Update on the Ampex Collection at Stanford University

Update on the Ampex Collection at Stanford University

By Jay McKnight, from some questions by Fred Thal (AFT), and replies by Bill Wray (WW)

AFT recently wrote: "I do recall that the [former Ampex Museum] collection was sent to Stanford in 2001, and  I have again read the explanatory letter dated 2001 November 14  from Henry Lowood and Andrew Herkovic at Stanford.

"What I am suggesting is only that, after six years time, it might  now be appropriate to check in with these gentlemen to inquire if  the collection has been inventoried and cataloged. [...]"

Since the acquisition of the Ampex collection was sponsored by Ray Dolby, I checked with Bill Wray, a Dolby employee and co-chair of the AES Historical Committee. Bill says:  "Here is the index to the Ampex documents -- From the Online Archive of California, Ampex Corporation Records, ca. 1944-1999:"

 Descriptive Summary


 Collection Scope and Content Summary

 Collection Contents



 Indexed Prints and Negatives


 Manuals and documentation

 Audiovisual materials

AFT also commented:  "I know from experience that such institutions sometimes sell or dispose of items bequeathed to them, often citing an economic hardship or other inability to maintain such collections."

Bill W assures me that the Ampex artifacts Collection at Stanford is safely packed and stored in the SF Peninsula area, and will NOT be disposed of. So far, the library has done only a brief and incomplete inventory of the "artifacts" for their internal use.

There was a question about a Studer tape deck in the Stanford Ampex Collection. Bill is not aware of any Studer tape deck now in the collection.

The documents are now professionally cataloged (see the index links, above) and stored at the Stanford University library.

The San Francisco Airport Museums presented an exhibit called "The History of Audio: The Engineering of Sound" from 2006 September 28 to 2007 July 9, in the North Terminal at the San Francisco Airport. There were some questions about just where the materials for this exhibit came from.

Bill answered: "Dolby Labs people assisted in designing and collecting items for the exhibit. The displayed items came from many many sources including a few from the "Ampex at Stanford" collection -- the Ampex VRX-1000 VTR, a Peirce 55-B wire recorder, and an Ampex 400 portable recorder.

"The VRX-1000 VTR is now on permanent display at the Stanford Library. The SF Airport museums donated the large case and pedestal for the VRX-1000 VTR to Stanford. A quote from the library: 'We just installed the VRX-1000, all 1600 pounds worth, in the Library's Information Center.  The SFO Museums gave us the splendid case that they made, and we have basically reinstalled it on the main floor of Green Library.  It looks pretty darn good!'

"For those unfamiliar with the VRX-1000, I have copied the wording used in the display at the airport at the very bottom of this page, at The Birth of Videotape.

 "For fun, I did a Google search which brought up a number of great articles, photos, and individual visitor impressions of the exhibit, many well-written and interesting:"

 An article from Stereophile

 A blogger's impressions

 Another blogger's impressions

 A blogger's nice nightime photo of the exhibit

 A Japanese visitor's photos and descriptions

A  very clean photo of my Ampex F-44 guts on display ended up in Wikipedia

Leo Laporte, well-known computer educator and commentator shot a photo of the VRX-1000 on display

 Exhibit description from a music site

 From the Washington Post, Monday, 2006 December 18, Rob Pegoraro wrote:
"Travel Tip

 "If your holiday travels find you at San Francisco International Airport's Terminal 3, set aside some time for SFO's fascinating exhibit about the history of audio technology.

 "The History of Audio: The Engineering of Sound" lines the hall after Terminal 3's security checkpoint and covers pretty much all the major developments from Thomas Edison onward. I had the chance to view it over Thanksgiving, and all I can say is wow!

"There are nostalgia items like 8-tracks, laserdiscs and a first-generation Walkman. And it's amazing to see just how large the early versions of some technologies were. For example, there's the massive, desk-size machine that inaugurated videotape recording. As I gawked at this behemoth, I realized that I was carrying one of its descendants right in my pocket, in the form of my Treo smartphone's camcorder program.

 "I also loved the often unbelievable old advertisements. My favorite: A 1971 ad from Ampex that bragged how the sound of its tape players would impress "Miss Schrimpf of the typing pool" when "swingers like you" invited her over for a drink."

Text from the display of the VRX-1000 at the SF Airport:

The Birth of Videotape

The Problem:
In the early 1950s, the only way to record television programs for later rebroadcast was with the kinescope, which was basically a film camera aimed at a television screen. However, broadcasts from film were inferior to live television, and they were also extremely expensive to produce. By 1954, more raw film was being used by television broadcasters than by the entire movie industry. Clearly, the ability to record television pictures on magnetic tape would be a boon to broadcasters. Recording video, however, is far more difficult than audio. Even a black-and-white television picture requires much more tape capacity than is required for an audio signal. The key to recording video on tape was running more tape past the recording head per unit of time. One approach was to increase tape speed dramatically and recording longitudinally along the tape like audio. However, early experiments suffered from poor quality and ran through tape so fast that the process proved impractical.

The Solution:
A dedicated team of engineers at Ampex, headed by Charles Ginsburg and including Charles Anderson, Ray Dolby, Alex Maxey, Fred Pfost, and Shelby Henderson, created the world's first practical videotape system. They made it possible to record up to one hour of broadcast quality audio and video on a manageable reel of two-inch wide tape. Broadcasters were so eager for a videotape system that they literally stood up and cheered at the first Ampex demonstration in 1956. One vital development was the use of a rapidly rotating set of four recording heads that scanned across the tape rather than along it, making it possible first to record black-and-white images, then later color. The first on-air use was November 30, 1956, when CBS rebroadcast Douglas Edwards and the News via tape on the West Coast three hours after it had originated in New York. This particular Ampex VRX-1000 is the fourth built, and was used for that first historic broadcast at CBS Television City in Hollywood, where it continued to serve faithfully for twenty years.

AES - Audio Engineering Society