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James over at Cinemassacre undertook to find out how many times you could copy VHS footage before it became completely unwatchable. It’s not exactly a well-controlled experiment: He doesn’t report the equipment he used to do the copying or the kind of tape involved and, somewhat annoyingly, he does not actually report the number of clips he spliced together to make his 3-minute video. Determining at what point the noisy footage is “unwatchable” is also sort of arbitrary. Still, interesting to watch. I personally counted 63 generations before the footage decayed into meaningless audiovisual noise. [Thanks, Billy Baque!]

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I write for MAKE, serve as Technical Editor for MAKE magazine, and develop original DIY content for Make: Projects.



  1. migpics says:

    With each copying of the tape it seems to get more violent.

  2. MEGABÂ¥TE says:

    do that enough times, and presto! a cellular automata!!

  3. Warphammer says:

    I remember the first time I saw this in action rather than as a theory, on the VCR edition of Secret Life of Machines:

    If you’ve not seen, it’s worth watching the whole thing (making your own audiotape from sticky tape and rust, for example), or really, the whole series.

  4. trialex says:

    Tim Hunkin also demonstrated this in his excellent show “The Secret Life of Machines”.

    It was actually a good metaphor for life too – your cells make copies of themselves over and over – each time with a tiny bit of error (aging) until the errors are too great (death)

  5. W P Tunes says:

    Reminiscent of a late 1960′s piece by composer Alvin Lucier called “I Am Sitting in a Room”. A simple text is recorded, then played back into the room, with the playback recorded by another tape recorder. Repeat the process long enough and all semblance of words disappears, leaving behind an eerie curtain of sound built from the resonant frequencies of the room the piece is “performed” in. The Wikipedia article below has the text and further description. The UbuWeb Alvin Lucier page links to a copy of the original recording.