RCA Cartridges: 1958 - 1964

RCA introduced a new cartridge recorder in 1958, using 1/8 inch magnetic tape at 3 3/4 ips (the same as the later 8-Track) and requiring a separate player/recorder. The stereophonic tapes -- which bore a striking resemblance to modern cassettes, but three times larger -- held two one-hour stereo programs, and a 1958 catalog of tapes (mostly fictitious) was released. By August 1959, player/recorder units were finally being shipped to distributors, but only 16 recordings were available. RCA had introduced portable units and playback-only units by 1961, and established a tape club to distribute the cartridges, mostly classical and light jazz instrumentals. Sears-Roebuck had also considered marketing a radio-phonograph-cartridge console which never was produced. In late 1961, what little market RCA had for stereo cartridges seriously diminished -- but production did continue by a licensee, Bell Sound, until 1964.

Courtesy of David Morton:

"It was not until 1958 that RCA tried to crack the mass market, once again with a cartridge recorder but this time using magnetic tape instead of wire. After announcing the product early in the year, the company during the summer of 1958 sent representatives to the electronics trade shows to publicize a new tape recorder/player which used the large, plastic cartridge. The general trend in reel-to-reel recorders, especially portable units, was toward lower tape speeds than the original 15 inches per second [ips] adopted widely in the late 1940s. By the late 1950s it was possible to get excellent sound quality at 7.5 ips and good sound even at 3.75 ips. The RCA machine, running at 3.75 ips, maintained a fairly good sound and could squeeze 60 minutes out of a relatively short length of tape. This made the cartridge compact and helped keep its cost down. The RCA machine also incorporated stereo recording as an optional feature, putting two stereo programs on a single 0.25 inch width tape (i.e. the standard width tape used in professional and consumer reel-to-reel recorders). RCA press releases claimed that the machines were in production and that part of the massive RCA-Victor catalog of music would appear on stereo or monophonic cartridges, and the company issued a 1958 catalog. Cartridges would have prices that reflected the length of the recorded program, ranging from $4.95 for a 20 minute tape to $9.95 for an hour. Two manufacturers, the news releases claimed, were "tooled up" to manufacture blank cartridges; 3M and Orradio Industries of Alabama; Bell Sound, a respected equipment manufacturer, announced its intentions to manufacture a copy of the recorder.

"Somehow, RCA never got this project moving. In the first place, the catalog was partially fictitious. Almost none of the new releases were manufactured, and quantities were always short. Additionally, the process of setting up the production line for the ballyhooed player got stalled. A year after the initial exhibitions, it was still conspicuously absent from the store shelves. Only by August 1959 were units finally being shipped to distributors, but only 16 of the dozens of recordings advertised in the catalog were available. There were also some doubts raised by the small but vocal coterie of audiophiles over the design of the equipment. The early machine was a recorder/player with built-in amplifiers and loudspeakers, priced at $299. In adopting this stand-alone design, RCA clearly did not envision the recorder as part of a hi-fi "component" system, even though it was touted as the latest in home hi-fi. Audiophiles wanted a plain tape "deck," that is, the mechanical portion of the tape recorder that utilized an external power amplifier and speaker, so that they could be free to chose their own amplifiers and speakers-- non-audiophiles without hi-fi "systems" were expected to buy the stand-alone units. It should be noted that this was the standard practice in mass market tape recorders of the 1950s, even though it meant a more expensive machine. Most tape recorders, however, allowed a user to bypass the internal amplifier and speaker and connect directly to the external system. The attitude of many manufacturers seems to have been that the small number of buyers wanting "decks" would not justify the expense of offering them.

"If the redundancy in the design of the early RCA machine not only raised its price but called into question its hi-fi credentials, later iterations did little to please aficionados. By 1961, the company had introduced portable versions of the recorder ($169.95) and an inexpensive playback-only unit ($99.95), neither of which met with approval from the audio enthusiasts. In RCA's plan, these innovations should have opened up a broad market roughly corresponding to the huge market for phonographs. Still, in early 1960 Bell Sound could only report about 400 sales, and while RCA kept mum its sales could not have been much better. There was even some evidence that many of these machines had been sold to a small number of institutional customers and were being used for educational rather than entertainment purposes.

"Despite this less-than-explosive beginning, for a time in late 1960 or early 1961 sales of the RCA cartridge player finally seemed to be underway. Bell Sound announced that its plans to manufacture the machines under license were on schedule, and Sears, Roebuck and Company claimed that they would market a combination radio-phonograph-cartridge console.4 But by the end of 1961 things were definitely turning sour again. Sales were slow and aggravated by the fact that dealers, so recently stung by three competing multitrack formats for open-reel tape, would not put their hearts into selling the new machines. Recorded programs on cartridge were a particularly prickly item of contention. Dealers simply refused to carry a full line of cartridges because they did not expect to be able to sell them. RCA in late 1961 tried to overcome this by establishing a tape club that allowed members to purchase selections directly.

"But the problems with the cartridge recorder ran deeper than just dealer resistance. The RCA machine represented the melding of a number of ideas about consumer preferences. It was an amalgam of assumptions about high fidelity on the one hand, convenience on the other, and particularly the idea that everybody wanted lots of both. Ultimately, manufacturers sought to modify the existing reel-to-reel player, already accepted by audiophiles, simply by eliminating the need to thread the tape. The executives and engineers employed by tape recorder manufacturers continued to believe that tape threading was the major obstacle to acceptance, although no real evidence existed that supported such a theory..."

From Larry Blumenfeld:

"RCA's ahead-of-its-time cartridge system, which looked like an oversized cassette...was the first attempt to put reel-to-reel tape in cartridge form. The tape was ordinary 1/4 inch tape in a largish "cartridge" (the term "cassette" not having been invented yet) made of grey plastic. The overall design looks amazingly like the cassette, but about three times the size. It held an hour's worth of tape at 3-3/4 ips (same speed as an 8 track, and double the speed of a cassette). Stereo tape itself had just recently been developed, and the 4 track head cut the tape requirement in half from the 2 track system. But the general public still couldn't - or wouldn't - deal with threading tapes, so RCA developed the cartridge system to bring pre-recorded stereo tapes to mainstream America. Bell Sound, then part of TRW, did indeed make players for this system, along with a few other people. Pre-recorded cartridges were available from RCA and Bel Canto (also part of TRW), and perhaps a few others. It was also a recording system from the beginning, unlike the 8 track or cassette. Considering the time and the technology, it made a lot of sense, but it was not a success at all."

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