t a very satisfactory viewing experience. This model probably wouldn’t have impressed the neighbours either as by the time it arrived they had become commonplace.
Many were manufactured but here’s the thing, my guess is there are relatively few of them are still around. They were cheaply made and one tumble onto a hard floor would be enough to wipe it out; it would definitely cost way more than it is worth to repair. Simple attrition probably accounted for more than half of the population of ST55s and its contemporaries. Most of the rest will have been given or thrown away and eventually junked once the change to digital TV had started in the late 1990s. The final nail in the coffin, for TV on the move, has been mobile broadband and the plethora of devices, from smartphones to tablets, capable of displaying streamed video through broadband and wi-fi connections.
I can’t remember exactly where this one came from. Throughout the 80s and 90s I must have compiled dozens of pocket TV ‘Group Tests’ for various consumer electronics and gadget magazines. Most of the review models that passed through my hands would have been early production samples and returned or – as frequently happened – grown legs and disappeared after passing through photography studios. This ST555 somehow got overlooked, probably because it was a low spec, budget model and it ended up in a box of bits in my loft. TVs like this are virtually worthless at the moment, perhaps £5 to £10 on a really good day, but that makes the technology ripe for collectors who take the long view. It is unlikely that pocket TVs like this will ever be as cheap as they are now so start a collection, while you still can.
First seen 1997?
Original Price £50
Value Today £0.50 0113
Features 53mm (2.2-inch) colour TFT Active Matrix LCD screen (70,080 Pixels), dual-band (VHF/UHF) tuner, 7-section telescopic antenna, auto/manual sweep tuning, on-screen tuning bar, variable brightness, volume, built in 30mm speaker, 3.5mm headphone jack, external power, integral table stand
Power req. 4 x AA cell or external 6VDC adaptor
Dimensions: 126 x 82 x 33mm
Made in: China
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 6
Sony Betamovie BMC-200, 1983
I would have liked to have billed this as the world’s the first video camcorder. Sadly the Sony BMC-200 was the second, or possibly the third, beaten by just a few months by the slightly earlier BMC-100 and JVC’s GR-C1 – coming soon. Since I’m still waiting to get my hands on a BMC-100, and the differences between the two models is fairly small, this will have to do for the moment. As a matter of interest there was an even earlier combined video camera and recorder, made by Ampex, but it was a huge professional machine made up of ‘docked’ components, so it doesn’t really count.
The arrival of the Betamovie caught a lot of people by surprise. Back in the early 80s I was writing about and reviewing VCRs and portable two-piece video outfits (shoulder slung battery-powered recorders and hand-held cameras) for magazines like Video Today, Which Video and What Video. Everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before JVC got around to pairing its compact VHS-C portable outfit with a camera. I and a lot of other journalists had been given sneak previews of mock-ups, concept and prototype machines since the late 1970s and by mid 1982 we pretty much knew everything about the forthcoming JVC VHS-C camcorder, except the actual launch date, then in early 83, in a classic spoiler move, up popped the Betamovie.
The Betamax format hadn’t been seriously considered as a potential camcorder format for three simple reasons. By the early 80’s Betamax had all but lost the home VCR format war and Sony was known to be working on a new miniature tape format designed specifically for camcorders, (later to become Video 8). However, more significantly, Betamax used a large 74.28mm diameter spinning tape head drum with the tape wrapped around 186-degrees of its outer surface. Beta was based on Sony’s professional U-Matic system. Quite simply it appeared that such a large helical scan head wouldn’t fit comfortably inside a lightweight portable unit, but Sony engineers had other ideas. Their ingenious solution was to miniaturise the Betamax deck mechanism by using a smaller 44.6mm diameter head drum. To ensure compatibility with standard Betamax VCRs the tape had a 300 degree wrap, the head drum speed was almost doubled, to 3500rpm, the video and audio signals were heavily processed and written onto the tape by one, rather than two heads. It was a really clever idea but it had one major, and fatal flaw. The geometry of the head drum and tape head meant that it couldn’t replay recordings and throughout their brief production run Betamovie camcorders were record-only so you had to have a Betamax VCR in order to preview or play back your home video movies.
