by Rob DeHart
Invented in Germany in 1928, magnetic tape recording was one of the most significant technological developments of the 20th century. In audio applications it produced a high-quality sound that could be easily edited. Radio and recording studios embraced magnetic tape by the 1950s, and consumers soon followed by purchasing reel-to-reel recorders, and later, cassette tape decks. Other applications of this technology included video and data recording. Video tape transformed television broadcasting and allowed consumers to watch pre-recorded programs and movies at home. Large mainframe computers that stored data on magnetic tape made achievements such as the U.S. moon landing possible.
Developed between 1942 and 1946, the Brush BK-401 "Soundmirror" was the first American-built tape recorder. German-born magnetic recording pioneer Dr. S. J. Begun headed research at Brush during this period. Radio broadcast journalists, such as Edward R. Murrow, used the BK-401, but the inferior sound quality of the machine made it unsuited for music recording. (Tennessee State Museum)
To trace the history of this technology, the Tennessee State Museum received a generous donation from a Tennessean who worked as an engineer for the Ampex Corporation, of Redwood City, California, from 1962 until 2001. Ampex pioneered the production of professional tape recorders, and Beverley R. Gooch helped the company be an industry leader for decades. He patented 35 tape head designs for Ampex and was a recipient of its highest honor, the Alexander M. Pontiaoff Award for the Advancement of Magnetic Recording Head Development. Coming from a modest background in Nashville, Gooch’s life demonstrates how a lot of curiosity and hard work can lead to a legacy of innovation.
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In 1946 Gooch was a 7th grader at Peabody Demonstration School (the forerunner of the current University School) in Nashville. The school exposed him to the relatively new technology of audio recording with magnetic tape. It was the beginning of an audio revolution, and before Gooch could fully comprehend how this technology worked, he was already asking questions. If sound could be stored this way, he wondered, “Could pictures be put on tape?” His teachers could not provide an answer. A practical magnetic tape video recorder would not be invented for another decade. Yet he persisted in formulating ideas about how this might be achieved while becoming an expert in electronics. At the age of 19, he opened a television and radio repair shop. During the mid-1950s, Gooch expanded his business to include audio equipment installation at the same time Nashville’s status as a hub for commercial music recording blossomed. He set up the audio recorders in Owen Bradley’s Quonset Hut recording studio, which produced early hits such as Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Velvet.” He also helped legendary guitarist and producer Chet Atkins with his home studio.
Released in 1949, the Ampex 300 recorder was used by commercial recording studios and radio and television stations to create master tapes. It was smaller and less expensive than the company's model 200 recorder, and improvements allowed users to decrease the tape speed without losing sound quality. This model also standardized the "oxide-in" wrap of magnetic tape. (Tennessee State Museum)
The young man’s brilliance did not go unnoticed. In 1955 he received financial backing to discover an answer to his earlier question, “Could pictures be put on tape?” He built a video magnetic tape recorder using a reel-to-reel tape mechanism and banks of vacuum tubes and electronic components that reached from floor to ceiling. He succeeded in electronically deconstructing an image into pulses that altered the magnetic coating on a roll of plastic tape. When played back, the tape managed to reproduce a hazy version of the image on a monitor. It was quite an achievement, but not very practical. The machine’s tape had to run at a very high speed to record the data necessary to produce the picture. Therefore, a whole roll of tape could only record a few minutes of video.
Beverley R. Gooch and his video magnetic tape recorder, 1955. Courtesy Beverley R. Gooch
The following year the Ampex Corporation solved these technical problems and created the first broadcast-quality video recorder, but Gooch’s efforts were not in vain. Brush Development, a division of Clevite Corporation of Cleveland, Ohio, purchased his video recording technology and hired him as a magnetic recording project engineer. Brush had spearheaded magnetic data recording during the 1940s and viewed Gooch’s machine as possessing some important innovations. So, in 1959, Gooch packed up and left Nashville for Cleveland to begin a career focused solely on the improvement of tape-recording technologies.
Released in 1968, the Ampex Micro 12 was a portable solid state monaural tape cassette recorder/player. It used a single button/lever to control record, playback, rewind, and fast forward functions. (Tennessee State Museum)
He did some important work for Brush but did not stay in Cleveland long. In 1962, Ampex recruited him to join their company at their California headquarters. He remained at Ampex for approximately 40 years where he received patents for 35 tape head designs. Of all his inventions, the one most familiar to consumers might be the bidirectional cassette tape head. Anyone who owned a cassette deck from the 1970s to the early 1990s recalls that tapes had to be physically removed from the deck and turned over to access both sides of material. Gooch’s bidirectional tape head removed this step. Instead the tracks of the tape head would automatically switch to read the opposite side’s material in reverse. This technology was especially popular in car tape decks as it kept a driver’s attention on the road rather than on flipping tapes.
Beverley R. Gooch in his Knoxville home workshop, 2019. (Tennessee State Museum)
Gooch retired in 2001 and returned to Tennessee settling in Knoxville, the birthplace of his wife, Katy Gooch. There he has a workshop where he continues to work on magnetic recording and related projects. One of these projects was assembling a nearly comprehensive collection of Ampex recorders, most in working order with original operation manuals and schematics. He donated this collection to the Tennessee State Museum, and while it focuses mainly on audio recording, it also sheds light on the company’s ground-breaking video tape recording technology. For completeness he also included some non-Ampex recorders that were important to the evolution of magnetic tape recording. Now these recorders will be preserved for those wishing to learn about the significance of this technology and the role a native Tennessean played with figuring out how to put “pictures on tape.”
* * * TO VIEW THE ENTIRE BEVERLY GOOCH COLLECTION, CLICK HERE VISIT OUR ONLINE COLLECTION PORTAL * * *
Rob DeHart is a Tennessee State Museum History Curator.