A British First in
Home Video Recording
"There is a popular point of view, originated by Emerson, which assumes that building the first, or a better mousetrap, results in people beating a path to your door - this must be the most pernicious fallacy ever to misrepresent invention."
Britain stands pre-eminent in creative science and engineering but the depressingly long list of 'lost' British firsts in invention shows how often thwarted or disillusioned British inventors and innovators have either abandoned their ideas or gone abroad, thereby reducing British competitiveness. Decades of British under-investment in British ideas and British technologies has meant that other nations either independently develop the same ideas, or directly capitalise on British technical creativity - and soon overtake us in our markets. Norman Rutherford and his partner Michael Turner have learnt this lesson and are quick to remind us. They should know, back in the early 1960's they not only developed the first domestic video record and replay system, but also the first combined TV and VTR and the first Camcorder; but poor foresight by their backers and investors lost them the edge.
Norman Rutherford and Michael Turner were school friends in the war years having met one Wednesday afternoon on the school football field during a sports period. They found themselves in trouble when the sports master espied them rooted to the spot in mid-field, deeply engrossed in discussing a design for a radio control circuit. A small error for both, since Michael was on one side and Norman was the opposing goalie!
Norman's father owned a Radio retailers and then, later in the fifties, a Television retail and repairs shop in Nottingham. Michael's father was the proprietor of a garage, and thus both boys developed against a background of technology and engineering. As their interests expanded, they spent their spare time learning the engineering, physics and electrical science necessary to understand the exciting new world they lived in. Later, in 1952, the two boys met again as college chums at the Peoples College in Nottingham, where both developed an abiding interest in electronic design, becoming immersed in the white heat of the post war broadcasting and electronics age. They bought government surplus components and constructed the first television receiver in the East Midlands to operate from the London transmitters.
Norman Rutherford went on to study, at the (then) Nottingham and District Technical College, and lost contact with Michael for a few years until early 1957. Then, with a £100 stake scraped up and borrowed they started a partnership and the late fifties dawned with both men making a living reconditioning television Cathode Ray Tubes (CRT's). They started in a converted garage with Norman, Michael and one employee learning the delicate art of cutting off tube necks, removing the electron guns and rejuvenating the cathodes. It was a worthwhile and potentially lucrative operation. New TV tubes were notoriously unreliable (usually cathode poisoning due to poor vacuum or faulty assembly) and a replacement CRT cost in excess of £20 to purchase (equivalent to £420 today ). However, the Nottingham partners were bringing the price of reconditioned CRT's down to £9 pounds and 10 shillings and in a good week could cycle well over 50 tubes through the process. A triple vacuum and Getter purge process, and replacement dull emitter cathodes made the 'recon' tubes far more reliable than new ones. The new cathodes were contrived by spooning measured amounts from a preparation of powdered Strontium, Barium and Cesium which was then sintered using RF induction heating to 'metalise' it. Still, it was not an easy process and almost alone in the field they had learnt how to make it work - removing the electron guns, recoating cathodes, re-aligning the guns and then re-welding everything together. They even designed and built all the cutting, surfacing and RF induction heating systems. It was a thriving business, soon to be improved.
Not all CRT re-conditioning had been immediately within their grasp - Mullard tubes had removable cathodes, Mazda ones did not. But they soon solved the problem. A US company (Superior Electronics) began to sell complete electron-gun assemblies. Buying the new guns gave them an even greater edge - they had developed all the machinery and process technology (including the RF induction heating and most of the vacuum technology) for a universal CRT re-gunning process - now they started to make more money selling and instructing on complete re-gunning systems (proudly made by the now well established, profitable and well respected Nottingham Electronic Valve Company.) The old workshops in a disused cinema at Netherfield became hopelessly limited and the company, now with 12 employees and an accountant, moved to an old malt house at East Bridgford near Nottingham.
Making a Picture
The announcement of the Cathodian Vidicon 3 inch TV camera tube early in 1960 took the attention of both Norman Turner and Michael Rutherford. The possibility of a new product for N.E.V.Co was compelling. They wanted to develop a small CCTV system but the broadcast standard camera tubes were far too bulky and expensive. The Cathodian device now made matters simpler. Cost was still a problem so, not requiring the full TV standard quality, they negotiated with Cathodian to buy all the slightly imperfect tubes (one or two drop-outs on the video array). Michael - oftimes a genius in circuit design - developed the camera electronics using just four stages from two thermionic valves. This miracle of economy was based on an ECC82 double triode and an ECL 82 triode pentode. The first provided a video amplifier and diode mixer, the second a triode RF Oscillator and power output stage for the horizontal scan coils. The vertical signal was obtained from a mains-ripple supply, giving a usable mains locked sawtooth. "It was a unique - if not eccentric, piece of design typical of Michael and myself, but it worked like an absolute dream." so commented Norman Rutherford.