The only significant difference between the BMC-200 and 100 was the addition of an autofocus lens and like most early camcorders these machines used a picture tube instead of a solid-state image sensor (CCD). Sony’s Trinicon picture tube, based on the highly successful Vidicon tube of the late 50s is basically an exotic valve though ironically it was several years before CCDs out performed picture tubes. Another oddity is the optical through-the-lens (TTL) viewfinder; it sounds terribly old fashioned now, but consider this, it consumes no power, there’s virtually nothing to go wrong, you can use it in bright daylight and what you see through the viewfinder is more or less what ends up on the tape. There are a few more manual controls that we see nowadays; white balance, for example, can be set manually using the opaque white lens cover for a reference. It has a modest 6x zoom (manual and powered), a manual neutral density (ND) filter and the mike is held clear of the machine on a small boom, to minimise handling noise and motor whine. A 9.6volt battery pack powers the machine and this lives inside the pivoting handle.
And so we come to the sorry tale of this particular machine. I came across it on ebay and entered a bid a little above the starting price of £9.99, fully expecting it to go for the usual £25 or so a decent looking non-runner usually gets. Potential bidders may have been put off by its unknown condition and the fact that it had no battery but amazingly there were no other bids. A few days later it arrived and judging by the condition of the box it looked as though the couriers has played football with it. Several panels were cracked on the left side, probably by repeated impact with the hefty charger unit. Needless to say it was DOA; the seller did the decent thing and made a full refund and said I could keep it. It is complete and I suspect that it can be repaired, but life is too short and it will have to wait until I get the time or another cheap fixer upper comes along that I can scavenge for parts, before I attempt to fix it.
What Happened To It?
Betamovies went through a number of revisions from 83 to the last one in 1987. This included better lenses, a CCD chip replaced the Trinicon tube on the BMC-600 in 1986, this model also used the high-band SuberBeta recording system. The last of the line was the BMC-100 Betamovie Pro, which had improved low light capability, SuperBeta recording, an electronic viewfinder and an LCD info display, however, I’m not even sure that it ever went on sale in the UK as by this time VHS had convincingly seen off Betamax.
In the end though Betamovies were doomed the inability of the machine to play back recordings. That doesn’t alter the fact that it was a milestone in the development of the camcorder and good working examples usually sell for at least £30, rising to £80 or more on a good day, especially if it comes with all of the accessories. So don’t be put off, if you have a Betamax VCR it makes a functional collectible, and as an added bonus picture can actually be quite good on these old lumps, and who knows; maybe one day it could even turn out to be a decent investment?
First seen 1983
Original Price £1000
Value Today £25.00 1212
Features f1.2, 9-54mm, 6x zoom & macro autofocus lens, 0.5-inch Trinicon picture tube, minimum illumination 28 lux, auto white balance, optical TTL viewfinder,
Power req. NP-11 9.6V rechargeable nicad battery pack
Dimensions: 130 x 220 x 360mm
Made in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Ferguson FC08 VHS Camcorder, 1988
You could probably fit a couple of modern digital camcorders into the battery compartment and on a good day, with the wind in the right direction, recording times could be as long as 20 minutes. Don’t laugh, this was how it used to be back in the day and although the FC08 was never a cutting edge machine, it was a class act and would have set you back the thick end of £1000, or around £3k in today’s money.
It’s a full-size VHS camcorder and even by the late eighties, when it first appeared, it was something of a dinosaur. VHS-C and 8mm camcorders had been around since 1985 and although not exactly pocket size, those first generation compact models were less than half the size and a quarter the weight of this big ‘ol beast, but Ferguson clearly believed there was still life in the old dog. However, apart from a brief foray with Super VHS, this was pretty much the VHS format’s last gasp in movie making. There was still a small niche market for these machines, more so in the US, and this was mainly due to the fact that you could shoot your video and play the tape back on your homedeck VCR without having to worry about cables, connectors or adaptors. Life was a lot simpler back then and technofear a recognised medical condition…
The FC08, in common with all of Ferguson’s VHS and VHS-C camcorders was made by JVC, so it was a solid design and well put together. I vaguely remember it being launched but I don't recall ever reviewing it for any of the magazines I was working on at the time (Video Camera, Which Video? etc.). Considering how many other, much more interesting, machines there were around at the time I suppose it wasn’t surprising.
Notable features include the mighty 6x zoom lens, swing-out monochrome CRT viewfinder and fold-down carry handle. It was also equipped with some modest editing features, including insert recording. This allowed the user to drop a new recording into the middle of a previous recording, without the picture breaking up. Again, don’t laugh, this was quite a feat and it’s easy to forget how difficult it was to edit home movies without a lot of expensive kit, like edit controllers and timebase correctors. Power comes from a small 9 volt nicad pack set into the handgrip; trivia fans may like to know that this was the same pack as used on JVC/Ferguson’s first generation VHS-C camcorders.
