At our recent Vinyl Videos opening reception and live/Zoom discussion, conversation swirled around the topics of innovation and organizations and successes…and failures.
The subject of the exhibit, the Videodisc system, was RCA’s decades-long project to extend its disc/needle-based domination of home entertainment for just …one…… more… …phase… of ingenuity driving engineering and production for the consumer marketplace. In the exhibit, laboratory and manufacturing materials and prototypes, documents, photographs, and memorabilia illustrate the complexity of the technical — and the corporate — challenges confronting the teams assembled to put images and sound on discs for the home.
We will be posting more exhibit images and texts — and putting the entire exhibit online — over the coming months, so please check back. We also plan to resume an oral history recording/cataloguing project (paused due to Covid-19) and will be focusing our interviews on the Videodisc project.
Our discussion participants — Dr. Margaret Graham, Dr. John van Raalte, Brian Wallace, Flori Pierri, and Dr. Ben Gross — offered first-hand accounts of, or perspectives on, the ways this technology tested the fundamental capacity of the corporate laboratory to bridge research and product.
The conversation — like most good ones! — produced more questions than answers, but all the participants did agree that while a series of dedicated groups succeeded in bringing a complex idea to market, the headwinds of serious management and leadership struggles, rapid changes in labor and investment conditions, new market competitors, and unexpected consumer desires combined to render the Videodisc program uncompetitive a few short years after its launch.
The discussion among our presenters was amplified and expanded by comments and questions from our in-house and Zoom audiences about the nature of specific technologies and general trends in innovation — and, almost inevitably, about the human attributes and impulses behind individual and group achievements that can be studied, described, and quantified but never wholly anticipated.
Ironically, given its short life in the marketplace, the Videodisc system has spawned a long-standing and avid online/meet-up community ranging from “vintage” engineers, salespeople, and marketing folks to enthusiasts of every stripe, many of whom weren’t even born until decades after the shutdown of the Videodisc program. Discs, players, components, stories, schematics, manuals, and all kinds of knowledge are traded with great intensity and, occasionally, a sense of genuine wonder that seems out of place in these jaded times.
Below are links to 3 videos that some of these folks have created or found and posted: please share your thoughts with these providers on their YouTube platforms — and please be in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org or via social media!
RCA Selectavision Videodisc Dealer Introduction (featuring one very young Tom Brokaw)
NIB RCA CED Videodisc SJT 400 Unboxing (nice people in Indianapolis, where Videodisc players and discs were manufactured 40 years ago)
The CED: RCA’s Very Late, Very Weird Video Gamble (Pt. 1) (…of 4…along with much related content)