Ampex is an electronics company most famous for magnetic audio and videotape recorders during the 1940s-50s. “Ampex” stands for the initials of its founder, Russian aviator Alexander M. Poniatoff (plus “ex” from Excellence). In 1944, together with the owner of Dalmo-Victor, Alexander Poniatoff developed a prototype airborne radar antenna for the US Navy, who chose their design (against those from companies like Westinghouse, GE…) because of their use of specialized small light-weight magnet motors and generators – which were then unavailable in the open market.
Alexander Poniatoff set up his first office at the loft of Dalmo-Victor’s building in San Carlos, where he started producing these magnet motors with a crew. Ampex eventually became the leading manufacturer of airborne radar antennas during the war; and as the company expanded with wartime production, it was moved into a larger facility in San Carlos. By 1966 the company was also producing 90 percent of the nation’s submarine antennas, and was building communications antenna systems for NASA lunar missions.
When the war ended, Ampex had to shift to other product lines, starting with high fidelity sound systems. This eventually led to the development of magnetic audio recorders – their first customer being renowned singer Bing Crosby. The CBS radio network became the first in history to regularly broadcast recorded material when they ordered several Ampex machines to record Crosby’s shows. By the end of the 1940’s, Ampex was a leader in the field of magnetic recording for entertainment – a means to store information quickly and more compactly than any other medium then available.
As sales of audio recorders sky-rocketed, this funded the creation of the next big thing for Ampex: videotape recording. The portable videotape recorder by Ampex revolutionized the television industry when they first introduced VTR-1000 in 1955, thus introducing the word “videotape” (the term “videotape” was originally an Ampex trademark). Although Ampex is not the original inventor of videotape recording, its recorders had key improvements which became the standard in television studios for years to come.
PHOTO: Promotional image of Ampex products to be marketed in fiscal year 1965 (Ekkehart Willms Collection, History San Jose)