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Sarnoff Collection showcases 80s technology

By Jennifer Somers
Photo Editor 

Retro images help bring the demonstration to life (Jennifer Somers/ Photo Editor).

For people who are used to watching movies on their laptops or mobile devices, it’s difficult to imagine having to use a stereo to play their favorite films — that’s how people watched them in the 1980s. 

In the Sarnoff Collection’s first pop-up exhibit of the year, a demonstration of the videodisc was featured with a showing of “Star Wars” on Sept. 4

Created in 1981, the videodisc plays film on a vinyl record. Few people are still familiar with the videodisc due to its competitors, such as VHS and Betamax. 

The collection gets a lot of visitors who have worked on the technology at the exhibit. Previous workers of Radio Corporation of America, the company where the videodisc and much of the technology in the exhibit were created, are the most familiar with the products.

According to the museum’s pamphlet, visitors could “not only learn about the scientific principles behind these technologies, but also the social and historical contexts into which they were introduced.” 

Florencia Pierri, the curator of the museum and a historian of science who has been at the College for two years, shared all the information there is to know about the videodisc. 

“Before working here, I didn’t know it existed, but old technology is fun,” Pierri said.

Pierri showed the simplicity of how the videodisc works in a demonstration. She placed the box, which holds the videodisc, into the stereo. Then, when she pulled the box back out, it left the record behind and a needle too small to be seen moved onto the grooves of the record to play the movie.

“The grooves of the record are so fine that you actually can’t touch it without scratching it,” Pierri said. 

Guests were able to stay and watch “Star Wars” or come and go as they pleased. Those who stayed longer saw that halfway through the movie, the disc had to be flipped over in order to finish playing the film. 

Betamax and VHS tapes are comparable to videodiscs in terms of both quality and price. Consumers preferred VHS and Betamax over videodisc because they could record and playback videos on them.

“Star Wars” was such a popular movie in the 80s that the videodisc based the length of their records on the film. Any movie longer than “Star Wars” would be on two discs rather than just one. The videodisc was a flop and only lasted three years on the market.

“There are a lot of lessons to be learned from things that don’t work out,” Pierri said. “You should learn about the past because it is important for going forward.”


  1. The errors in this article make me feel ancient and I’m only 41.

    No one ever watched movies through their “stereo”, you plugged a “player” into your TV to watch movies. The player might be a CED Player (like this article is about), Beta VCR Player, the longer lived VHS VCR Player, Laser Disc Player or Later DVD and Blu-Ray players, but it was never a stereo, which is a generic term for something that plays music: LPs, 8 tracks, Cassettes, CDs, or just radio.

    A TV was deeper than its screen was wide and even a 15 incher weighed as much as a cement block. A 40 inch screen would have been considered huge! The technology didn’t support sizes larger than that.

    The “box” a CED is held in is called a cartridge. You slide the cartridge into the player and it leaves the disc behind. VHS tapes might also be called cartridges but tape was much more common.


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