History

The Beginning

Gauss Electrophysics, a small company making a name for itself with the manufacture of high-speed audio tape duplication equipment, was seeking outside investors. Gauss co-founders David Paul Gregg and Keith Johnson, in addition to their established audio tape business, continued development work on an optical video disc, conceived by Gregg in the late 50s. Late in 1967, Gauss' activities were brought to the attention of MCA President Lew Wasserman by assistant Don Wynn. The concept of a video disc was appealing. With over 11,000 motion pictures sitting in the warehouse with nothing to do but deteriorate into oblivion and with the knowledge of the coming consumer video revolution, a videodisc system could give MCA a giant head start in the pending video arena wars. In February 1968, MCA purchased controlling interest in Gauss as well as the patents Gauss had applied for in the videodisc project.

MCA then hired Kent D. Broadbent from Hughes Corporation to analyze all of MCA's holdings under their "technologies umbrella" (of which Gauss was the only one) and make a recommendation on viable development of a videodisc system. He believed the project was possible and that for roughly the same cost of producing a feature film (several million dollars at the time), the cost MCA could have a home video format on which to distribute their films and other programming. Broadbent was assigned as project head and began to recruit engineers to advance development of the videodisc project.

Lew Wasserman in 1969 was able to convince MCA to spin off MCA Laboratories, a research division designed solely for the development of videodisc system. The laboratories, based in Torrance begin to work in earnest on the system, now coined MCA Disco-Vision, and through 1971 established the groundwork on which the system was based. The facility also included disc replication and mastering facilities.

On a side note, a full scale mastering and replication facility was built from a closed furniture factory in Carson California. The Carson location is still in operation today and is run by Pioneer Video Manufacturing. This facility is capable of producing over 1 million pieces per month and is the largest LaserDisc manufacturing facility in the United States. With the exception of DTS-encoded LaserDiscs, which at this time are licensed to Image Entertainment, the Carson facility still produces all of Universal Studios LaserDiscs.


First Press Showing

The first press showing of MCA's Disco-Vision system occurred on December 12, 1972 on a sound stage at Universal Studios.Prototype Player MCA handed out a press kit that contained pictures of mock-up boxes, pictures of the player, a sample disc, labeled Airport . It is unknown if the sample discs contain any actual program as the only player ever capable of playing these discs was a prototype unit shown in the image on the right. However, a the prototype player did play a video program which ran seven minutes and contained clips of MCA's film collection. Representatives from electronics companies around the world were invited and were members of the press. Kent Broadbent gave a presentation on the technical aspects of the system and distributed a paper that went into great depth about the system.


Philips NV

By what some might consider a strange coincidence, Philips was developing a very similar optical Videodisc system in the Netherlands. It really wasn't that far fetched as Gauss Electrophysics had pitched the videodisc system to Philips in 1967, but they elected to pass. Representatives from Philips were at the press conference in December 1972, and impressed by what was demonstrated, contacted Disco-Vision immediately. The two systems were strikingly similar in many respects. Disco-Vision did have a distinct advantage as they had been able to demonstrate their system from replicated discs, where Philips was still using the glass master as the playback source. Competing and incompatible optical disc formats would potentially kill either system. This and the knowledge that electronics giant RCA was readying its own stylus based playback system, CED - trade named RCA SelectaVision, Disco-Vision and Philips began talks of merging their systems. In September 1974, the two parties entered into a "period of cooperation". Technology information would flow freely between the two laboratories. After much bickering on the corporate level, it was finally agreed that MCA Disco-Vision would focus on the disc mastering and replication and Philips, through its Magnavox line of consumer electronics would manufacture and distribute the playback system.


Test Pressings

MCA Laboratories had the pressing and mastering facility in the Torrance location and when the system finally standardized and all the kinks were thought to be worked out of the system, test discs were produced in late 1976 and early 1977. These discs were produced to fulfill a number of needs:

  1. Demonstrate the fact that Disco-Vision was capable of producing actual discs and the product was ready to begin consumer replication.
  2. Provide actual products for MCA executives to show off the technology.
  3. Provide products to test and calibrate players.
These discs were usually produced from video tape transfers of the film and did not represent the actual finished product. In some cases, High Plains Drifter for example, the actual TV edit of the film was used. Titles known to have been mastered and pressed include.
The discs look somewhat different that what was finally brought to market. Each disc was a single unbonded disc (as opposed to bonded dual sided discs that were normal for the final format). Playing time ran the gambut, some of them as long as 29 minutes. The discs, being single sided, were quite flexible, using the rotational playback speed to flatten out the disc. Discs from this test period will play on all current players, however the thickness of the discs is about the same as the polycarbonate 8-inch discs, so using an adapter for an 8-inch LD-Single will allow playback of these test discs. But even at this early stage in DiscoVision's life, the discs produced were already designed to be read by a laser beam underneath the rotating disc - as is evidenced by the placement of the labels on the discs.

