What Came Before VHS?



With the multitude of streaming media choices available today, it’s hard to believe once upon a time, VHS revolutionized home movie making and watching. Introduced to the U.S. market in August 1977, the once “King of Media” was dethroned by the advent of DVDs and read its last rites in 2006 after movie studios stopped producing films in this format. But just like pretty much every other technology, VHS followed in the footsteps of other types of media. Here’s a short trip down media memory lane dedicated to all you movie nostalgia enthusiasts out there.

In The Beginning

Here’s a look at what was before VHS, and we’re fairly certain at least one format will surprise most of you. 

  • Film reels: Prior to VHS, consumers used 16mm and 8mm/Super 8 to shoot home movies and also purchased commercial shorts on this media to play on compatible movie projectors
  • Reel-to-reel or open-reel players: Generally considered too bulky and expensive for the general public, these players were primarily used by schools and other institutions 
  • U-Matic: Introduced in 1971 by Sony, this was the first videotape housed inside a cassette case, paving the way for Betamax and VHS

What’s Cartrivision?

This is likely the most obscure video format ever invented. Introduced in 1972 by U.S. Cartridge Television, Cartrivision was well ahead of its time. It was the first format that offered feature film rentals. It could also record and playback color-TV programs, play pre-recorded videos, function as a closed-circuit security camera, and even playback home movies recorded on a companion video camera. The downside was it was incredibly expensive and furthermore, many rental tapes disintegrated due to improper storage. While an ambitious and versatile machine, Cartivision flopped after a mere 13 months.

BetaMax and LaserDisc

The first Betamax devices appeared in U.S. stores in early November 1975, albeit at a very high cost. Betamax was the first format to popularize recording television programs to view later. Fans of Betamax love to remind everyone who will listen that this format offered superior quality to VHS. Nevertheless, VHS emerged the obvious victor in the video battle. Most articles cite an end date of 2002 for this format, although Sony officially stopped making Betamax videotapes in March 2016. 

Similar to a compact disc but measuring 12 inches in diameter, the LaserDisc hit the consumer market on December 15, 1978 with the release of the movie Jaws. Until its demise in 2001, this format earned a reputation for much higher picture quality, better audio, and significantly superior navigation than its competitors. Unfortunately, this format also had a large number of disadvantages including:

  • Large size
  • Comparatively fragile and heavy 
  • More expensive
  • Limitation of 30 to 60 minutes of content
  • Inability to record TV programs or shoot home movies

The Advantage of Transferring Old Media to Digital

VHS tapes and its predecessors are subject to decay over time. All types of magnetic media are fundamentally impermanent, which means they can end up a sticky, messy unplayable ball of tape only good for creative art projects. Moreover, while you can still purchase players used at thrift stores and online, it’s far more practical to convert videos to digital. It’s the best way to free up storage space and preserve celluloid memories.