CBC Digital Archives


Old TV and radio programs aren't the only vintage discoveries you'll make in the CBC Archives - there's also a lot of old equipment kicking around. Some have outlived their usefulness. Other pieces will have a role as long as there's old video and audio material that needs repair and replaying.

Over the years, the CBC has relied on many different technological formats to produce, play and preserve its audio and video programming. Though some may seem quaint, or utterly archaic, today, it's worth remembering that all were state-of-the-art in their time. It's also easier to appreciate the sounds and pictures coming out of the archives today if you know a little bit about how these different formats worked and how they evolved.

The 1930s and '40s: Wire
Before there were tape recorders, there were wire recorders. As with tape, the key to the technology was magnetization - if the wire was magnetized, you could record on it. Field correspondents used portable versions in the Second World War. Their repair kits included extra wire, grips and a soldering iron.

When visiting the Archives you'll be able to see the following pieces from this period:

An oven is used to dry out some ¼-inch analog tapes, so that they can be played and transferred to a digital format.

Wire recorder
This odd-looking machine is a forerunner to the tape recorder. Instead of recording onto tape, it recorded onto wire. A portable version of this device was used by Second World War radio correspondents.

The 1950s and '60s: Acetate discs
In the archives' early years, the CBC recorded radio sound on 16-inch acetate transcription discs. Made of glass, metal or even paper with a thin layer of acetate fixed to the surface, these discs were used until 1966. They look similar to commercial vinyl records except they were larger, thicker and heavier. Recordings were made by carving a groove in the acetate with a needle; a tiny vacuum was mounted on the end of needle arm to remove the acetate residue. Very durable, discs were usually recorded at one of two speeds - 33- or 78-rpms - and could be engraved either from the outside in or the inside out (a small icon on the disc indicates which direction was used).

At the archives we have the following equipment from this era:

Acetate engraver
Another strange-looking device, this machine is an engraver for acetate disks. It is equipped with a microscope and a tiny vacuum designed to remove the thin strip of acetate cut from the discs during recording.

The 1960s: Acetate tape
Acetate tape was first introduced for recording in the 1950s. The archives only started using it for storage and copying in 1966. While it produced a fine sound, it did not age well. Over time, acetate tape curls, shrinks and loses mass. Because it does not readily stretch or deform (a bonus) it tends to break easily (a drawback).

The 1970s: Polyester tape
The Archives switched to the more durable polyester tape in the 1970s. Home users may remember the ¼-inch reel-to-reel tape that was popular before cassettes. In terms of composition, polyester tape was very similar to the tape still in use today. While the sound quality is excellent, polyester tape deforms easily, so users must be careful not to stretch it. Also, a lot of polyester tape made between 1975 and 1985 caused later problems for archivists because it began to shed a sticky residue which damaged both tapes and equipment when played. Gentle heating in the oven before playing often corrects this problem.

From the 1970's you'll find:

Tape recorder
It may look like a washing machine, but this equipment actually makes recordings on magnetic tape.

This turntable is designed to play acetate disks from an earlier era. Unlike newer records, some of these discs were recorded to play from the inside out.

The 1980s to present: Digital formats
The Archives entered the digital age with the move to Digital Audio Tape (DAT) for audio storage in 1988. CDs took their place in 1999.

The 1950s: Kinescopes
In the early years after CBC TV debuted in 1952, programs were shot live and copies were made on film using large cameras called kinescopes. These machines were set up in front of a TV screen and filmed directly off the screen. The films they created (usually 16mm, sometimes 35mm) are called "kines." At the time, the CBC network was still evolving and the best antennas could only broadcast over limited distances, so kines were made so programs could be shipped to regional stations for rebroadcast to local audiences there.

Since then, of course, these kines have come to be recognized as an immensely valuable record of our early television heritage. Without them, there would be no record of the early years of live television.

Come see one at the Archives.

The kinescope recorder was a huge camera used in the pre-videotape era to record television shows to film (usually 16mm, but occasionally 35mm). It was placed directly in front of a television set broadcasting the live show and filmed what was on the screen. The films themselves are called "kinescopes" or "kines."

The 1960s: Two-inch videotape
The first two-inch videotape machine was used at CBC Toronto in 1959. It wasn't long before tape supplanted "kines" as the medium of choice. Not only was it great for producers, directors and actors - it permitted re-takes and ushered in the era of special effects - but videotape was also a cheaper, easier and higher-quality means of copying shows for broadcast.

If your only experience with videotape is a modern handheld recorder, it's hard to imagine what the original two-inch wide videotape reels were like. They may have been a huge step forward for the industry, but they were hardly portable: a typical reel weighed between 11 and 16 kilograms (25-35 pounds).

The 1970s and '80s: 3/4-inch and one-inch videotape; VHS
Smaller tape formats ushered in the era of mobility and remote videotaping. These newer formats and machines also brought innovations such as time-tracking on the tapes. This made editing and assembly much easier - with the two-inch, operators had to keep their eye on a separate clock. The 3/4-inch format and VHS both came to the CBC in the '70s; the first one-inch machine arrived in 1981, for use on the then landmark evening news show, The Journal.

At the archives we have equipment from this era.

Two-inches videotape recorder
As big as a refrigerator and just as noisy, this machine was used to record two-inch videotapes.

Two-inches videotape editor
This apparatus is used to edit, patch and repair two-inches videotape. The operator puts iron oxide over the tape, seals it and inspects the joint with a microscope.

The 1980s to present: Analog and digital Betacam
The introduction of the first analog Betacams in 1984 brought the CBC into the current modern age of remote shooting and electronic newsgathering. If you think back to the early days of home video, then you might remember the fierce competition between Sony Betacam vs. VHS tapes. While VHS won the home market, Betacam became the professional standard. Digital Beta arrived in 1991, making for even easier assembly, duplication and editing. Betacam SX format was introduced in 1998. Because it has a higher compression ratio than early digital Beta formats (10:1 vs. 2:1) it gives away something in quality. However, it is faster to work with - an important factor in a time-sensitive business. The smaller, mini DV format, while popular among recreational video users, is not making inroads with professionals as its small size makes it more vulnerable to serious damage.

In the 1970s, before videotape became a widely used, portable medium, virtually all production footage was shot on 16mm and 35mm film. Film's decline was gradual, beginning in the late 1970s. Today it is only used in special circumstances and then transferred to videotape.