Plain vanilla VHS recording quality looks decidedly poor by current standards but to be fair, even after all of these years, it’s not all bad. Analogue video has a smooth soft texture all of its own, especially when compared with highly compressed digital video, and none of the artefacts that you get nowadays when there’s rapid movement in the image. The most noticeable difference, though, between then and now, is the huge improvements in the performance of CCD image sensors. The FC08 and its ilk struggles in poor light with lots of grain and noise and are virtually useless indoors without additional lighting. The auto focus and exposure functions are quite leisurely by comparison and the deck mechanism doesn’t take kindly to knocks or bumps. You also notice the weight on your shoulders after a few minutes, and peering at that tiny black and white viewfinder will give you a headache. Technological progress sometimes seems like one step forward, and two steps back, but in this case I have to say machines like this are truly a relic from the bad old days; long live digital!
What Happened To It?
The American’s inexplicable appetite for full-size VHS camcorders, which lasted well into the 1990s, was almost certainly responsible for the FC08 and the handful of other VHS machines from JVC and Panasonic lasting well beyond their sell by date. But it wasn’t to last and I can find no record of it after 1991. By that time the compact formats, bolstered by high-band newcomers S-VHS-C and Hi8 had taken the lion’s share of the market and the old lumps quietly faded away.
This particular one came from a car boot sale in Kent a year of so ago and it cost me just £5.00, which was a ridiculous sum considering it’s original cost. It came with its purpose designed carry bag and full set of accessories. The owner didn’t know if it worked or not and it was a bit grubby so I didn’t have any expectations. As with so many old gadgets I was very pleasantly surprised to find that, apart from the battery, it was in full working order when powered from its mains adaptor/charger. It seems to have been only lightly used, picture and sound quality was as good as VHS gets, which suggests that it must have been well looked after during it’s brief working life and in the intervening years, stored in a cool dry place.
Given the very high price and the competition from compact camcorders I doubt that more than a few hundred of them were ever sold in the UK so there are probably not many of them still around, let alone in working order. Sadly that has little impact on its current value and if I put it on ebay I suspect that would be lucky to get more than £20 - £25 for it. Definitely not one for investors looking for a quick profit, but if you’re not in a hurry and can wait 10 – 20 years, say, when camcorders are the size of pea, collectors of 80’s memorabilia may well be quite interested in it…
First seen 1988
Original Price £999
Value Today £25.00? 1012
Features VHS recording system, 9 – 54mm, f1:1.4, 6 x optical zoom, auto focus, fader, index mark, manual/auto shutter, manual white balance, time/date recording, insert recording, animation mode, folding carry handle, 0.5 inch monochrome CRT viewfinder, mono audio
Power req. 9 volt nicad battery pack
Dimensions: 390 x 215 x 135mm
Made in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
The Micro Television MTV1A was undoubtedly one of the best things Sinclair ever made. Even after more than 40 years no other pocket TV has come close to what this little box of tricks can do, or is ever likely to now, thanks to the Internet and the global shift towards digital broadcasting.
So what makes it so special? Well quite simply this tiny telly could be used in more than 100 countries. It was genuinely portable too and ran on its own internal re-chargeable batteries. Back in 1976 that was a remarkable feat for something about the size of a thick paperback book and given the diversity of TV systems and standards in use around the world.
It was the culmination of Clive Sinclair’s long held ambition to build a pocket TV. He began teasing us with promises of a titchy telly with a 2-inch screen in the mid 60s. It seemed that it was always just about to go on sale, and at one point it was even advertised with a price tag of 49 guineas. Alas, Sinclair’s enthusiasm exceeded his company’s ability to mass-produce such a device and it never went much beyond the prototype stage. Then in 1976 the MTV1 appeared and it blew everyone away.
