Ampex Museum Status Report 2003-10-01

2003 October 1

by Peter Hammar

Peter Hammar
creator and former curator, 1979-1989,
Ampex Museum of Magnetic Recording, Redwood City, California.
 The collection is now a part of the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University

Many concerned people have kindly inquired what happened to the Ampex Museum of Magnetic Recording in Redwood City, California. This report not only covers the happy fate of that collection, but also contains some good news about a part of the Ampex corporate archives and the stewardship by Stanford University's Silicon Valley Archives of these two important collections.

A HISTORY OF THE HISTORY: I finished my historical preservation work with Ampex in 1989, which I had started ten years earlier with the establishment of the Ampex Museum of Magnetic Recording, a collection that featured "commercial firsts" in the development of magnetic recording, i.e., not only Ampex, but its predecessors and competitors. If a company was first to market, it was represented in the collection. In the mid-1990s, the Ampex Museum was shut down and its contents -- artifacts and documentation -- were boxed up and shipped to the company's factory in Colorado Springs, where the artifacts and documents were stored until 2001.

Ironically, the museum building at 411 Broadway was demolished to make way for one of those multi-billion-dollar ,"new-tech/new economy" dot-coms -- or as some call them now, "dot-bombs" -- which promptly dried up and blew away, totally forgotten. Meanwhile, the wonderful Ampex story lives on!

While in storage in Colorado, the collection remained largely intact. The most important pieces survived their sojourn and are safe at Stanford, including: a 1936 German Magnetophon [sic] Model FT-1 tape recorder, "the father of us all"; a 1948 Ampex Model 200A, serial-number 3, restored by Jack Mullin himself, the very machine that Jack put into service for the remainder of the 1948-49 season of "Bing Crosby Philco Radio Time" on the ABC Radio Network; a 1951 Ampex Model 500 data recorder with its vacuum-capstan drive that was so advanced for its time; and the Ampex VRX-1000 VTR that went to CBS-TV in Hollywood in the fall of 1956 for that first historic, tape-delayed television broadcast.

A LITTLE HELP FROM OUR FRIENDS: A couple of years ago, Sharon Genberg and others still at Ampex persuaded Ed Bramson, the owner of the company, to donate the entire museum collection to the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University. Ray Dolby generously paid for shipping the collection from Colorado to a temporary Stanford storage facility in South San Francisco. Stanford is building a new, permanent, "grade-A" storage building in Livermore, just east of the Bay Area, to which the collection will be permanently moved for safekeeping, although not for display.

A MOST AMAZING PHOTO COLLECTION: In terms of historical importance, Ampex's donation to Stanford of its fabulous corporate photo collection may ultimately rank higher than rescuing the museum collection -- 200,000 photos dating from 1944 to 1999! The collection includes every negative ever shot by and for the company, covering everything from the first two Ampex products -- a tiny airborne-radar motor and a generator -- to recent video-server tape backup and data recording products. The photos came with some proof books and other "metadata" describing their contents. Sharon Genberg has been the keeper of the Ampex flame and a most valued friend to our historical preservation efforts and she arranged for the entire photo collection to go to Stanford. We are very much in her debt. Other key Ampex people, including Bob Atchison, helped make these donations possible.

Stanford curator Henry Lowood has described the Ampex photo collection as the finest corporate photo archives he's ever seen. In the next couple of years, Stanford is going to need help identifying many key photos, and some ex-"Ampexers" and others have volunteered for that task. The first few important Ampex photos are slated for inclusion on the Stanford website soon.

STANFORD'S PLANS: Please let people know about the following. Because of a shortage of space, personnel, and funds, as well as adhering to their mission, Stanford has NO plans to make the Ampex collection into a "Stanford Museum" or even to display any Ampex artifacts on a permanent basis on the Stanford campus. The Silicon Valley Archives are not in the public museum business. The archives project is charged with cataloging, storing, and retrieving materials for scholarly use. However, the university has stated, in principle, its willingness to loan certain artifacts, photos, and documents for display and for study to qualified institutions, such as other universities and museums. Stanford's long-term goals include converting as much of the collection as possible into digital form -- including high-resolution photos of the machines from the Ampex Museum -- and offering to the public this treasure-trove of information via the Stanford website and perhaps on other websites, as well.

