Magnetic tape is a medium for magnetic recording, made of a thin magnetizable coating on a long, narrow strip of plastic. It was developed in Germany, based on magnetic wire recording. Devices that record and play back audio and video using magnetic tape are tape recorders and video tape recorders. A device that stores computer data on magnetic tape is a tape drive (tape unit, streamer).
Magnetic tape revolutionized broadcast and recording. When all radio was live, it allowed programming to be prerecorded. At a time when gramophone recordswere recorded in one take, it allowed recordings in multiple parts, which mixed and edited with tolerable loss in quality. It is a key technology in early computer development, allowing unparalleled amounts of data to be mechanically created, stored for long periods, and to be rapidly accessed.
Today, other technologies can perform the functions of magnetic tape. In many cases these technologies are replacing tape. Despite this, innovation in the technology continues and tape is still widely used.
Over years, magnetic tape can suffer from deterioration called sticky-shed syndrome. Caused by absorption of moisture into the binder of the tape, it can render the tape unusable.
Magnetic tape was invented for recording sound by Fritz Pfleumer in 1928 in Germany, based on the invention of magnetic wire recording by Valdemar Poulsen in 1898. Pfleumer's invention used an iron(III) oxide(Fe2O3) powder coating on a long strip of paper. This invention was further developed by the German electronics company AEG, which manufactured the recording machines and BASF, which manufactured the tape. In 1933, working for AEG, Eduard Schuller developed the ring shaped tape head. Previous head designs were needle shaped and tended to shred the tape. An important discovery made in this period was the technique of AC biasing which improved the fidelity of the recorded audio signal by increasing the effective linearity of the recording medium.
Due to the escalating political tensions, and the outbreak of World War II, these developments were largely kept secret. Although the Allies knew from their monitoring of Nazi radio broadcasts that the Germans had some new form of recording technology, the nature was not discovered until the Allies acquired captured German recording equipment as they invaded Europe in the closing of the war. It was only after the war that Americans, particularly Jack Mullin,John Herbert Orr, and Richard H. Ranger were able to bring this technology out of Germany and develop it into commercially viable formats.
The practice of recording and editing audio using magnetic tape rapidly established itself as an obvious improvement over previous methods. Many saw the potential of making the same improvements in recording television. Television ("video") signals are similar to audio signals. A major difference is that video signals use more bandwidth than audio signals. Existing audio tape recorders could not practically capture a video signal. Many set to work on resolving this problem. Jack Mullin (working for Bing Crosby) and the BBC both created crude working systems that involved moving the tape across a fixed tape head at very fast speeds. Neither system saw much use. It was the team at Ampex, led by Charles Ginsburg, that made the breakthrough of using a spinning recording head and normal tape speeds to achieve a very high head-to-tape speed that could record and reproduce the high bandwidth signals of video. The Ampex system was called Quadruplex and used 2-inch-wide (51 mm) tape, mounted on reels like audio tape, which wrote the signal in what is now called transverse scan.
Later improvements by other companies, particularly Sony, lead to the development of helical scan and the enclosure of the tape reels in an easy-to-handle cartridge. Nearly all modern videotape systems use helical scan and cartridges. Videocassette recorders are very common in homes and television production facilities though many functions of the VCR are being replaced. Since the advent of digital video and computerized video processing, optical disc media and digital video recorders can now perform the same role as videotape. These devices also offer improvements like random access to any scene in the recording and "live" time shifting and are likely to replace videotape in many situations.