Until then Sinclair products had a reputation for been cleverly designed but poorly made but the MTV1 was a revelation. It is based around 2-inch cathode ray tube (CRT) made by Telefunken, originally designed for use in test instruments. It’s housed in a metal case and inside there are 5 densely populated circuit boards, mostly by discrete components but there’s a sprinkling of analogue microchips in the audio and tuning sections. The standard of construction is excellent, though Sinclair made a big mistake with the rechargeable batteries. There are four AA-sized nicads permanently soldered to the power supply board. These would have had a fairly short useful life, 2 –3 years at best, and the only way to replace them was to take the whole thing apart. This is not an easy job, and getting it back together is even harder… A lot of old batteries eventually leak, the corrosive juice eats into the nearby circuitry and many MTV1s effectively self-destruct after 10 – 15 years.
On the positive side it’s very easy to use. The row of buttons along the bottom edge switch it on and select the band and TV system. There are two thumbwheels for tuning and volume and around the back there are four adjustments for brightness, contrast, line and frame hold. It has two on-board antennas, a telescopic jobby for VHF reception and a weird folding frame aerial for UHF channels. There’s also connections for an external aerial, a 2.5mm jack for an earphone and two DC input sockets for mains adaptors. The original outfit came with a range of adaptors that were supposed to work anywhere in the world.
With a good signal the black and white picture can be bright, crisp and pin-sharp, and it comes with a little clip-on sun shield so it can be used outdoors in bright conditions. The circuitry can be a little unstable at times, or after it has been on for a while and getting a decent picture with a less than perfect signal can involve a lot of knob-twiddling and aerial wiggling. The sound is a tad tinny but there’s plenty of volume from the small 45mm speaker, which lives in the top of the case. One other design flaw is the lack of a stand; hand-holding it for more than a few minutes is hard work and getting the right angle and distance makes it a pain to use for longer viewing sessions. But hey, no more nit-picking, this is a pocket multi-system TV from the 1970s, and that deserves respect!
What Happened To It?
Unfortunately it cost a small fortune to manufacture and it almost crippled Sinclair. At one point the UK government had to pitch in with a £1.6m grant and this was reflected in the selling price. Initially it was deemed too expensive for the UK market and the only place you could get one was in the US, where it was sold for a hefty $400 (around £250).
Well-heeled world-travelling gadget geeks were apparently in short supply in the late 70s, consequently the demand for such a device was relatively small and sales were disappointing. At the end of its 2-year production run more than 12,000 MTV1s remained unsold and were disposed of at a fraction of their original cost, resulting in a huge losses for Sinclair. In 1978 the company tried to open up the market with a cheaper single standard pocket TV, called the MTV1B, but this also struggled and the huge costs involved in developing pocket TVs contributed to the company’s eventual downfall and sell-off in 1979.
The MTV1 in the picture is my fourth working example and a recent acquisition. I found it at a Brighton flea market and the stallholder was asking £50 for it. That would be a very fair price for a runner, but he was unable to give any assurances and eventually settled on £35. Even if it didn’t work it was worth that much for spares and as a bonus it came with a case, adaptor, the clip on screen – these always get lost – earphone and instructions, and cosmetically it looked very tidy. The plastic at the top of the screen surround had cracked but this was a well-known design fault and I’ve only ever come across one MTV1 that didn’t have that crack. The only concern I had was that the label on the bottom of the case was intact, which meant it hadn’t been opened (normally a good sign and that it hasn't been fiddled with), but in this case it meant that it probably still had the original re-chargeable batteries inside.
Once I got it home I gingerly powered it up and there was sound but the screen had just a single bright line – it’s called frame collapse. This was essentially good news suggesting that the bulk of the circuitry was intact and working. After opening it up I found that the original batteries were indeed still in place and they had seeped, but only for a short time as the damage was confined to a few tracks on the printed circuit board. Once the batteries had been removed (but not replaced – I don’t want it to happen again) and the chassis reassembled I tried it again and mysteriously the frame collapse fault had righted itself. The screen burst into life and a wobbly picture appeared and I was the happy owner of a working MTV1.