AMPEX COLLECTION ON THE INTERNET: If you go to the following Stanford website, you can see a list of what they've catalogued, so far, from the Ampex collection:

EQUIPMENT DONATIONS: Stanford is still interested in completing the Ampex collection in terms of acquiring a few key items missing from the collection that help tell the Ampex story. They do not want lots of miscellaneous pieces of "entertainment technology", especially those not pertaining to Ampex Corporation. For example, they would not want an old Philco radio, but they might want an Ampex Model 350 audio deck, assuming it's in relatively good condition. The Ampex Museum's mint Model 351-2 stereo tape deck, representing one of the most important product lines in the company's history, was stolen years ago and was never replaced. A 350 or 351 in similarly fine condition, especially in portable cases, would therefore be welcome to help document this important era.

A few "non-Ampex" artifacts that led directly to Ampex innovations might also be considered for inclusion in the collection, e.g., a 1949 Magnecord PT-6 audio recorder in excellent condition would be a good non-Ampex candidate for inclusion; it's relatively small size and portability reportedly inspired the doomed Ampex Model 400 and the subsequent, very successful Model 350/351 and Model 600 series.

In any case, the Stanford people's time and resources for the Ampex collection are limited; they have many other corporate collections to tend, including Apple and other Silicon Valley companies, so we should all be selective in what we offer them! If you think you have a good candidate for donation, please contact me or:

Henry E. Lowood
Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections
Silicon Valley Archives, MC: 6004
Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-6004

Please don't be offended if Henry or his staff refuse your donation offer. If that happens, they're doing it to save their resources and their limited space for work on their extensive collections, including Ampex! If that happens, please contact me and I'll help you find a good home for "your baby".

OTHER COLLECTIONS: Another good destination for video-related artifacts is Tim Stoffel in Reno. Please go to his website featuring VTR history that he calls, "Quadruplex Park", i.e., the "old dinosaurs" of video. I have information on other qualified collectors of both video and audio machines, photos, and memorabilia, so send me an email if you'd like to know about them, either for your own donations or for those of your friends. Please include your phone number and the day and time when you can be reached.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: A final note about the future of documenting the field of entertainment technology. Archivists and researchers covering recent history -- i.e., the past 100 years or so -- face the problem of being overwhelmed with detail, the wonderful minutiae that makes these stories so interesting, but ultimately can obscure important data. Piles of gear and reams of photos, memos, letters, articles, and documents will help people in the future understand what made us tick. On the other hand, we have to help our future researchers with our historical perspective, so they can make sense out of this mountain of information. We need to instruct future historians which 20th Century products, research work, and events we think were important to the history of Ampex and to the industry.

Perspective can come from personal observations, i.e., what those still around think was important in their time. Please encourage any surviving pioneers you know to write down -- or talk to a tape recorder! -- what they did at Ampex or in the entertainment and communications industries while using Ampex technology and send it to Stanford or to me. Writing or recording a letter to one's grandchildren -- or better, to their future great-great grandchildren -- can help motivate someone to get it done. It's a good experience: "Dear Kids, I'd like to tell you a little about what your old Grandpa (or Grandma) did way back in the 20th Century with one of the more important companies in the history of the Industrial Revolution and certainly in the history of electronics..." and describe their work. They should keep a word-processor document going, a pad of paper handy, or a mini-Dictaphone on the table just for this; every time they have a thought, they should get it down -- anything, even a short phrase or a word that they can build on the next time they come back to it. As I told one Ampex veteran who asked me who was documenting this stuff, "YOU ARE! You'd better write your own history, because nobody else is going to do it!"

DIGITS VS. ATOMS: Over time, historians inevitably become swamped with both data and artifacts, many of them larger than refrigerators. As Harold Lindsay of Ampex Audio said in 1979 when he and I were looking for a large space for the Ampex Museum to show off many of those big machines, "We haven't exactly been making BUTTONS all these years, you know!" In several hundred years' time, however, most of the artifacts we've saved will probably have fallen apart or been discarded, because people couldn't afford the physical storage space or just forgot about the stuff. Just ask the curators at the Smithsonian: the volume of their collection just keeps on growing, with no end in sight. The good news is, digital photos of the machines and their applications, along with documents and related data, WILL probably have survived years from now and, with their metadata, may be more important to understanding our era than the physical artifacts themselves. If you have any relevant photos or documents about Ampex, please consider donating them to the Ampex Collection at Stanford. As always, be sure to include as much description as possible about each photo or document.

Thanks in advance for your support!


AES - Audio Engineering Society