As he dreamed of steam locomotives as a child in Russia, Alexander Michael Poniatoff known as Alexi, hardly could have imagined that he would one day develop video taping technology that would forever change the world. His father, however, a prosperous lumberman in Kazan, recognized his son's engineering talent and sent him to a technical academy in Karlsruhe, Germany to study. Poniatoff had planned to build a turbine engine factory in Russia but was trapped by the outbreak of World War I.
When he returned home, he enlisted in the army for pilot training but was trapped again by civil war. He escaped to China, where he worked for the Shanghai Power Company until he immigrated to the United States in 1927.
As an experienced electrical engineer, he was in demand moving from GE to PG&E to Dalmo-Victor during World War II. There, he perfected a line of motors and generators for airborne radar systems. The wartime manufacturer of airborne radar motors became skilled at adapting its precision-tuned motors to German technology that had been developed to record sound on tape.
In 1944, Poniatoff founded his own company in Redwood City, Calif., using his initials, A.M.P., plus "ex" for "excellence" to create the name, Ampex. When singer Bing Crosby staked Ampex Corp. to develop audio recording equipment after World War II, the company began a venture that has created many of the major innovations in commercial recording technology and produced the first U.S.-built magnetic audio tape recorder in 1948 revolutionizing the radio industry.
Not long after creating the standard for audio recording in the late 1940s, Ampex produced the first data instrumentation recorder for storing large amounts of information on tape. The machines were used in laboratories and aboard aircraft to record rapidly generated scientific information.
By 1951, Poniatoff needed new products to keep the company growing. He had the idea to create a magnetic tape and a recorder for television images. He hired Harold Lindsay to design heads for the new machine and Charles Ginsburg who led a research team consisting of Milton M. Dolby, Charles Anderson, Fred Pfost, Alex Maxey and Shelby Henderson.
The team raced against several electronics companies that were pursuing the same goal but overcame technical problems to create the first commercial video tape recorder (VTR) and the tape to go with it. It was first demonstrated in Chicago in 1956 at the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) conference. The era of all-live television was over. The video tape recorders allowed the broadcast networks to delay programming for the different time zones and established Ampex as an innovator.
A portable video recorder that sold for $1,500 followed in early 1971. It was a stock market star in the early 1960s and employment swelled to 13,000 by 1969. Poniatoff's quest for excellence became the company's philosophy as it became a world leader in audio and video recording, magnetic tape, digital and analog data handling and sophisticated memory products.
He served as president until 1955, when he was elected chairman of the board. In 1970, he was named chairman emeritus. Poniatoff died in 1980.