Monday, May 18, 2015

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Reel-to-Reel Tapes

If you were a kid watching science fiction TV of the 1960s and 1970s, you knew exactly what the future would look like.

It would have reel-to-reel tapes.

Lots of reel-to-reel tapes.

Those giant magnetic storage types appeared in "advanced" computers of every type during the sixties and seventies, on programs as diverse as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964 - 1965), Lost in Space (1965 - 1968), Star Trek (1966 - 1969), UFO (1970), Space:1999 (1975 - 1977) and even Wonder Woman (1975 - 1979).

This meant, essentially, the reel-to-reel tape was seen on state-of-the-art submarines, on moon-bases, in the 23rd century and far beyond.

Today we know, of course, that these reel-to-reel tapes are an artifact of the past, and aren't likely to be seen aboard the flagship of the Federation three hundred years hence. 

In a nice call-back to the era of "advanced" reel-to-reel tapes, the bunker inside the hatch on Lost (2004 - 2011) also featured...a reel-to-reel tape computer.

Where  can you see these reel-to-reel devices, specifically?

On Star Trek, check out the episode "The Menagerie," and the scene involving Spock's covert re-programming at the Starbase computer center.  

On Space:1999, the Ultra Probe is outfitted with reel-to-reel tape computers.

And on Lost in Space, you can see them in just about any episode you choose, aboard the Jupiter 2, and often in alien environs too.

Reel-to-reel tapes also appeared, of course, not only in computers, but on tape recorders, famously on Mission: Impossible.

Just recently, on AMC's Mad Men, Don Draper's ad agency got its own reel-to-reel machine too, and in one great story, one of the creative team believed the machine was sending insidious messages to the employees....

I have my own stories about this type of machine.

In the mid-1990s, I had a job at major metropolitan hospital in Charlotte, and on the top floor (one floor above the psych ward...) was a gigantic computer center.

I was frequently called upon to visit that floor and "restore" information that had deleted from the hospital's active data-base.  To do so, I had to use a giant reel-to-reel machine. It took forever to do the work, but I loved sitting at this huge computer terminal, loading the tapes, and operating in a room that looked like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Space: 1999.

It was a dream come true.


  1. David Colohan2:09 PM

    Thanks for sharing the memory. I think my interest in reel to reel tape recorders & modular synthesizers comes from seeing all those blinking lights & banks of computers in tv & film back in the day. These days I often imagine I am at the controls of Project Tic-Toc when I'm playing my synths, heh..

  2. John,

    This is why I love your blog! Who else is writing articles about the ubiquity of reel to reel tape machines in sci-fi television of the 50s through the 80s?

    This article also makes me profoundly grateful there were no tape machines on the bridge of the Enterprise. That would've dated that set considerably...yet strangely enough, they feel right at home in Space: 1999 or Lost In Space, adding a touch of retro-reality to the future, somehow.