Defect rates during this period were reportedly quite high - Some estimates place the defect rate as high as 95%. Other than the typical DiscoVision speckling, the thinness of the discs caused excessive warpage which resulted in tracking problems. As with many aspects of DiscoVision, necessity is the mother of invention and the cure for the disc warping problem came in the form of bonding two discs together. This would not only give the disc added rigidity, but would help to further protect the recording surface, which was so exposed to damage with the single sided discs. Of course, the concept of bonded discs added an entirely new layer of complexity to the system and it would take another 18 months to develop a process to bond the discs together which didn't damage the recorded material.

A few die-hard collectors have samples of discs from this period. Rarity or value is pointless to speculate on since these were never discs which were readily available. Most have been obtained from engineers who worked directly in the research facility in Torrence.


Pioneer

The "period of cooperation" between MCA and Philips left an opening for MCA - and Philips - to look outside of the joint efforts. This allowed MCA to continue to look to hardware manufacturers for Disco-Vision's stretch into industrial applications. When Philips decided not to pursue this side of the market, MCA approached the Japanese then electronics "lightweight" Pioneer. The formation of Universal Pioneer in October 1977 forged the way for Pioneer to begin the design - to the original Disco-Vision specifications - of the industrial monster the PR-7820 industrial video disc player. Originally devised to produce industrial hardware for the system, Universal Pioneer was able to convince MCA of the need for a mastering and pressing facility in Japan. Based on the information provided by the now operating Carson facility, Universal Pioneer began work on their disc replication facility in Kofu.


The burning in Atlanta

MCA DiscoVision (now without the previous hyphen) and Magnavox held a joint press conference in the ballroom of the Regency Hotel in New York on December 13, 1978. Atlanta Georgia was to be the initial city for the consumer introduction of the DiscoVision/Magnavision system. Two days later, on December 15, 1978, MCA DiscoVision discs and the Magnavox Magnavision VH-8000 player went on sale publicly at 3 Atlanta stores. Magnavox had tried to keep the date of the launch a secret and had a terrible time in getting enough players from the assembly line in Europe. A target of 50 $749.00 players were expected to be available in Atlanta, but only about 25 actually made it to the opening of the doors. Within a few hour of opening, all 3 Atlanta stores were officially sold out. Discs sold at a brisk pace, even to people who couldn't get a player.

Grandiose visions of 500 titles being available at the launch as reported in 1975. By the time the system was offered in Seattle Washington in February 1979, the reality of software was coming up short - roughly 50 were available. In fact, software availability was the main crux of the problems for the system as DiscoVision struggled to keep the production lines flowing out to the stores.


Something's wrong...

Almost as quickly as the doors opened in Atlanta and Seattle heralding the arrival of DiscoVision/Magnavision, the complaints began rolling in. Various reports from disc quality and player incompatibilities to complete player failure started flooding both companies. Many believed that the system had been introduced too early in an attempt from being released too late. Additional cities were added to the system throughout 1979 as titles continued to trickle off the lines at DiscoVision. Philips, in an effort to try and figure why disc playback was so problematic, began studying the problem. DiscoVision too began looking into the problem. Each blamed the other. Eventually, DiscoVision engineers suggested several modifications to the players which would allow the Magnavision player to play the production discs. Philips determined these modifications were to "band-aid" their player to allow discs which were not up to spec. All the while, DiscoVision fed information to Pioneer in Japan who's PR-7820 was playing discs with relatively few problems.

In spite of the troubles, the launch of the system continued. The Magnavision VLP/DiscoVision system was the sole playback system throughout 1979. Nationwide roll-out and mass production of the players took place in early 1980. Pioneer Electronics entered the market with their VP-1000 in June 1980 in selected test markets in Madison, Wisconsin; Minneapolis/St. Paul; Dallas/Fort Worth; and Syracuse, New York.

By Christmas 1980, major retailers all over the country offered the Pioneer player and a better than average selection of DiscoVision titles. Sales of the Magnavision player dropped off as the Pioneer player, picking up all of the little tricks learned from DiscoVision and the PR-7820, was right at home with DiscoVision discs. Philips struggled and added a remote to the VH-8000, re-labeling it the VH-8005, but it was too little too late for Philips.

The trouble was no where near over for DiscoVision.

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Updated: November 8, 2016
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