Cartrivision: The Netflix of 1972

Self described “hardware/software necromancer@foone posted some remarkable hardware necromancy in Twitter about an Ebay auction for a rare 1970s television containing a Cartivision, a long forgotten forerunner to the VCR. As @foone put it,

Cartrivision is an early (1972) home video format which had some wacky DRM nonsense (well, ARM I guess, it’s not digital) and it only lasted about a year, and one of the reasons it’s impossible to play now is that you couldn’t just buy a VCR for it. Instead you had to buy a TV with a Cartrivision player built into it, and since those were all huge 1970s console TVs the number of them that have survived until the modern day is basically zero. The wacky DRM thing was that most movies only came on red tapes, and the key distinction between red tapes and black tapes is that YOU COULDN’T REWIND RED TAPES.

The business model gets even stranger. You could buy a very limited amount of titles and record stuff on blank tapes but if you wanted more recent films you had to go to a store, choose from a catalog, and then have the tapes mailed to the store for you to pick up. So, basically, it’s 1970s Netflix with no rewind.

Unfortunately you’re all too late to get in on the Ebay auction since the beauty above sold for $1,525. If you’d like to get it working you’ve got to have some serious analog repair chops and any existing tapes will likely disintegrate as they move through the mechanism.

Conservator Maurice Schechter won an Emmy for his heroic effort to digitize two Cartrivision tapes that contained the only existing recording of game 5 of the 1973 N.B.A. finals. A 2013 New York Times article describes his analog wizardry.

If you’d like in-depth info on the history of the Catrivision there’s an article in Fast Company.

If you’d like to fix one yourself you’ll need to get familiar with LabGuy’s Cartrivision restoration project. Here’s some Cartrivision documents including a catalog of titles.

While it’s unlikely that any of us will take on a Cartrivision restoration project there’s a way in which we’ve all become conservators of outdated media. I’ve got a box of 3/4 inch video tapes from when I used to be an editor that are rotting in the garage. Then there’s all the digital photos . . .

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