A Brief History of 1/2″ Video Tape and Why It Needs to be Preserved

By the mid-1960s, broadcast television had firmly cemented its place as the most powerful medium of mass communication in history. Then, in 1965, the Sony Portapak 1⁄2” video camera was released.

Since the Portapak was affordable, portable, and easy to use, it was quickly seized upon by artists and activists as a revolutionary tool for communication that had the potential to decentralize television production and distribution; ordinary people could tell their own stories. The vision fit perfectly with the social changes occurring throughout society in the late 1960s, and matched them in scope and ambition.

The video below is a compilation of 1/2″ tapes from the archive, from explaining how video tape will change the world to how it was used to cover political conventions. 

Early video producers Dean and Dudley Evenson worked with Raindance and helped to publish Radical Software magazine, the only periodical devoted exclusively to independent video and video art at the time when those forms were still being invented. During the 1970s, they traveled the country in a half-sized converted school bus documenting the emerging new age consciousness. They produced hundreds of hours of half-inch black-and-white video that comprise a comprehensive picture of the American countercultural movement. 

These vintage 1/2″ tapes are now well past their expiration date, and require specialized care and skill to transfer, meaning the first generation of videotape is at great risk of being lost. In this video, Dean Evenson shows the setup that he has used to successfully digitize hundreds of original half-inch tapes.

Go back in time and explore Media Burn’s collection of early 1/2″ and U-matic tapes from the 1970s here.

 

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