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A History of The Eight Track Tape

By David Morton

Note: this article was originally published in 8-Track Mind magazine in 1995.

Long before he set down to work on the famous Learjet, William Powell Lear had made a name for himself developing instruments and communications equipment for airplanes. In 1946, Lear Inc. became a licensee of a Chicago-based R&D laboratory called the Armour Research Foundation allowing Bill Lear access to Armour's successful wire recording technology, bits of which made their way into his own design for an endless loop wire recorder . While this machine hardly even made a ripple in the marketplace, it was the genesis of Lear's interest in the endless loop. But Lear's early experiments did not result in a line of investigation that led directly to the 8-track.Instead, Lear dropped the project and subsequently was out of the loop for many years while he concentrated his efforts on aircraft.

In the mean time, the focus of endless loop technology shifted from wire to tape and from Lear's Chicago headquarters to Toledo Ohio. There, Bernard Cousino, the owner of an Audio Visual equipment and service company called Cousino Electronics, became interested in endless sound recordings. He won a small contract to build a "point of sale" device-- that is, a store display that played a recorded message over and over endlessly. Cousino, aware of the widespread use of short motion picture film loops for similar purposes, began experimenting with an 8-millimeter endless loop film cartridge marketed by Television Associates, Inc. of New Hampshire (a maker of antennas).

When Cousino put 1/4 inch tape (about 7.5 millimeters wide, slightly narrower than the motion picture film) in the cartridges, he found that with more than 30 -45 seconds' worth of tape in the loop the tape would quickly bind up. The problem, as it turns out, was not only friction but static electricity. Cousino invented and patented the use of a "double coated" tape, treated on the back with colloidal graphite, which not only lubricated the tape in the pack but conducted away static (graphite is a conductor). Cousino soon developed a cartridge specially adapted for audio tape that he marketed in 1952 through his company, Cousino Electronics, as the "Audio Vendor" A later, fully enclosed version was called the "Echomatic"

The little cart could be used with an ordinary reel-to-reel player--the cart fit over one reel spindle and the exposed loop of tape was fed through the heads. Later Cousino would develop the Echomatic, an advanced two-track cartridge which, like the later 8-track, required a special player. In the mean time, another inventor named George Eash designed and patented a similar cartridge that came to be known as the "Fidelipac".

Eash was an inventor whose main claim to fame before the Fidelipac was a patent for a helmet mounted loudspeaker for soldiers. Like Cousino, he was from Toledo and was interested in the burgeoning audio-visual field. He became interested in cartridges after he began to rent a work space in the Cousino Electronics building. Following Cousino's pattern, Eash designed and patented a cartridge with similar specifications, later modifying it to include a more complex reel braking mechanism. But while Cousino had assembled and marketed his own products, Eash chose to licensed his designs to a number of outside manufacturers. One result of this strategy was the widespread adoption of the Eash cartridge standard by a wide range of different companies. Eash's cartridge, although complex internally and prone to sudden failure, was nonetheless the basis of dozens of commercial applications of the endless loop, two of which were particularly successful. The first and most long-lasting was in broadcasting. Radio equipment manufacturers since the end of World War II had been developing equipment to automate radio stations-- the idea was to replace expensive d.j.'s and board operators with machines. Eash's Fidelipac design became the basis of several new recorders adapted for radio station use, with heavy duty mechanisms, automatic starting and stopping features and end-of-tape sensors. Even in the early 1960s, many radio stations had put some or all of their music, spot announcements, and station i.d.'s on carts that could be quickly inserted and played and which could be automatically stopped at the beginning of the recording.

The second main commercial application was in the field of auto sound. Earl "Madman" Muntz was a former Kaiser-Frazer automobile dealer who had earned his nickname through his loud, flamboyant television commercials. His motto was "I buy 'em retail and sell 'em wholesale. It's more fun that way!" Already a national celebrity by the 1950s, he soon jumped from auto sales to electronics, opening a chain of television retail outlets. The sets he sold were manufactured by another of his other firm's, Muntz Television Inc., and they were based on a clever design that saved a few bucks on parts and assembly. The TV business had its ups and downs, and Muntz went from riches to rags when he landed in bankruptcy court in 1955,and then back to riches a few years later when the market turned around. When he discovered the Fidelipac in the early 1960s he sold Muntz TV and threw in his lot with the endless loop, never to return to his television business (although in later years he re-entered the TV industry with a line of big screen TV sets).

Muntz had inexpensive Fidelipac players custom manufactured in Japan, and licensed the music of several record companies for duplication on carts. Even though the players were intended to be installed in cars, where "hi-fi" hardly mattered, Muntz sought to enhance the appeal of his product by adopting the stereo tape standards established by recorder manufacturers a few years earlier, and his players used the new, mass produced stereo tape heads being made for the home recorder industry. These heads put two stereo programs, a total of four recorded tracks, on a standard 1/4 inch tape. Muntz players caught on quickly, starting an autosound fad in California which then began to spread east. By 1963 Muntz players were to be found stylishly adorning the underdash regions of Frank Sinatra's Riviera, Peter Lawford's Ghia, James Garner's Jaguar, Red Skelton's Rolls Royce, and Lawrence Welk's Dodge convertible, not to mention Barry Goldwater's ride (make unknown). During 1964 and 1965 a number of major labels began issuing new releases and old favorites on 4-track, and the Fidelipac looked like it was going to be the next big thing in consumer audio. A number of home players even appeared.

