Video Cassette Recorders are machines that record analog video in low quality on long ribbons of plastic that have been dusted with iron oxide particles (also known as tape). They're okay for recording a show to watch it later, but for archiving, they are poor, because of the low quality and the way that tape degrades.

'VCR' was the name of an early Philips video cassette format launched in 1972. One unusual feature was that the cassettes were square-shaped, when viewed from above. This was because the tape spools sat on top of each other (co-axial) instead of being placed side by side (co-planar), as they are in most other systems.

Although this arrangement forces the tape to move at an unnatural angle, movement only takes place when the tape has been pulled out of the cassette and around the video recorder's mechanism.1 This spreads the change of angle over a greater distance, reducing the stress on the tape to manageable levels.

The first machine to support the VCR format was the Philips N1500. This was also the first video recorder to feature a tuner (for receiving TV programmes), a modulator (to allow connection via the TV's RF2 socket), and a mechanical timer (which looked like an old-fashioned cooker clock). In fact, the N1500 was entirely mechanical in operation. It was also, notably, the first domestic video cassette recorder sold commercially in the UK- the cost was £1600.

Several other manufacturers, including Grundig and ITT released machines supporting the format.

Philips later released the N1700, using the VCR-LP format. This used the same cassettes, but at a slower tape-speed, allowing increased recording times. The recordings were incompatible with those made by the N1500. Grundig released another variant, called SVR, but this format was never supported by Philips.

I've noticed some sources confusing this format with the later Video Compact Cassette (VCC). In fact, VCC was another name for Philips' unsuccessful V2000 system.

One other interesting point; Philips apparently coined, and got a trademark on the term 'VCR', but only in Europe. This may explain the greater popularity of alternate terms (for such devices in general, not the obsolete format), such as 'video recorder' or 'video', in the UK. However, I no longer have the URL for the source of this information.

1Of course, VHS does the same thing. This explains some of the mechanical noise when you insert (or on some older models, play) a cassette.
2The RF socket is where you connect the aerial/antenna to your TV. It was designed to receive TV signals encoded for transmission through the air. A modulator is a device which converts and outputs a video signal in the same form. Since this is immediately decoded by the TV again, the loss of quality caused by the encoding/decoding is rather pointless. Nowadays, most TVs have various 'direct' video connections for this very reason. However, early TVs only had the RF connector; hence the need for a modulator.


Bibliography and Further Reading

  • Mikey's N1500 VCR Page:- http://www.eclipse.co.uk/mikey/n1500.html
  • 'Total Rewind' VCR Museum:- http://www.hypernova.co.uk/total_rewind/
  • Vintage Video:- http://www.gifford.co.uk/~coredump/video.htm
  • RIP the VCR:- http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/allnews/tm_objectid=14898466&method=full&siteid=50143&headline=r-i-p-the-vcr-name_page.html

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