Archive for the ‘Electronics’ category

Bell & Howell: The King of Home-Eight Movies

September 8, 2008

Admit it: in today’s plasma-centric, ultra high-def, 7.1 surround sound three-dimensional home theater world we inhabit, there is something almost achingly beautiful about viewing old 8mm home movies from the 1950s, 60s and 70s. About seeing our childhood memories silently unfold in all their grainy, blurry, jittery, over-exposed glory, with no soundtrack other than than the staccato click-clattering of the projector.  The company that made many of those campy 8mm home movies possible was Chicago-based Bell & Howell.  Home movies on 8mm had been around since the 1930s but erupted in popularity with the post-World War II baby boom. If your parents still have dusty reels of old 8mm home movies stacked in the attic, chances are good they were either taken on a Bell & Howell movie camera or displayed on a Bell & Howell projector.  Indeed, it was a Bell & Howell camera in the hands of Abraham Zapruder that captured the JFK assassination in Dallas – probably the most infamous 26 seconds of film in history: Zapruder\’s Bell & Howell

After years of declining margins due to competition from Japan, in 1979 the company exited the amateur filmmaking business it had once dominated. Thus began a rather rapid dilution of the brand.   By the time the company was purchased in a leveraged buyout in the mid-1980s, the company had made 36 acquisitions in about a dozen years, 35 of which reportedly proved less-than-satisfactory.  The company that had once had a sharp focus on what it did better than anyone else had become a bloated conglomerate with interests as far ranging as vocational schools and mail sorting equipment, and, intriguingly, even personal computers.  Check this out: Bell&Howell Computer

One of the more collectable B&Hs is this 1974 sound camera: 1974 B&H. In today’s high-tech world of high-def camcorders and blue-ray discs, it’s easy to forget that until the advent of the camcorder and VCR in the 1980s the vast majority of home movies were silent films! Personally, I think that only adds to their charm.

Give the strong equity of the brand it had spent decades building for its core amateur film business, it seems curious that Bell & Howell chose not to preserve its unique identity.  Certainly it must have had at least as much awareness among enthusiasts as Kodak well into the 1970s.  For a brand that was synonymous with “home movies”, it seems it would have been a natural to help guide consumers in making the transition from film to videotape.  Yet, to my knowledge, no consumer camcorder or VCR ever featured the Bell &Howell brand. Although they did play in videotape early on, at least on the commercial side — as this 1968 users manual attests: 1968 Bell & Howell Videotape Recorder

Bell & Howell, once the serial acquirer of more than 100 companies, itself became the target of a leveraged buyout in the mid-1980s. In 2001 it became ProQuest and since then the Bell & Howell brand has been sliced and diced across so many different products, services and companies it has become utterly undifferentiated.  Example: takes you to a German company called bowebellhowellthat apparently bought out some of B&H’s document preparation and mailing equipment subsidiaries in 2003.