The whole camera assembly, designated NEV1 Mini-Eye in its initial design, sold for £150 and outpriced and outperformed anything around. It was £250 less than its nearest competitor, but the transistorised version soon appeared from Michael and Norman's development bench and at £72 was even more astonishing. Advertisements elicited an inspiring response. Domestic and international sales rocketed - an order for 4000 camera's came in from Germany. An absolute triumph given that the Germans held the British electronics industry in low regard.
Reg Hammons, then senior engineer at Granada TV, saw a trade advert for the NEV2 and thought the camera would be good for mobile outside broadcasts and rehearsals. He mentioned his viewing of the camera to Sidney (later Lord)
Bernstein, then head of Grenada. Bernstein flew to Nottingham and at a meeting with both Norman and Michael learnt that not only was manufacturing capacity very limited, but the development of the camera had so depleted the company's reserves that they were unable to meet anything approaching a substantial order. Bernstein asked how much they would need to continue R&D and production. "Too much." said Norman "About half the value of the Company."
"What is that amount?" asked Bernstein.
"About £20,000." said Norman.
"That's petty cash." Bernstein said and instructed his accountant to write a cheque there and then.
N.E.V.Co now had a new owner, but though Bernstein had a 75% stake, both the original partners were appointed directors with full management of the company's operations. All debts were paid off. More to the point they now had no limits to what they could spend on R&D.
Reg Hammons made frequent trips from Granada to liaise with the company on behalf of Bernstein. On one occasion he mentioned that he was aware of a large effort taking place in the US and Japan to develop a video system for recording broadcast TV at home. Ampex had developed the helical scan system for professional users in the US in the middle fifties and the same approach was being tried for domestic recorders. Hammons thought there could be a large market for home video recorders and urged the two N.E.V.Co boys to have a go at developing a system for the British market. The idea found a receptive audience, the mini-eye camera had sold well but now orders were tailing off - there was (with the advent of multi-stage solid state electronics) no virtue in products that reduced the number of active stages to a minimum - though this had been a priority with thermionic valve designs.
It was known that Ampex had solved the video tape problem using four rotating heads producing a helical scan - but this was an expensive option for a home video system. At first they tried a narrow bandwidth design based on a domestic audio recorder to emulate the high speed wire and metal tape recorders already used by the big broadcasting operations. It was the path of least resistance - no one actually knew what the maximum frequency limit was on very high speed recording and so they converted two 1/4" reel to reel Grundig and Ferrograph AF recorders to run at 60 and 120 inches per second. Surprisingly, enough video information could be recorded at 60 i.p.s to create a shadow of a picture - at 120 i.p.s. it was "just recognisable" but a lot more needed to be done. But months of work gave little in the way of encouragement. Then, in January of 1962, Michael Turner discovered in the course of examining head driver methods that a considerable improvement in signal to noise could be achieved by introducing significant pre-emphasis on the driver signal. The improvement was so profound that it implied that a broadcast quality picture could be achieved quite soon. Unfortunately it was also a damaging revelation - the improvement was genuine but simply took the existing operational limits in a different direction.
Head to Head
The main problem was identified as the record and replay heads. The head gap was too wide to give the high frequency response necessary to approach the ideal 3.0MHz needed to reproduce the full video bandwidth of the 405 line system. 2.5 MHz was determined as the lowest response able to give a wide enough grey scale to enable the picture to have clarity. Something needed to be done to eliminate the head problem and give the designers a chance to grapple with the other aspects of the video processing. A narrow gap head was produced from an existing Ferrograph unit but even without AC bias on the tape (rather, a heavy DC bias directly applied to the tape by means of a permanent magnet) and heavy pre-emphasis on the video signal, the best that could be achieved was 2MHz. "It just got by" Norman Rutherford recounted, but it had to be better.
Unfortunately they had a seemingly intractable problem. The narrower the head gap, the lower the magnetic path reluctance around the gap became. Thus, the greater the flux shunt around the gap, and the more the signal field was shared between the gap and the leakage path. The result was that as the response was increased with a narrowing gap, so the signal to noise ratio worsened. A mu metal Ampex head (intended for HF Telemetry and imported from the States) was one possible solution, but it was prohibitively expensive. The only recourse was to design one themselves!
