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2. Who invented the 8-track tape?




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This article is from the 8-track Tapes FAQ, by Malcolm Riviera malco@interpath.com with numerous contributions by others.

2. Who invented the 8-track tape?

[8TM - David Morton] The 8-track tape has roots that extend into the
motion picture industry. Endless loop motion pictures were made from
the 1920s on for advertising or other special purposes. With the
appearance of inexpensive reel-to-reel tape recorders in the late
1940s, several inventors adapted the endless loop motion picture idea
for use with the new German-style plastic recording tapes. Of these
inventors, only one, William Powell Lear, gets much attention

Long before he set down to work on the famous Lear Jet, Lear had made a
name for himself developing instruments and communications equipment for
airplanes. In 1946 Lear Purchased a California company that had tried
to market a steel-tape loop recorder based on the old Western
Electric/AT&T Technology [from their 1933 "Hear Your Own Voice" endless
loop recorders]. Bits of this technology made its way into his own
design for several models of wire recorders announced in 1946, including
an endless loop wire recorder. But Lear's early experiments did not
result in a line of investigation that led directly to the 8-track.
Instead, Lear dropped the project and subsequently was out of the loop
for many years while he concentrated his efforts on aircraft.

In the mean time, the focus of endless loop technology shifted from wire
to tape and from Lear's Chicago headquarters to Toledo, Ohio. There,
Bernard Cousino, the owner of an Audio Visual equipment and service
company, became interested in endless sound recordings. He won a small
contract to build a "point of sale" device -- that is, a store display
that played a recorded message over and over endlessly.

Cousino, aware of the widespread use of short motion picture film loops
for similar purposes, began experimenting with an 8-millimeter endless
loop film cartridge marketed by Television Associates, Inc. of New
Hampshire. Cousino soon developed a cartridge specifically adapted for
audio tape that he marketed in 1952 through his company, Cousino
Electronics, as the "audio vendor." The little cart could be used with
an ordinary reel-to-reel player -- the cart fit over one reel spindle
and the exposed loop of tape was fed through the heads. Later, Cousino
would develop the Echomatic, a more advanced two-track cartridge which,
like the later 8-track, required a special player. In the meantime,
another inventor named George Eash designed and patented a similar
cartridge that came to be known as the Fidelipac. Following Cousino's
pattern, Eash designed and patented a cartridge with similar
specifications, later modifying it to include a more complex reel
braking mechanism.

Eash's cartridge was the basis of dozens of commercial applications of
the endless loop, two of which were particularly successful. Eash's
Fidelipac design became the basis of several new recorders adapted for
radio station use; by the early 1960s, many radio stations had put some
or all of their music, spot announcements, and station i.d.'s on carts
that could be quickly inserted and played and which could be
automatically stopped at the beginning of the recording.

The second main commercial application was in the field of auto sound.
Earl "Madman" Muntz was a former used car salesman who became something
of a local celebrity on the West Coast by opening a chain of television
retail outlets selling TV sets that were manufactured by his other firm, Muntz
Television, Inc. When he discovered the Fidelipac in the early 1960's,
he threw in his lot with the endless loop, never to return to the
television business.

Muntz had inexpensive Fidelipac players custom manufactured in Japan,
and licensed the music of several record companies for duplication on
carts. Even though the players were intended to be installed in cars,
Muntz sought to enhance the appeal of his product by adopting stereo
tape standards established by recorder manufacturers a few years
earlier, and his players used the new, mass produced stereo tape heads
being made for the home recorder industry by firms like Michigan
Magnetics and Nortronics. These heads but two stereo programs, a total
of four recorded tracks, on a standard 1/4 inch tape.

Muntz players caught on quickly, starting an autosound fad in
California which slowly spread east. By 1963 Muntz players were to be
found stylishly adorning the underdash regions of Frank Sinatra's
Riviera, Peter Lawford's Ghia, James Garner's Jaguar, Red Skelton's
Rolls Royce, and Lawrence Welk's Dodge convertible. During 1964 and
1965 a number of major labels began issuing new releases and old
favorites on 4-track, and the Fidelipac looked like it was going to be
the next big thing in consumer audio. A number of home players even
appeared.

