“The Rest Of The Story”…A Narrative By Neil Gjere
Thanks to Neil’s efforts, over this past week, we have been able to see things few have ever seen and get to meet the man behind the creation of the world’s first commercially available brand of video tape. Without him, we would not have been able to see the 3M ’20 Years Of Video Tape’ production from 1976, see the remaining artifacts from those early days of have the great 18 page story of how it all happened from Mel Sater himself.
Below the line is Neil’s account of the meeting with Bob Sater and the history that unfolded. Enjoy! -Bobby Ellerbee
One pass was all it took to digitize what had been sitting in a basement for thirty years. Probably because I had all manner of emergency machine cleaning supplies at the ready should I encounter a video tape “Code Blue”. If there was any question on the longevity of video tape, this performance was evidence of its durability. And probably testimonial to all of the outstanding work of 3M and the people of the program I shared earlier “20 Years of Videotape”
So now with the show safely preserved digitally, and having no real idea what to do with it, into the bag it went… For about a year. I work for the PBS affiliate here in St. Paul/Minneapolis and let me tell you, we have arguably the greatest group of donors anyone can ask for. And as a result, we maintain regular contact with them. One day, an email arrives from our head of Philanthropic Funding directed at us staff engineers in the form of a trivia question:
“Can any of you tell me what was the first show ever where video tape was used?” Of course, if you watched the previously posted show you know the answer. And at that time, so did I!
“Douglas Edwards and the News” was my reply. “But why do you ask?” I added
“Because I just had lunch with the son of the man who invented video tape and his wife, Bob and Gail Sater. And we wanted to see if we could stump you.”
Now remember, this occurred a year after my little “dub” session so the contents of that program were a very faded memory. But Sater? Yeah that rings a bell.
I throw in a copy of the DVD I managed to find after a year of storage, and there he is. Mel Sater. I replied back to our now growing email thread and explained how I came to know the answer to the trivia question oh and one final thing, “I have something Bob may be interested in seeing.” As I explained the story, I offered up a copy to our head of Philanthropic Funding to present to the Sater’s as a gesture of thanks for being the wonderful donors they’ve been to the station these many years.
As I correctly assumed, Mel was no longer with us and I thought Bob and his family would appreciate seeing their Dad again even briefly. A few days go by and I receive another email from our donor Funding area: “I just spoke with Gail Sater and she was excited at the prospect of seeing her father-in-law after all these years and they would like to meet you as well! When are you available to meet?”
Now I begin to really start wrapping my head around this, all of the moments in this story up to now that have conspired to bring me to that very moment: The recording back in ’79, the call from my teacher thirty years later with his request, the discovery of the tape, the ability to have a machine available to even play the thing giving me the ability to re-record it digitally, the chance lunch, the trivia question, and now this: I’m going to meet the guy who’s DAD invented video tape!
On the day of the meeting, I was told that the DVD’s I had previously copied with the express intent of giving them to the Sater’s prior had not reached them. At their request. “We want to watch it with you both” Gail wrote in an e-mail to us confirming our appointment. “And we have a couple of things we’d like to share with you!” Oh? I think to myself…
As you can see by the pictures, Bob Sater is very much the image of his Dad. We had a very nice chat talking about family, grandkids, retirement, Bob and Gail were truly reflective of the kindness and generosity we are very fortunate to call our supporters.
Bob told the story about how the overnight “samples” were transported to a waiting aircraft which was idling on the runway at nearby Holman Field to an awaiting Bill Wetzel to make their trip to Chicago and the awaiting Ampex demonstration. And then, I pushed play on the DVD player. A nice little smile appeared on both Bob and Gail’s faces when “Melvin” had his moment of screen time. To see that alone was worth everything I’d done to that point to recover and save this piece of recorded history.
Even if no one else In the world ever saw it but us, it was worth this moment. At the end, Both Bob and Gail thanked me and told me they’d never seen nor heard of Mel even participating in the recording and were grateful to receive a copy. “But now we have something to share with you!” Gail exclaims. And with that, Bob, reaches under the table for a grocery bag I never even noticed entering the room with them and sets it on the table before all of us.
As he reaches into the bag, I have no idea what’s coming next. He pulls out a tape box…one many of us would recognize as being responsible for many back ailments if carried in quantity. “Go ahead and open it” Bob says with a smile.
As I do, I immediately recognize it as one of the “props” used in the 3M program ’20 Years Of Video Tape’ we’d just all watched. It was the “companion” reel of tape sent to Chicago for the 1956 NAB demonstration. It appears someone else kept a few items of history as well. As you can see by the pictures, it was every bit as crude as was shown when Mel held it up in the 20 Year video. Mel’s reminder to himself was in the form of notations in his own hand in the core of the cardboard reel.
I was truly holding a piece of broadcast history. As I sat stunned by what was in front of me, Gail produces another item from the bag in the form of a manila file folder. Contained inside were a collection of memorabilia that had been collected throughout the years marking the great achievement including Mel being the recipient of a Technical Emmy award as well as Mel’s own personal notes documenting much of the work he and his colleagues performed to end up with the product I was now holding in my hands. And last but not least, a small envelope.
As I opened it, Gail begins to tell me, “That is a piece of tape from the reel used for the actual demonstration back in 1956 with Mel’s own handwriting on the label” “We’d like you to have that.” Gail ends. Wow. What does a guy say? Could I say I had a few tears? Yeah, I could say that. Yes, I have it, and Yes, I will make sure it is treated with the utmost respect due an item which literally changed the world of broadcasting forever.
As for the actual companion reel of tape? It will remain in the Sater family for now but I most certainly offered up my services to make sure it finds a proper home when the time comes. And as another great broadcast pioneer Paul Harvey “once” said: “Now you have, the rest of the story.” -Neil Gjere
Below is a photo of Bob Sater with the companion roll of tape taken to Chicago for the first Ampex demonstration of video tape.