Many months of work led inevitably to a design which avoided the conventional problems associated with ordinary heads - they plumped for a cross-field head where the passive section was made of two screw adjustable copper arms nominally separated at the rear by a 200 micron gap with a tape face gap of just under 50 micron. The active section carrying the coil laterally straddled the two copper arms and this design gave the bandwidth necessary.
Nevertheless, DC bias was still employed as too a considerable amount of pre-emphasis. But by contriving an overwind on the final video driver stage's inductive load, the effective bandwidth shot up to well in excess of 2.6MHz. The replay signal was of course still highly differentiated and this was equalised by employing a series of 3db/Octave integrators and phase correction circuits to recover the original signal. Tape speed still needed to be high (120 i.p.s. for broadcast standard recording) but by using 12000 ft of 1/4" triple play tape on 10½" spools (for increased play time and better head wrap) the record time was extended to over 20 minutes. An added advantage was the narrow video and audio track widths (the latter FM modulated on a second head), this narrow track enabled the tape to be turned over and recorded on the other side. More to the point, the replay produced a very good video signal - normally (with high contrast pictures) hard to distinguish from the original 405 transmission even at lower speeds. Head fouling remained a problem with the relatively high oxide loss of early tapes, but the passive section of the head was designed to be quickly removable and cleaned.
On Our Own Again
Demonstrations to Grenada were unexpectedly cool. For reasons never fully explained by Bernstein N.E.V.Co lost their sponsor at the very time it expected further investment. The reason given at the time was poor picture quality, but this was specious and clearly not the issue. Whatever the reason, Norman Rutherford and Michael Turner had lost a major investor and somehow had to keep the business going. The Granada decision could not have come at a worse time, the tube reconditioning business had virtually collapsed with the ever improving quality and durability of new tubes, and the company payroll bill was now supporting some 70 plus people. That Bernstein allowed the directors of NEV to buy back his interest for the buying price was no consolation.
Initially thinking themselves fortunate, they were quick to find a new partner with the US based Cinerama Corporation which had made its shareholders a massive return with the film 'How the West Was Won'. Cinerama bought in to N.E.V.Co to the value of £200,000 even though at this time Cinerama were, as an organisation, running at a substantial loss.
Well Kitted Out
Time had been lost, and though not personally financially embarrassed by the new US shareholding, the two partners were aware of their financial and business vulnerability - they were on their own once again and looking to develop their products and product range further. Hoping to salvage the profitable divisions of the company Norman, as Managing Director, split the operation by forming Telcan (Research and Development) and Telcan TV, the latter being mainly involved in manufacturing. Trading again in early 1963, the partners (now including a financial manager, Brian North) set out to provide the video units in kit form (as the Telcan TKR 500). The new operation manufactured every major component necessary including the record/replay heads, printed circuit boards, video circuits, tape transport and a variable capstan size system (1/4 HP motor). With variable speed operation (60, 120 or 180 inches per second) the kit, if correctly assembled, produced a recorder of very satisfactory performance.
A public demonstration and press conference at the Aldwich Hotel, London, held on June 24th of 1963 created a wealth of interest and publicity, but the attitude of the press and the public appeared to be diffident. It was staggering that few could actually see the need for home video recording - even if they had the slightest notion of how technically awesome the development of Telcan was! Norman Rutherford demonstrated Telcan on the BBC 9 O'clock News (replaying the opening few minutes of the broadcast) but this was as ineffective as a next day ATV interview was ridiculous - the interviewer continually asking the originators if they though Telcan a 'gimmick' - they were later to maintain that the interviewer could not grasp the concept of electronic recording, and mistakenly believed that the Telcan method involved the use of an 8mm movie camera (similar to a system already in use).
Orders for the Telcan units were slow. The kits sold for £60 (some £1,100 today) - only the technically skilled and well off could afford them. A number of pre-built units did sell well, as too special 'Combi' examples fitted into T.V's, but of the total number sold the greater majority were kits. As sales of the TKR 500 faltered, the partners designed a miniature battery driven portable record player for 7" 45 rpm records which, entirely self-contained and enclosed, operated like a modern floppy disk drive. A fair number were produced and for a short while were popular.
However, Cinerama, already a stockholder in N.E.V.Co, proposed through its Chairman Nicholas Riesini, the formation of a joint company for exploitation of Telcan in the US and, given the other possible financial holdings of stock in N.E.V.Co, agreed to purchase any stock willing to be released by other interests. This ultimately resulted in a fairly large injection of new cash for the company and R&D was the first to benefit. For a moment there appeared to be yet another new beginning for the company.
