A autographed photo of Bing Crosby with an Ampex 600. The note says "To Alexander Poniatoff, Most Cordially." Poniatoff was the electrical engineer who founded Ampex. (Photo: Courtesy of Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries)
This piece is from our new series Into The Mix, which focuses on little known stories from the Bay Area music scene's past and present.
The origin story of Silicon Valley typically centers on Stanford and steady funding from the US military. The marriage of technology and entertainment, as the story goes, came way later, with companies like Apple and Facebook.
The first company to revolutionize entertainment from the Valley was Ampex, launched in 1944. The company manufactured the first reel-to-reel machine for commercial use in the United States (based on German technology), and later, the first video recording machine. All in collaboration/competition with Bing Crosby. Yes, that Bing Crosby.
Is that live radio at 2am?
In the aftermath of WWII, Silicon Valley stocked up on all sorts of German scientists and technology. After all, the Germans were hardly in a position to defend patents in the United States.
So it was an American serviceman, Jack Mullin, who brought home to the San Francisco Bay Area a technology completely unfamiliar to Americans: the Magnetophon, a magnetic tape recorder developed by German companies BASF and AEG in the 1930s.
The technology put wax cylinders to shame. Magnetic tape recordings were so realistic that radio broadcasts sounded as though they were live, no matter the time of day. Mullin first heard the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on Radio Berlin -- at 2am.
His search for how such a broadcast was possible led to his life's work, starting with a couple devices and 50 reels of tape shipped home to tinker with and sell. Soon after, he had a celebrity customer: Bing Crosby.
Crosby, then starring on ABC's Philco Radio Time, loved the ability to do multiple takes and edit performances until he had a perfect radio show. (That, and he could play on the golf course while his show aired, pre-taped.) The networks fought him at first, but Crosby and the technology won out, and in 1947, Philco Radio Time became the first tape-delayed radio broadcast in the United States.
Crosby wasn't the only one interested in the technology
Henry Lowood, Stanford’s Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections, says Crosby wasn’t just a customer; he was an early version of a venture capitalist.
"He became very interested in promoting the technology and developing it," Lowood said.
A scrappy start-up in San Carlos named the Ampex Electric and Manufacturing Company also adopted Mullin's find, and Crosby paid Ampex $50,000 in the hope of seeing more of these marvelous machines manufactured on this side of the Atlantic.
(Ampex would later move to Redwood City, and those who drive along Hwy. 101 can still see the company sign -- even though Ampex is no longer, and its archives are now managed by Stanford.)
Today, if you visit the Green Library on the Stanford campus, you can see the dishwasher-sized device that was the first to go into regular broadcast service in the United States in 1948.
Listen to Lowood Speaking at Length About the Legacy of Ampex:
A former Ampex engineer restored it for display, which explains why, if you were to take it out of its glass case and plug it in, the machine would still play.
"I was just floored by the sound of the room being filled with music that was produced by it," Lowood says. "[It] kind of revises your opinion about this kind of old technology and how it relates to our contemporary audio technologies, with compression and all of the other things that we accept when we listen to music."
While broadcasting networks initially resisted pre-recorded radio shows, other performers, like Bob Hope, were quick to see the obvious benefits. Crosby also gave an Ampex 200A to Les Paul, who went on to develop multi-track recording.
And then there was video
In the 1950s, Ampex competed against Crosby in the race to produce the first commercially viable video recorder, and Ampex won.
Fred Pfost, an Ampex engineer who worked on the project, was interviewed by the Audio Engineering Society in 2000, in which he described demonstrating the technology to CBS executives for the first time.
Unbeknownst to them, Pfost recorded a speech delivered by a vice president at the network. Then Pfost rewound the tape and played it back.
Choking up at the memory, he recalls, “There was total silence for probably 10 seconds, at which time they realized what was happening... There was clapping and shouting and foot stamping.”
That video recording team included Ray Dolby, one of several Ampex employees who went on to start landmark firms; others left to found Atari, Oracle and Memorex.
"So in a way," Lowood says, "Ampex was not only the first entertainment technology company in Silicon Valley -- it was also close to being the first to generate this culture of employees moving on to found other companies."
But the cycle of technology is unstoppable, and after half a century of dominance in American TV, music, and radio studios, Ampex did a slow fade into history.
As KQED's Peter Jon Shuler put it in a story 14 years ago about the company's legacy, "The digital revolution began to overshadow the technological innovations the firm helped establish."
Some of us still old enough to remember
The Ampex era may be over, but nostalgia doesn't die easy.
Until digital editing software took over, radio reporters like yours truly collected razor blade scars all over our fingers, splicing bits of tape to put together stories, not unlike what Bing Crosby's engineers were doing all the way back in 1948.
I have fond memories of the rock and roll of the two reels as I'd search for that pause between words where a splice might happen. I can still mimic the funny whoosh of that first word when I hit the play button, and the garbled chipmunk chatter I heard when pressing rewind.
Is digital better? In some ways, yes; in other ways, no. But maybe that's what the guys who used wax cylinders used to say when they got together to complain about magnetic tape...
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