Ampex camera truck

Ampex Model 200 prototype reproduce head

In 1944, at the suggestion of his Dalmo-Victor employer, a Russian immigrant and former aviator named Alexander M. Poniatoff (1892-1980) started a manufacturing company in the loft of their San Carlos building. This spin-off, named Ampex, developed specialized light-weight magnet motors and generators for the U.S. military’s airborne radar equipment.

Ampex grew quickly in 1944-45, moving to its own building. A year later its wartime contracts had ended and it had no post-war commercial product to sell. Poniatoff turned from motors to high fidelity sound equipment. Teaming up with Jack Mullin, then working on improvements to the German magnetophone, and encouraged by Bing Crosby, one of America’s most popular entertainers, Poniatoff dove into the production of easy-to-thread magnetic tape recorders.

Ampex prototype tape head
Ampex Model 200 prototype tape head, 1947 (Perham Collection of Early Electronics)

By the end of the 1940’s, Ampex was a leader in the field of magnetic recording for entertainment and as a means to store information quickly and more compactly than any other medium then available. In 1955, it developed the first stereo home music system, and soon after released a portable videotape recorder that revolutionized the television industry.

Above:  The first high-fidelity playback head made in America, the Ampex Model 200 prototype reproduce head. The playback head is always the most difficult part of any tape recorder to design and build. In early 1947, this was the first component that Harold Lindsay and his Ampex associates tried to make. If they had failed with the playback head, there would have been no point in continuing development of the rest of the machine.

Featured photo: Unknown artist, Perham Collection of Early Electronics

Further reading: Transcript of “The Ampex Story” talk by Harold Lindsay, 1974