This was an unusually lucky find, but they are out there if you look and there’s a couple of dozen each year on ebay, selling for anything between £50 and £250 depending on the condition and accessories. Sadly they’ll loose a lot of heir kudos after the digital switchover but they can still be hooked up to analogue TV sources like old VCRs, computers and TV games so they won’t be totally useless. Nevertheless, I suspect that prices won’t go much higher so they’re not much of an investment but don’t let that put you off. It’s a real slice of television and technology history, and a really nice thing to have, even if there’s not much to watch on it anymore…
GIZMO GUIDE (Manual)
First seen: 1976
Original Price £250 ($400)
Value Today? £150 1211
Features: 2-inch black and white CRT, Multi standard VHF/UHF tuner Bands 1 (50 – 90MHz), 3 (170 – 220MHz), 4 & 5 (470 – 890MHz), CCIR Systems B, G, H, I, M, 525/625 lines. Mode selectors, tuning, volume, brightness, contrast, frame & Line hold controls, telescopic VHF and foldable frame UHF antennas, external antenna, earphone socket, 45mm (1.75-in) internal speaker
Power req. Internal re-chargeable batteries
6/12VDC external adaptor
Dimensions: 160 x 104 x 42 mm
Made in: Britain
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
JVC HR-3300 (Aka Ferguson 3V22 & Baird 8902), 1978
My first encounter with a VHS video recorder was in 1977, just a few months after the format’s official launch in Japan. This was whilst I was working for Ferguson (Thorn-EMI as was) at the Southbury Road facility in Enfield, where a JVC HR 3300 was being evaluated by the marketing department. It was probably a pre-production model and almost certainly one of the very first VHS VCRs in the country. It clearly made a big impression on the company because shortly afterwards it was on sale and available for rent through its Radio Rentals chain, sporting Ferguson Videostar and Baird name badges.
Badge engineering, as it came to be known was undoubtedly one of the main reasons the VHS format saw off the technically superior Sony Betamax system. JVC’s willingness to encourage as many manufacturers and brands as possible to adopt VHS and nurture the market for pre recorded tapes ensured it’s early success; that and the equally early uptake of VHS by the porn industry, but that’s another story. Sony on the other hand kept a tight reign on Beta. Other brands were slow to climb on board, though it remained popular in the US for several years after the format battle had been decisively won by VHS in Europe and the Far East.
But back to the HR-3300. Like all early VCRs it has a clunky mechanical top-loading tape cassette mechanism but it’s not until you remove the lid that you see what an incredible feat of electronic and mechanical engineering it is. There’s hardly a microchip to be seen; it’s packed with densely populated printed circuit boards and thick wiring looms, supported on a heavy-duty metal chassis. Apart from the motors that spin the head drum and drive the tape loading mechanism, the deck is almost entirely mechanical in operation. Big ‘piano key’ levers emerge from the front of the case, even channel selection and tuning is by push button and thumbwheel. There is a socket on the back marked remote, but this was for an optional switch on the end of a long cable that engages and releases the deck’s pause function.
The downside of all this heavy metalwork was the weight. The 3300 tipped the scales at almost 14kg, which doesn’t sound a lot until you have to lug one around, which reminds me of my second meeting with this machine. That was in 1978, after I joined Electronics Today International magazine. A 3300 had been sent in to the office for review and I thought it would be a good idea to take it home to try it out. I still remember the pain of the box landing on my foot as I struggled to board an Underground train during the evening crush hour.
First generation VHS VCRs were relatively simple to drive though this one had a quirky three-way mode switch (TV, Video, Timer) on the front and I suspect few users ever mastered the single-event timer. In theory, if you got it right and left the play/record keys and mode switches in the right positions it would record a TV program up to one week in advance. Fewer still bothered to use the mechanical tape counter (with memory) or audio dub features, and I doubt that more than a handful of machines ever had anything connected to the chunky PL259 video input and output sockets or the DIN audio in/out socket on the back panel. In the end, though, the only connections that mattered were for the aerial bypass. One socket was for your rooftop aerial, the other for a lead that went into the back of the TV. Setup tuning was a bit of a palaver, the TV had to be set to Channel 36, then you had to manually tune the 8 presets hidden under a hinged flap on the top (actually there were only 3 channels back then, C4 didn’t start broadcasting until 1982, and then only in parts of the country). Once that was done it would be ready to roll and for those who remember it, the distinctive grind of the tape loading mechanism and rising whine of the head motor are hugely evocative sounds that take you back to a simpler time when the ability to record TV programmes seemed almost magical. I regret to say that most modern gizmos are boringly quiet and lack any kind of soul…
What Happened To It?
