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Obsolete Media Highlight: U-matic Tapes

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Have you ever had a day at work where the stars align, fortune unexpectedly smiles on you, and something great happens? We had a day like that yesterday . . . almost.

One of the U-matic tapes found at the Library. Although it reads "Impeachment of Andrew Johnson," we suspect it's from the 1970s, not the 1860s.

One of the U-matic tapes found at the Library. Although it reads “Impeachment of Andrew Johnson,” we suspect it’s from the 1970s, not the 1860s.

GHL staff discovered a small stash of old U-matic tapes from the 1970s and 1980s, tapes that we’d weeded from our collection years ago but hadn’t actually gotten rid of. We marveled at the old U-matic tape’s bulky containers and dorky instructions*. Some staff reminisced about using U-matic tapes back in the day, while others were baffled by the aesthetics of this plastic-brick technology. We scratched our heads for a day, trying to figure out what to do with the tapes. The library doesn’t have a U-matic player and we figured the tapes should probably go into to our Obsolete Media Museum as a warning against failing to migrate resources off aging electronic media.

The inside of the U-matic player, with the top cover removed. The tape is inserted from the right, and the tape should be pulled around the central cylinder.

The inside of the Archives’ new U-matic player, with the top cover removed. Tapes are inserted from the right, and the tape should be pulled around the central cylinder.

On a lark, we called down to Matthew Waehner at the State Archives to see if the Archives happened to have a U-matic player. Lo and behold! They did! Not only that, but they’d just–JUST–gotten the player and they were dying to know if it actually worked. The problem was that they didn’t have any U-matic tapes they could test it with. A perfect match!

As you may (or may not) know, U-matic tapes were early video tapes from the 1970s. The U-matic format was the first widely used videotape packaged within a cassette container, replacing the widespread use of reel-to-reel tapes in video production. Today, they are known as physically unable and their playback machines are notoriously finicky. Our hopes were not very high.

In fact, Archives warned me that they were pretty sure the U-matic player wouldn’t work at all. It might even eat our tape up and destroy it. When the Archives team turned the machines on, it made a sad sort of moan with an abrupt end, which wasn’t a good sign.

When Archives turned on the U-matic player, it made a sad sort of moan (rumble?).

Jim Willard (Historic Sites) and Linda Fox (Archives, photo lab technician) gathered around while Matt tried the first tape. To our giddy surprise, the machine actually took the tape and didn’t destroy it! We were very impressed. Only problem, the player wasn’t actually pulling the tape from the cassette, and pressing the play button did nothing (you can hear Jim asking “Did it wrap around the head?”).

“No waaaay! It took it, Jim. . . . Tapes go inside of it.” – Matt

We may be able to fix the machine, or perhaps we’ll have more good luck and a working player will fall in our laps. In any case, we’ll keep you posted!

Matt Waehner and Jim Willard investige the innards of U-matic player, determining why the tape isn't being taken up.

Matt Waehner and Jim Willard investige the innards of U-matic player, determining why the tape isn’t being taken up.

 

For more resources about obsolete media, check out these posts from our blog archive:

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