Charlie, We're Pulling for You

James E. O'Neal is Technology Editor of TV Technology.

Shortly before press time word reached me that Charles E. Anderson was seriously ill following some recent surgery, and is currently in hospice care.

Now if you don't know who Charlie Anderson is, you should. He made his mark on the industry as part of the six-person team that, 56 years ago this month, gave us the world's first successful videotape recorder.

In an age where video recording is ubiquitous, few have an appreciation of how difficult it once was. I'll save you the full history, but—in short—several groups set out to perfect a system for saving video to magnetic tape, but only one succeeded. That was the Ampex team on which Charlie was a key player.

Charlie Anderson. Photo courtesy Tom Stoffel Ampex's early VTR project had been on-again/off-again for a couple of years due to budget constraints, but in late 1954 a green light was finally given to team leader Charles Ginsburg to move ahead. Anderson joined the group then and was assigned the task of improving the recorder's S/N performance. The initial approach involved an amplitude-modulated signal system. Charlie realized that even with heavy AGC, there would still be problems in handling widely different signal levels from the segmented head recording approach. He suggested frequency modulation.

This initially met with some amount of resistance, as what he proposed was a "voodoo" FM system with the carrier frequency only slightly removed from the upper modulating frequencies. The video head frequency response limitations also meant that the upper sidebands would not be recorded.

After several months Charlie finally won out (he revealed to me in a 2006 interview that he "pestered" Ginsburg until he got his way), and was allowed to build the odd-ball FM system. He showed it for the first time in early February 1955, and results were so good that AM was never mentioned again.

Fast forward another year and Ginsburg's team was handed a mandate to demo their machine at the upcoming NARTB (now NAB) Show. Charlie was given the job of making the bailing wire prototype look presentable enough to show to broadcasters. His created the "Mark IV," which was revealed to the world on the morning of April 14, 1956. It was also Charlie who was assigned the task of "covertly"—the bulky machine was initially concealed by a curtain—recording and playing back a short speech hinting of a technological breakthrough delivered by William Lodge, CBS's vice president of television engineering.

Charlie recalled that he hit the playback button on cue, but there was no immediate response from the crowd. He initially thought something had gone wrong, but then as the audience realized what they were witnessing, pandemonium broke out. In Charlie's words:

"The curtain was opened and people swarmed around the machine; we were knee deep in people."

The cheering and applause continued for 10 minutes or more.

Charlie stayed with Ampex for 30 years. Even after his 1984 retirement, he remained in broadcasting, later becoming a part of the engineering staff at Reno's KNPB.

He and other team members were honored in 2005 with the presentation of the National Television Academy's first Lifetime Technology and Engineering Emmy award.

There were some giants in the industry back then, and the now 87-year-old Anderson was one of them.

We all owe Charlie and the rest of Ampex team a lot. We certainly wish him well and pray for a speedy recovery.