Pub quiz question. When did the first video cassette recorders go on sale, and what was the name of the manufacturer?

Betamax, from Sony, in 1975. Wrong. VHS from JVC, in 1976. Wrong, again. So perhaps it was a bit of a trick question?

Panasonic was ahead of VHS with a VCR called the Quasar VX “The Great Time Machine”, born 1975 but died soon after – and not just because the marketing team hadn’t realised that just about everyone associated the label ‘VX’ with nerve gas. But, sorry, wrong again; and even though Dutch Philips had stolen a march on the Japanese with the N1500 VCR in 1972, that’s still not the right answer.

The first working Video Cassette Recorder was the U-matic, developed by Sony, with Panasonic and JVC joining in for a joint launch in 1971. So the year that started with more people relying on home entertainment technology than ever before – 2021 – is the fiftieth anniversary of the first home VCR.

It’s true that the first U-matic recorders needed a bolt-on tuner and output circuitry to feed into the aerial socket of a home TV. So it’s also true that the U-matic system was adopted by professionals rather home users because of high cost and the lack of an easy connection. The U-matic system was initially seen as a must-have trophy gadget for well-heeled home owners, and recorders were soon available with built-in connectors for home TVs.

It’s also true that U-matic cassettes held ¾in tape, rather than the 1in tape used for open reel recorders and ½in tape used by Beta, VHS and the Philips and ‘nerve gas’ systems. But most people neither knew nor cared what kind of tape was in the cassette.

Until then home video wannabees had had to struggle with those open spools of very expensive video tape that needed careful threading round a spinning head drum. Touching the tape could spoil a recording – and anything less than precision threading could wreck the delicate video heads.

U-matic cassettes ran for only an hour, but so did the Philips cassettes and the first Sony Betamax tapes. Sony’s boss Akio Morita initially saw no problem with this because most Japanese TV programmes then only ran for an hour anyway. Threading video tape became a thing of the past, just as threading audio tape was no long necessary once Philips had launched the audio cassette in the 1960s, and Americans slapped 8-track cartridges in car players.

The proud owner of a U-matic player just ‘posted’ a sealed cassette into a letter box slot, and a very clever mechanism hidden inside the player automatic laced it round the drum.

In the USA opportunist dealers sold the banned porn movie Deep Throat on U-matic cassettes, with a free U-matic player included in the (very high) price for the porn tapes. JVC marketed U-matic recorders as U-VCRs that plugged into a ‘regular TV’ and recorded ‘off-the-air TV programs’ under ‘full remote control’. Meanwhile JVC was working secretly on the less expensive VHS system.

For many years U-matic was a standard convenience tool for broadcasters, programme makers, business teachers and TV advert producers. Early video cinemas used U-matic tapes.

Security services used them for secret training videos – as one UK journalist found out to his cost when he bought some cassettes from a tech jumble sale and thought the contents looked suspicious. Soon after he wrote about them in a specialist video magazine, there was a knock on his home door and a bunch of big men with security IDs confiscated the cassettes.

In the early 1980s U-matic cassettes were used to store digital audio and became the de-facto standard tool for mastering Compact Discs (CD). The cassette tape stored digital audio packed inside a video signal. As far as the U-matic recorder was concerned it was just another signal.

More consumer-friendly (smaller, lighter and cheaper) VHS and Beta decks could do the same job, but U-matic recorders and tapes were far more rugged.