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8-Track cartridge

Between the giant industries of vinyl records and cassette tapes, the 8-track cartridge had its run of popularity in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States. In Europe 8-track has never been of much us at all. The original magnetic tape method of reproducing sound was reel-to-reel[?], first made available in the 1940s. However, the machines were bulky, and the reels themselves were more difficult to handle than vinyl records. Born from the desire to have an easier to use tape format, the enclosed reel mechanism was introduced in the mid 1950s.

The cartridge was designed (in 1956) around a single reel, and the two ends of the plastic recording tape were fastened together with a piece of reflective silver tape that made it one continuous loop. A motorized roller in the player rolled against a roller inside the cartridge to pull the tape across the open end of the cartridge where the read-head in the player was. The recording tape was pulled from the inside of the reel, passed across the opening at the end of the cartridge, and wound back on the outside of the same reel. Originally there were four monaural or two stereo "program" tracks (of 2 tracks each, for "right" and "left" speakers). When the silver tape marking the end of one "program" passed across the read-head, it signaled the player to switch to the next program track, so the cartridge played continuously with no re-winding. Later, the length of time one cartridge would play was doubled by recording four stereo tracks on the tape; this made each of those tracks half as wide, so the quality of the sound was not as high. That design was dubbed "8-track" to distinguish it from the original format, which then became a "4-track cartridge" by back-formation.

The popularity of both 4-track and 8-track carts grew from the booming automobile industry, as a convenience accessory. The public reacted positively to this, and in 1965 Ford Motor Company introduced built-in 8-track players as a custom option. By 1966, all of their vehicles offered this upgrade. Thanks to Ford's backing, the 8-track format eventually won out over the 4-track format.

Despite constant derision about poor audio quality and the problems of fitting a standard vinyl LP album onto a four-program cartridge, the format gained steady popularity due to its extreme convenience and portability. Until 1967, when manufacturers introduced home players, the quality concerns did not reduce either reel-to-reel or vinyl-record sales, especially among audio enthusiasts.

With the availability of cartridge systems for the home, this changed. People started thinking of 8-tracks as a viable alternative to vinyl records, not just as an automobile convenience. Within the year, releases on 8-track began to come along nearly at the same time as vinyl releases, and things looked as though the cartridges might overcome record sales after all.

However, another format was just beginning to appear: The compact audio cassette, less than 1/4 the size of an 8-track cartridge. It turned out that 8-track cartridges had merely set the stage for the handier, recordable cassettes that proved the eventual doom of vinyl records and 8-tracks, too. However, 8-track players still remained a common feature in homes and automobiles until the early 1980s, slowly fading into obscurity. By the time the compact disc arrived in the late 1980s, the 8-track had all but vanished, found mostly among collectors and the occasional old home deck.

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