Suddenly Bill Lear appeared on the scene, newly world famous for his spectacularly-successful Learjet business plane, and announced in 1965 that he had developed a cartridge with eight tracks that promised to lower the price of recorded tapes without any sacrifice in music quality. In 1963,he became a distributor for Muntz Electronics, mainly in order to install 4-track units aboard his Learjets. Dissatisfied with the Muntz technology, he contacted two of the leading suppliers of original equipment tape heads, the Nortronics Company and Michigan Magnetics. He specified a head with much thinner "pole-pieces" and a new spacing that would allow two tracks (or one stereo program) to be picked off a quarter-inch tape that held a total of 8-tracks. Although a departure from the Muntz player, the technology of the closely-stacked multi-track head was by the early 1960s well established in fields like data recording. Lear in 1963 developed a new version of the Fidelipac cartridge with somewhat fewer parts and an integral pressure roller. During1964, Lear's aircraft company constructed 100 players for distribution to executives at the auto companies and RCA.

Just how Bill Lear got his products under the dashboards of Ford Mustangs and Fairlanes is a little unclear. Certainly Lear had the cachet of his successful business jet project, and had many personal contacts in industry. In a roundabout kind of way, he already had ties to Ford. In the 1930s Lear and Paul Galvin had together built Motorola into a leading manufacturer of car radios, and Motorola was now affiliated with Ford.

Lear Radio even manufactured a wire recorder briefly in the late 1940s

Whatever the details of Lear's selling job, the keys to its spectacular success seems to have been the backing of both Ford and the recording industry. After getting RCA Victor to commit to the mass production of its catalog on Learjet 8-tracks, Ford agreed to offer the players as optional equipment on 1966 models. The response, in one Ford spokesman's words, "was more than anyone expected." 65,000 of the players were installed that year alone. The machines were initially manufactured Ford's electronics supplier and the firm that had pioneered the "motor victrola" --Motorola.

Although the 8-track today is dismissed as a failure, from a contemporary standpoint it was a huge success. It was the first tape format to achieve a true, national mass market. While the projections of the promoters of recorded tape on reel-to-reel had fallen short all during the 1950s and 1960s, cart sales on 4 and 8-track grew spectacularly from the early 1960s through the 1970s. While most of this was due to the 8-track, some labels continued to issue 4-tracks into the 1970s.

Meanwhile, a number of new contenders rose up to enjoy fleeting moments of glory. Bernard Cousino, arguably the font of much of our cart technology, rendered a seemingly endless succession of endless loop technologies. He had a measure of success with his Echomatic cartridge in the 1960s as a "point of sale" or educational a-v technology, largely by adopting Eash's strategy of licensing his designs to other firms. In 1965 the success of the Echomatic spurred the Champion Spark Plug company (a subsidiary of Ford) to purchase a controlling interest in the firm. At Champion's insistence, the company became a manufacturer of Lear-style players and was a major supplier for Sears Roebuck.

Looking for greener fields, Cousino had in the early 1960s also linked up with Alabama entrepreneur and firebrand John Herbert Orr, whose Orradio Industries tape manufacturing firm had recently been acquired by Ampex and who was preparing to start a new under the name John Herbert Orr Enterprises. Orr and Cousino cooked up a new firm, called Orrtronics, which was to be a company that made a background music system based on the old Echomatic cartridge. While Ford debated the adoption of the Lear cartridge in 1965,Champion Spark Plug funded the development at Orrtronics of a competing system. This was the ill-fated "Orrtronic 8-Track", a better-sounding but commercially unsuccessful response to Lear's cart.

The obscure Orrtronics 8-Track. The "horizontal" tape playing surface can be seen as a light gray rectangle at the upper left. The slot just to the right is where the capstan contacted a friction roller to drive the tape. These were the main patentable features of the cartridge.

The Orrtronic cartridge had a somewhat different tape path that reduced strain on the tape and allowed better head-to-tape contact, and was somewhat more compact to boot. Nonetheless, no record companies seemed interested, and the idea was stillborn. Cousino continued to patent endless loop devices, such as a miniature cartridge and, in his 90s, submitted a patent for an endless loop videocassette.

Endless variations on the endless loop cart appeared during the 1960s and1970s.The best known, of course, was the Playtape, a tiny cart introduced in the fall of 1966 which later re-emerged in slightly modified form as the basis of a Dictaphone Corp. telephone answering machine in the 1970s. Answering machines, in fact, were a major source of new endless loop variations from the 1960s on. The success of the Fidelipac in radio spawned a host of imitators, including both the well known Audiopak, the Aristocart made in Canada, the Marathon made by some Massachusetts firm, and the Tapex.

The manufacture of 8-track players shifted almost entirely to Japan between1965 and 1975. There were a few valiant efforts to revive the flagging American industry, but to little avail as the foreign firms cranked players out in huge numbers using cheap labor. Nonetheless Quatron Inc., a Maryland firm, shone brightly for a few years making the (now highly desirable) Model 48 automatic 8-track changer, but its star soon faded. By the time the major record labels stopped offering new releases on 8-track, there were no domestic manufacturers of home or auto players.

Copyright 1998 by David Morton. All rights reserved. Copyright © 2005 WGENERATION.COM.