Though there were many technological developments before Philo T. Farnsworth came on the scene, laying the groundwork for his innovations, you could say the inception of DVRs occurred when this modest American farmer from Beaver, Utah, invented the first all-electric television. Of course, the earliest TV iterations that slowly made their way into a select number of American and European homes had little need for a device like the one that would become a DVR.
Even the most imaginative science-fiction writer of the time would have been hard pressed to conceive of a device that recorded up to six shows at once and stored hundreds of hours of programming. Scheduling time around favorite shows wasn t a problem at the dawn of television since there were only a few channels back then.
The earliest video recording devices were for professional use, inaccessible to the general consumer in terms of price, size and functionality. Network TV used video to film and broadcast shows over the airwaves, the first show to utilize it being CBS's "Douglas Edwards and the News" on November 30, 1956. Those first video machines, by Ampex Recording Media Corporation, are technological dinosaurs in the truest sense, being long extinct and having never mixed with humans for the most part. Not only were they bigger than an average-sized home office, they cost around $50,000, with each reel-to-reel tape coming in at about $300 each.
By the '60s, video recording technology evolved to less costly and portable video recorders that were still used almost exclusively by professionals. These new devices, such as the Ampex HS-100 and HS-200 disc, were not what you'd call compact though far smaller than their predecessor. They introduced speed variation and facilitated slow motion during broadcast sporting events. On March 18, 1967, ABC's "Wide World of Sports" televised a downhill skiing event from Vail, Colorado using technology such as slow motion, stop action and freeze frame for the first time on live TV.
It wasn't until the early '70s, with the development of portable and affordable VHS technology, that video recording finally left the professional realm and entered the world of the general consumer with the advent of the VCR. VCRs came on the scene at just the right time, since cable television was taking off and people suddenly had a much wider selection of programming and channels to choose from. Having the ability to program your VHS tape to record while you were away was a nice luxury we had never had before.
VHS provided more recording time than the competing Betamax tapes. Betamax tapes were limited to 60 minutes, but early VHS iterations could record for two hours, and then quickly advanced to a four-hour format. They would eventually record even longer in their lowest resolution. Unlike their reel-to-reel $300 ancestors, VHS tapes were very affordable, as were the machines that played and recorded them. Once you filled up a tape, you would either need to store it, to watch again later, or record a new show over the top of it.
Before long, in the late 1970s, video stores started popping up all over, making it possible to rent your favorite movies whenever you wanted, to become sort of the earliest form of on-demand entertainment.
From VCR to DVR
While VCRs are considered dinosaurs now, they paved the way for the all-important DVR technology many of us now cling to. Sixty years after the world was introduced to TV at the 1939 New York World's Fair, TiVo and ReplayTV would present the first digital video recorders to the world at the 1999 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Even though ReplayTV won the Best of Show award in the video category at CES, it was TiVo that went on to garner the most commercial success. The first TiVo recorders were released in March 1999 and the rest is history.
Soon after DVRs went on the market, and before I even knew of their existence, my little son learned you could stop and rewind DVDs and re-watch segments that held particular interest. It was a while before he could differentiate between that and live TV. Occasionally, when we were watching a TV show he would say, Play that again. Of course, we would tell him, Its live TV, you can't go back. Little did we know that within a year of that experience we would be doing exactly that pausing live TV while we went into the kitchen to make popcorn, stopping, rewinding, fast forwarding and even slowing it down to see an action sequence in minute detail.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. We can program the DVR to record our favorite shows automatically, so we don't have to remember to set it every week, and customize which episodes to record and which to skip. We can record in HD or SD and have the same picture quality during playback that you would experience if you had watched it live. Those of us who had to re-record over the same VHS tapes again and again know the picture quality would decline with each recording something like photocopying a photocopy. It's impossible to go into all the perks, but the abundance of search, on-demand and streaming options are a few more.
In the short time since DVRs have been on the market, they have made their way into American households at an impressive rate. Well over 40 percent of Americans own DVRs and studies have projected that over 50 percent of the U.S. population will own them by the end of 2016, which amounts to more than 63 million households.
When you've grown accustomed to the ease, convenience and sheer joy of DVR technology, there is no going back. The all-but-deceased technology that paved the road to DVRs is worth paying homage to, but thank goodness it now lives mainly in our collective memory alongside fax machines and typewriters. It's important to dust off those memories every once in a while to remind ourselves how good we have it.