Unfortunately what was desirable in one context was not in another and the two partners found themselves embroiled in business negotiations and legal entanglements to the detriment of the company's main business. In December of 1963 Norman and Michael were asked to demonstrate the video recorder at a crucial shareholders meeting of the ailing Cinerama Corporation at the Capital Theatre, Broadway in New York. However, they were asked to try something novel - to video the shareholders themselves at the meeting. Being away from base, and unable to get one of their own Mini-Eye 4" cameras, Norman got hold of a 525 line studio standard Vidicon camera and videoed all and sundry, amazing everyone by playing back the pictures at the meeting. The technology was enough to placate all the unhappy shareholders - now absolutely convinced that Cinerama had a real winner. However, all was not sweetness and light, Cinerama itself was not actually able to invest any further - even though its individual principals were well able to. The partners returned from the US with the mistaken expectation of a large order for the new "Telcan" system but it failed to materialise.
The author offers his sincere thanks to Mr Norman Rutherford (for patiently retelling his story for the umpteenth time) to Mr Rob Cox, curator of the Wollaton Hall Industrial Museum in Nottingham, Mr John Brunton at the Nottingham Post and to all those that gave their time to find, or process, material for this article.
As Cinerama floundered the Chairmanship changed to that of William Foreman, a creditor of Cinerama and a difficult man. Foreman was not slow to convey his personal distrust of the Telcan business to the new Executive. Sensing mounting hostility from their principals, the two partners decided to look further afield for investment and gave Telcan demonstrations in the US to the Filco (Ford Motor Co.) and Admiral Corporations. But the interest and enthusiasm was less than it might have been in the face of an ever growing hostility and starvation of funds from Foreman and his cohort.
In hindsight, Norman Rutherford admits that had they toadied a little to Foreman things may have gone better. But, as it was, Foreman was simply intent on recovering his investment, and both the N.E.V Co. men became tired of Foreman's animosity and of being 'manhandled' ("We were not used to being treated like hired hams!"). Both Norman and Michael were financially well off from the purchase of their shares and were in no way inclined to return the favour to Foreman or Cinerama. In short, there was only one way out and in August of 1964 Norman Rutherford, as Managing Director, put the company into voluntary liquidation.
Undaunted, and with the greater number of their 70 odd original staff still at hand, the two partners set up again at Basford under the name Wesgrove - again this was a kit form recorder business though, as always, customers could purchase a fully assembled version. But the Ampex helical scan system had already appeared in competing domestic video recorders. One leader was the Sony 1/2" reel to reel video recorder; Philips were competing while a further system was marketed by Loewe Opta in Germany. The message was obvious, the Telcan linear system needed to be updated to record in the helical scan mode in order to rival other products. But this was beyond the resource of the already ailing and overstretched Telcan/Wesgrove operation. Talks with various potential backers, even Japanese interests, got nowhere. The Wesgrove business, like its predecessor, was put into voluntary liquidation just 19 months after the Cinerama debacle.
Only two of the original Telcan units built by Norman Rutherford and his Company survive to this day - one in San Francisco, owned by Al Cox the owner of a music shop and FM Radio station, and one now to be seen at the Wollaton Hall Industrial Museum in Nottingham. Norman and his partner Michael Turner became disaffected and parted company just after the firm was wound up, and though Norman continued to do some consultancy work in electronics he eventually gave up and went into property development with his brother, only returning to his first love in the early 1980's when he became involved in developing an infra-red transmission system for closed circuit TV. Norman finally found lasting fame by way of an entry into the Guinness Book of Records in 1982.
Much could be said about this lost opportunity for British enterprise in terms of too little too late, but the reality is different. The technical principle was only good enough to prove the value of the product - for all the negativity faced at the Telcan launch, everyone quickly came to see how useful a home video unit could be and that a massive market awaited. But the original technical principle of Telcan defined the operational limits and the Telcan linear record system was never going to have the technical flexibility required by the market (for convenient long play, high resolution monochrome or colour recording). The short record/replay time, and poor long term head dependability were very much a weakness. Yet, for all that the promise was there, and had the investment vision come anywhere close to the technical vision, then a good deal more might have been accomplished.
As it was, the two partners, Norman Rutherford, Michael Turner and their associates did unequivocally demonstrate and sell the first commercial home video recorder, the first Camcorder (and the first 'Combi' TV and video recorder). What price 'vision'?
Telcan Home Video Recorder
Cathode Ray Tube
Vidicon Camera Tube
1961 - Ampex VR 1000 Commercial Video Recorder which used 2" Tape
Telcan at Wollaton Hall Industrial Museum
Telcan in Replay Mode
Telcan - Early Recording Still
Telcan Launch - 27th June, 1963
Short interview with NormanRutherford
showing Telcan in use.
Also features the author - Barrie Blake-Coleman
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