Historically recording formats and media have had 25-year life cycles and so it was with VHS. During its eventful quarter-century, from the late seventies to the early noughties, there were many major improvements to picture quality, deck mechanics, usability, reliability and a massive drop in the cost of the hardware. We had jitter free still, slomo and picture search. Top loaders gave way to front-loading decks and piano keys were replaced by servo-assisted controls. Remote controls lost their cables and went multifunction wireless infrared. Timers increased in sophistication with multiple event recording over a month or more but they never got much easier to use, in spite of numerous gimmicks like barcode and microchip programming, VideoPlus and many more. Philips even had a stab at voice programming. Sound quality got better too, initially with hissy twin-track linear stereo then with depth multiplex (DFM) hi-fi sound and NICAM tuners. There was subtitle recording, a big leap in picture quality with Super VHS and even a brief dalliance with digital (D-VHS) but then in the mid 90s along came DVD, which killed off pre-recorded tapes and in the last six or seven years, VHS’s last remaining application, for time-shifting TV programmes, fell to hard disc based PVRs like Sky+, Virgin+ and modestly priced Freeview and Freesat recorders.
I came by this machine through a friend who had put it in his loft ten years ago and forgotten all about it. After a decade of inaction it powered up and worked first time. I had expected all sorts of problems, from rotten drive belts and sticky mechanics, but it ran like a dream. Talk about bullet proof; they really built these things to last! Picture quality was more or less as I remember, a bit whiskery, a fair amount of colour and luminance noise and overall pretty poor by current standards but that doesn’t matter, it was good for its day and would certainly stand comparison with VCRs made ten years later.
So the question is, are video cassette recorders collectable? I have to say yes, but only the first models of a particular format (Philips VCR/S-VCR, Technicolor, VHS, VHS-C, S-VHS, 8mm, Hi8, Betamax, V2000 and so on.). They have to be in working order, in good condition and preferably come with a supply of blank and recorded tapes as once the digital switchover is completed you won’t be able to directly record TV programmes through their built-in tuners. It’s very difficult to put a price on these things. A boxed HR3300 in mint conditions could be worth several hundred pounds to a collector, but on a good day you can still pick up a decent-looking runner on ebay or at your local car boot for under £20 pounds. The real problem though, is where to put it, and if you start collecting these things, you are going to need some serious display or storage space, and check the strength of your shelves.
First seen: 1978
Original Price £650
Value Today? £50? 1111
Features: VHS play record (SP only), audio dub, single-event/1-week timer, UHF tuner with 8 channel presets, RF modulator, line and microphone audio and video inputs, manual tracking, optional wired remote pause, mechanical tape counter with memory stop
Power req. 220VAC
Dimensions: 465 x 320 x 180mm
Made in: Japan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Sony Watchman FD-9B Pocket TV, 1986
Not for the first time has Sony been caught on the hop when it comes to TV technology. The company’s late involvement with large flat screens tellies in the early 2000s almost certainly cost it its lead at the high end of the market, and it made a similar, though much less costly mistake back in the mid 1980s. At this time small pocket TVs were all the rage and most of the major manufacturers were busily churning out models with active matrix liquid crystal displays (LCDs), but for some unaccountable reason Sony launched a model with a bizarre ‘flat’ black and white cathode ray tube (CRT) display, not dissimilar to the one used by Sinclair on its FTV1. At the time Sony cited better picture quality as its reason to use CRTs, and to be fair picture quality was pretty good, but the expense and difficulty of producing these tubes, and their associated driver circuitry posed considerable problems. It didn’t help that by then colour LCDs were getting cheaper, and picture performance was improving in leaps and bounds.
The FD-9B, featured here was a second-generation model, joining the FD-10, which was launched in 1982. Looking back it now seems like a last gasp to hang on to a share of the market; not surprisingly it didn’t last very long and Sony switched to colour LCD screens in 1990 with the first colour Watchman (FDL-310).
For those unfamiliar with flat screen CRTs, the idea is basically fairly simple. A normal CRT is a large glass bottle with all of the air sucked out. At the neck end there’s an electron ‘gun’, which shoots a stream of electrons at a phosphor coated screen at the wide end of the ‘bottle’. When the electrons strike the screen it glows. The picture is built up by focussing the electrons into a thin beam, creating a single bright dot, which is swept across and down the screen in a series of lines. The beam is moved around by a coil on the outside of the tube, or by electrically charged plates inside the tube immediately in front of the electron gun. In a flat CRT the electron gun is at right angles to the screen and the electrons beam is deflected through 90 degrees to strike the phosphor coating, which is viewed through a transparent window in the side of the tube.