Suddenly Bill Lear appeared on the scene, newly world famous for his
Lear Jet business plane, and announced in 1965 that he had developed a
cartridge with eight tracks that promised to lower the price of recorded
tapes without any sacrifice in music quality. Lear's enthusiasm for
loops had not faded after the failure of his endless wire cartridge of
the late 1940s. In 1963, he became a distributor for Muntz Stereo Pak,
mainly in order to install 4-track units aboard his Lear Jets.
Dissatisfied with the Muntz technology, he contacted one of the leading
suppliers of original equipment tape heads, the Nortronics Company of
Michigan. He specified a head with much thinner "pole-pieces" and a new
spacing that would allow two tracks (or one stereo program) to be picked
off a quarter-inch tape that held a total of 8-tracks. Although a
departure from the Muntz player, the technology of the closely-stacked
multi-track head was by the early 1960s well established in fields like
data recording. Lear in 1963 developed a new version of the Fidelipac
cartridge with somewhat fewer parts and an integral pressure roller.
During 1964, Lear's aircraft company constructed 100 players for
distribution to executives at the auto companies and RCA.

Just how Bill Lear got his products from the drawing board to the
dashboards of Ford Mustangs and Fairlanes is a little unclear.
Certainly Lear carried with him the cachet of his successful business
jet project, and had many personal contacts in industry. And in a
roundabout kind of way, he already had ties to Ford. In the 1930s Lear
and his partner Paul Galvin had together built Motorola into a leading
manufacturer of car radios, and Motorola was now affiliated with Ford.

Whatever the details of Lear's selling job, the keys to its spectacular
success seems to have been the backing of both Ford and the recording
industry. After getting RCA Victor to commit to the mass production of
its catalog on Lear Jet 8-tracks, Ford agreed to offer the players as
optional equipment on 1966 models. The response, in one Ford
spokesman's word, "was more than anyone expected." 65,000 of the
players were installed that year alone. The machines were initially
manufactured by Ford's electronics supplier: the firm that had
pioneered the mass produced auto radio or "motor victrola" -- Motorola.

Meanwhile, a number of new contenders rose up to enjoy fleeting moments
of glory. Bernard Cousino, arguably the source of much cart technology,
has rendered a seemingly endless succession of endless loop
technologies. He had a measure of success with his Echomatic cartridge
in the 1960s as a "point of sale" or educational audio-visual
technology, largely by adopting Eash's strategy of licensing his designs to
other firms. In 1965 the success of the Echomatic spurred the Champion
Spark Plug company (a subsidiary of Ford) to purchase a controlling
interest in the firm. At Champion's insistence, Cousino Electronics
became a manufacturer of Lear-style players and was a major supplier for
Sears Roebuck. Looking for greener fields, Cousino had in the early
1960s also linked up with Alabama entrepreneur and firebrand John
Herbert Orr, whose Orradio Industries tape manufacturing firm (makers of
Irish Brand tape) had recently been acquired by Ampex. Orr and Cousino
cooked up Orrtronics, a company that made a background music system
based on the old Echomatic cartridge. While Ford debated the adoption of the
Lear Cartridge in 1965, Champion Spark Plug funded the development at
Orrtronics of a competing system. This was the ill-fated Orrtronics
8-track, a remarkably better sounding but commercially unsuccessful
response to Lear's cart. The Orrtronic cartridge had a somewhat
different tape path that reduced strain on the tape and allowed better
head-to-tape contact, and was somewhat more compact to boot.
Nonetheless, no record companies seemed interested, and the idea was
stillborn. Cousino continued to patent endless loop devices, such as a
miniature cartridge and, now in his 90s, he has recently submitted a
patent for an endless loop videocassette.

Endless variations on the endless loop cart appeared during the 1960s
and 1970s; a.c.8-t-t readers will undoubtedly continue to discover
obscure cart formats. The best known, of course was the Playtape, a
tiny cart introduced in the fall of 1966 which later re-emerged in
slightly modified form as the basis of a Dictaphone Corp. telephone
answering machine in the 1970s. Answering machines, in fact, were a
major source of new endless loop variations from the 1960s on. The
success of the Fidelipac in radio spawned a host of imitators, including
both the well known Audiopak (which by the way is still being
manufactured), the Aristocart made in Canada, the Marathon made by some
Massachusetts firm, and the Tapex.

While carts themselves continued to be manufactured in the U.S., makers
of 8-track players disappeared after only a few years. The manufacture
of 8-track players shifted almost entirely to Japan between 1965 and
1970. There were a few valiant efforts to revive the flagging American
industry, but to little avail as the foreign firms cranked players out
in huge numbers using cheap labor. Nonetheless, Quatron, Inc., a
Maryland firm, shone brightly for a few years making the now highly
desirable Model 48 automatic 8 track changer, but its star soon faded.
By the time the major record labels stopped offering new releases on
8-track, there were no domestic manufacturers of home or auto players.

 

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previous page: 1. 8-track tapes on the internet? Are you kidding?
  
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next page: 3.A. When did they stop making 8-tracks?