The camcorder, or video camera, captures moving images and sound on videotape. Camcorders targeted at the amateur user came on the market in the 1980s within a few years of the first professional models. Although camcorders were initially a luxury item, reductions in their price and size boosted ownership, particularly in their birthplace, Japan.

The camcorder’s predecessor, the motion picture (cine) camera, was never found in more than a small minority of homes. In the late nineteenth century, Thomas Alva Edison in the United States and the Lumière brothers in France pioneered the development of equipment for recording and playing moving pictures for public entertainment. Early motion picture cameras were hand-cranked, which required skill and was therefore a deterrent for amateur users. To create the illusion of continuous motion, the cameras had to capture 24 images per second, each of which was shown twice (i.e., at 48 frames per second) when the film was projected for viewing. Any change in the rate of hand-cranking would ruin the illusion.

The motorization of the motion picture camera made it more user-friendly, so cheaper models designed for amateur use were marketed in the 1920s by makers such as Kodak and Pathé. Although 8 mm motion picture film was available from 1932, 16 mm remained the standard for amateur cine cameras until the 1950s when more compact 8 mm models appeared, mainly produced by Japanese companies such as Canon. Motion picture cameras still had distinct disadvantages for leisure use. One disadvantage was the need for a projector and screen to show the films, and another was the absence of sound. Although professional motion picture film incorporating a sound track was developed in the 1920s, the equipment was not economically feasible for the amateur market.

The camcorder followed in the wake of the videocassette recorder, which gave the television set a new role as a playback device rather than just a broadcast receiver. As a sophisticated piece of technology, the camcorder was initially expensive and designed as a portable tool to meet professional broadcast standards. The conventional television camera owed much of its bulk to the size and shape of the orthicon electron tube. The first generation of camcorders contained a vidicon tube, which was much shorter and slimmer than the orthicon tube. Inside the camcorder, light entering the lens strikes the faceplate of the vidicon tube. The faceplate’s photoconductive lead-oxide coating converts light to an electric charge, which is picked up by the scanning electron beam and delivered as an output signal to the video recording head. The video track is recorded diagonally across magnetic tape, whereas the sound track, recorded simultaneously through a microphone, is placed along one edge. A small screen allows the user to preview shots and to play back the recording.

As Japanese companies had become dominant in the motion-picture-camera market in the 1950s, predictably they have also dominated camcorder production. In 1982, Sony released the Betacam professional camcorder, which used half-inch tape. Sony recognized that the Betacam format, which had already been overtaken by VHS in the videocassette recorder market, was too large to be successful for consumer camcorders. In 1982, a group of electronics manufacturers, including Sony and the Dutch company Philips, agreed to work on developing a standard miniature format, Video8, based on an 8-mm tape cassette. The Japanese company JVC (Japanese Victor Company), developer of the VHS format, soon pulled out of the Video8 consortium to concentrate on a compact version of VHS. In 1984, JVC launched the world’s first compact VHS camcorder, the GR-C1. The CompactVHS cassette (VHS-C) had a running time of one hour and was only a third of the size of a standard VHS cassette, but could be placed in a special adaptor shell for playback on VHS videocassette recorders. The Video8 specification was agreed in 1983, and the first Video8 camcorders appeared in 1985. In the United States, Kodak launched the KodaVision 8 mm camcorder, which was manufactured for Kodak by Panasonic, a subsidiary of the Japanese company Matsushita. Sony’s Handycam solid-state camcorder was more compact, weighing only 1 kg (2.2 lb), and the running time of the 8 mm cassettes was ninety minutes. In the case of camcorders, absolute standardization of tape format proved to be less critical than it had been in the case of videocassette recorders, largely because there was no prerecording issue and no need to use a videocassette recorder for playback.

Camcorders had far greater inherent consumer appeal than motion picture cameras, partly because of the convenience of playback via the television set. Other advantages were that videotape entails no external processing costs and is reusable. Recordings can be viewed immediately and then shot again if the results are not satisfactory. Since the mid-1980s, camcorders have evolved rapidly. In 1989, Sony brought out Hi8, a higher resolution 8 mm tape. The replacement of the vidicon tube with solid-state imaging devices not only reduced the size and weight of camcorders, but also improved the video quality and reduced power consumption. There are two types of solid-state video pickups—the metal-oxide semiconductor (MOS) and the more popular charge-coupled device (CCD). Both consist of an array of tiny photodiodes that convert light to electrical energy, but CCDs employ a scanning method that produces a higher output signal. The CCD was invented at American Telephone and Telegraph’s Bell Laboratories in 1969 by George Smith and Willard Boyce. It was first used in Sony’s Handycam camcorder.