The main problem is CRTs, flat or conventional, needs very high voltages, at high frequencies to move the beam around. This requires a fair amount of specialist circuitry and in a pocket TV this has to live side by side with sensitive tuning and amplification circuits, so it’s quite a challenge. Nevertheless, Sony managed it and the FD-9 is an impressive feat of engineering. In spite of the complexity the FD-9 isn’t much bigger than LCD TVs of the same era, though the screen, at just 3 x 4cm is a good deal smaller than most of the competition.
It’s powered by four 1.5 volt AA cells and is very easy to use with just three controls: volume, tuning and a three position switch for power and sound. There are a couple of sockets on the right side for earphone and external power and on the right there’s a foldaway telescopic aerial.
What Happened To It?
With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to see that Sony’s decision to go with flat CRTs on its pocket TVs was doomed to failure. Even at the time the smart money was on LCDs but Sony stuck with it, and thanks to its high profile and reputation it probably sold fairly well. Pocket TVs were always going to be something of a passing fad, though, and the novelty quickly wears off. I suspect most of them ended up in the backs of cupboards a few months after they were bought. They had other problems too and the FD-9 and even the LCD tellies had terrible battery lives (the LCDs don’t consume a lot of power but they rely on a backlight, which is on all of the time); the best you could hope for was a couple of hours, and that was on a set of expensive Duracells. The tiny aerials these TVs used also meant that they only worked in fairly close proximity to transmitters, even so, they haven’t gone away. Looking into the not too distant future it’s fairly obvious that broadcast TV is on a steep decline and today’s pocket TVs are more likely to be in the form of smart phones and instead of aerials will rely on the Internet, 3G and Wi-Fi, rather than plucking signals from the ether.
For the record this FD-9 came from a South Coast car boot sale and cost £4.00, haggled down from the £5.00 asking price. It does work, in that the screen lights up, and there is sound, but it’s not currently capable of doing both at the same time. I have had a quick poke around inside but it’s a scary sight and not the sort of job I’d like to tackle without a service manual and a very fine pair to tweezers... Sadly I doubt that I will ever get around to fixing it. The UHF TV signal in London is going to be turned off shortly and without an external aerial socket there really not much you can do with it, working or not. It’s an interesting novelty, though and although it’s never going to become a sought after collectible – at least not in my lifetime -- it’s a worthwhile addition to any collection of pocket TVs.
First seen: 1987
Original Price £200
Value Today? £5? 0611
Features: 4 x 3cm (5cm diagonal) black and white flat-screen CRT, UHF tuner, rotary volume & tuning, switched power & audio, earphone and ext power, 6-section telescopic antenna, wrist strap, belt clip
Power req. 4 x AA cell
Dimensions: 155 x 60 x 35mm
Made in: Taiwan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 5
Ingersoll XK505 TV, Radio, Cassette Recorder, 1980?
I vaguely remember this model, or something very much like it coming on to the market in the early 1980s. This was just a couple of years after the first VCRs appeared and quite a few people thought that it was a combined TV/VCR. In fact such a device was developed – made by Funai and marketed by Technicolor -- though I don’t think it was ever launched.
Anyway, back to the Ingersoll XK505, which is one of those what-were-they-thinking sort of products, a combined cassette recorder, AM/FM radio and 4.5-inch monochrome TV, a kind of video boom box, but without the boom. Quite who it was aimed at I was never certain, I suppose it might have appealed to caravanners as it could run off a 12 volt supply, or for a few minutes, from 10 D-cells or an optional rechargeable battery pack, but with just a simple telescopic antenna it would have been unlikely to have got much of a signal anywhere further than 5 miles from a TV transmitter. To be fair you could plug in an external aerial but I can say from personal experience that even if you get a good picture watching TV on a 4.5-inch screen isn’t’ much fun.
It’s a classic piece of 70s/80s design, lots of silvery plastic and the dreaded slider controls for band selection, mode selection and volume, the latter being unusually noisy. The tape deck in the centre is a simple piano-key model with auto-stop function and the radio covers the FM and Medium wave bands, TV and radio tuning is shown by a moving indicator on a vertical dial on the far right, driven by a marvellous collection of wheels and pulleys, which, miraculously still works. In fact everything works, even the tape deck with what appears to be the original drive belts. Other points of interest include a folding carry handle, sockets for headphones, mike, external antenna and power, controls on the backside for vertical hold, brightness and contrast and a folding wire stand on the base.
What Happened To It?
