This is another one of those occasional old-technology posts (a bunch of you came in through one of those, so hopefully you’ll appreciate this!) As is often the case, I’ve learned most of what’s in here from Techmoan, a British YouTuber who acquires and demonstrates an incredible range of old and largely forgotten electronic devices, largely failed audio and video formats.
Today I’m looking at the history of the tape cartridge or cassette. The first tape cartridges—i.e. magnetic tape inside a case or cartridge, rather than reel-to-reel—date to the late 1950s. RCA debuted the idea to the public, releasing the first tape cartridge in 1958.
It failed commercially, but it set off a lot of product development across the industry, and the Philips Compact Cassette—what we simply know as the cassette tape—came out in 1963. Aside from the 8-track, which held on into the 1980s, the Compact Cassette pretty much put an end to the format wars over magnetic tapes. Here’s another video with much of the history of tape recorders in general.
However, the “record-tape” hybrid I mention in the title is a fascinating piece of consumer electronic engineering, and it points to a possible evolutionary path for music formats that did not ultimately branch out.
I’m talking about the Tefifon, a German music format developed in the 1930s and released to consumers after World War II, in the late 1940s. The Tefifon used cartridges that look like tapes. You can see the white cartridge mounted on the machine in this thumbnail, and the red tape around what looks like a playback head.
But that isn’t magnetic tape! It’s vinyl tape with grooves. And that isn’t a playback head—it’s a stylus. This is a record on a tape. The idea wasn’t exclusive to the Tefifon company. Dictaphone released a variation on the concept for dictation machines, meaning that unlike an actual record, a “record on a tape” format could be recorded by the end user (but not, of course, erased and rerecorded.) Take a look at this page on Dictaphone’s Dictabelt machine. It looks rather like a cassette player.
In other words, long before magnetic tape cartridges existed or were even under development, there was a high-fidelity “tape” machine on the market! The Tefi cartridges, as they were known, exceeded the sound quality of 78s, but not 33s, and the format was expensive and, like most defunct AV formats, had its share of quirks and issues. But it’s a remarkable piece of engineering, and it’s a tape of sorts, far earlier in the consumer-electronics fossil record than you might expect to find one.
Technical difficulties or shortcomings were issues in a lot of these early formats. But earlier iterations of ultimately successful formats often had the same sort of issues. It makes you wonder whether these formats which died out and were forgotten could have actually been refined and perfected had they otherwise had commercial success or studio support.
Remember that the cassette was first envisioned for dictation or otherwise capturing voices. Many early tape recorders were advertised, and occasionally even designed, like cameras, playing on the notion that tape recorders were “cameras of sound.” It took roughly another 10 years for tape technology to catch up, to the point where sound quality was reasonably close to vinyl.
So is there an alternate timeline where the magnetic tape died out, a curious relic of early sound engineering, and everybody had Tefi players in their home stereos? Is there a timeline where the Tefi and the Dictabelt met up and produced home-recordable blank Tefi tapes? Etc., etc. Maybe not. But maybe.
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