Once, it seemed, every home had one. Whether you opted for Betamax or VHS in the videotape format war of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the rise of the machines was inexorable. This is because they gave people the power to time shift.
No longer did you have to miss an episode of a much loved series because it was parents’ evening at the school, or the committee meeting for the bowls club. You could tape it for later. Watch it when you liked. You could watch one programme while taping another.
You could even fast forward through the ads. Magic!
You could tape videos of weddings, of christenings, of your children in school plays, and bore your relatives with them endlessly. More magic!
In the late 1990s, VHS (which had won the war) began to be displaced by the DVD. Not surprising. VHS tapes get battered by repeated viewings, and can tear or break. DVDs are smaller and take up less space. DVDs offer better pictures: twice the video resolution of VHS. And if you want to skip ahead, you can do that faster with a DVD as the VHS tape has to be physically wound. You don’t get interactive menus or subtitling in several languages on a VHS cassette.
In July 2016, the Japanese financial newspaper Nikkei reported that the Funai Electric Company, the world’s last manufacturer of VHS video cassette recorders, was ending its production of them. The market was declining, and they had difficulty getting the parts. Sony had already stopped producing Betamax VCRs in 2002, but only stopped producing tapes in 2016.
Although their ubiquity has declined, VCRs haven’t completely gone. For a start, there are some who still keep a machine so that they can watch those weddings, christenings and school plays all over again.
They also wound their way into our words. If you want someone to record a film or programme for you, you are still likely to ask them to tape it. Or you’ll tell someone you haven’t seen this week’s episode, but you have it taped. There’s no physical tape involved any more but tape is the medium in which we learned how to do these things, so that’s what we still do.
It’s also likely that your computer’s default organising system has a pre-made folder for you called “Videos”.
The icon cutely has an intimation that somehow your digital device is storing actual bits of celluloid. Again, there’s no tape involved, but we’ve embedded the VCR in our language and iconography.
The VCR is dead but the video and the tape live on.