I am fairly sure this model appeared under a variety of different names, Ingersoll were one of a number of companies involved in badge-engineering products sourced from the far East. I suspect that the price – and I’m guessing it would have been in the region of £150 - £200 – and the relatively limited market meant that it only lasted for a few years. Mini TVs really started to take off in late 1980s with the development of LCD screens, and by then the Walkman personal stereo was well established, so there really wasn’t much of a demand for a strange and unwieldy combi product like this. In case you are wondering this one cost me £4.00 at a local car boot sale. The seller assured me was a runner but when I got it home only the radio was working. I’m not sure how I fixed it but after opening it up I used an airline to blow out the dust, tried it again, and this time it worked just fine. I don’t think many will have survived, let alone in working condition, having three such diverse technologies in close proximity to one another was always a recipe for disaster and when one part fails, usually the whole thing ends up being junked, as they are simply uneconomical to repair. If you ever see one grab it quick!
First seen: 1980?
Original Price £150?
Value Today? £10 1010
Features: 4.5-inch mono CRT TV screen, auto-stop cassette deck, AM/FM radio
Power req. 220-volt AC mains/12 volts DC, 10 x D cells, rechargeable battery pack
Dimensions: 320 x 190 x 140mm (whd)
Made in: Taiwan
Hen's Teeth (10 rarest): 7
Technicolor 212 Portable VCR, 1981
For a brief period in the early 1980s the Technicolor 212 portable VCR looked as though it could be the future of portable video. This was at a time when the only other portable video systems were huge ‘luggable’ VHS machines that weighed a ton and cost a small fortune.
The 212 used Compact Video Cassettes (CVC) spooled with ordinary quarter inch audio tape, similar in size and shape to a regular audio cassettes. It used a helical scaning system, similar to most VCRs and camcorders, with a linear tape speed of just 1.26 inches/sec (32.1mm/sec). Back then the 212 was regarded as a minor revolution in miniaturisation, though JVC and Sony were poised to launch the Compact VHS (VHS-C) and 8mm formats.
At the time Technicolor was best know for making movie film, so the appearance of this machine was a bit of a surprise. In fact it was jointly developed with the Japanese tape company Funai, who briefly marketed this machine under its own name. A 'combi' version with a built-in TV screen was also made though I don’t think it was ever sold in the UK.
At around £650 the 212 was quite expensive – remember this was over a quarter of a century ago… -- and you still needed a camera. In the UK it was supplied with a Hitachi model, which bumped the price up by another £550. Blank tapes cost around £6.00. It came with a companion mains power supply and RF adaptor, and an optional TV tuner/timer was also available (model No 5112), however, since only 30 minutes tapes were available (45 minute tapes did appear briefly), it wasn’t much use for serious time-shifting
It’s a lovely looking piece of kit with it’s clunky ‘piano-key’ controls, all of the sockets are mounted on the side; the large one is for the video camera connection, which draws its power form the VCRs internal rechargeable battery. As I recall picture quality was surprisingly good, though obviously not a patch on today’s portable video systems, however, much depended on the quality of the tape and dropouts – causing streaks and flashes on the picture – were quite common.
What Happened To it?
As soon as the technically superior VHS-C and 8mm formats appeared on the scene, backed by the world’s biggest electronic companies, it was curtains for Technicolour and CVC and the 212 quietly disappeared from view. Remaining stocks were sold off in shops in London’s Edgware Road for the giveaway price of only £75. A sad end to a brave attempt to take on the big boys, and who knows, if it had been launched a couple of years earlier things might have turned out differently.
Technicolor 212s still turn up on ebay from time to time, usually faulty and selling for a few pounds. I first reviewed the machine in early 1982 and I still have a small stock of CVC tapes in my collection, including one unopened one, which must be incredibly rare, all I need now is a working 212…
My thanks to fellow journalist and gadget collector Martin Pipe for his help with this one and you may be interested in his YouTube video documentary of the October 2010 British Audiojumble vintage hi-fi, audio and radio enthusiasts and collectors fair.
First seen: 1981
Original Price £650 (camera £550, tapes £6.00)
Value Today? £50 0810
Tape speed: 1.26 ips (32.1 mm/sec), Video Resolution: 240 lines,
Audio S/N: 40 dB, Audio Frequency Response: 100Hz to 8 kHz, audio dub, still
frame, 40 minutes recording time on rechargeable battery pack,
Dimensions: 246 x 76 x 259 mm
Made in: Japan
Hen’s Teeth (10 rarest): 8
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