When personal computers first came into the world in the late 1970s, there wasn’t always an obvious use for them. If the market was going to expand beyond hobbyists and early adopter nerds, there needed to be a “killer app”—some piece of software that could justify the purchase of a particular brand of computer.
The first killer app, VisiCalc, came out in 1979. It turned an ordinary Apple II into a financial planning tool that was more powerful and flexible than anything the world had ever seen. A refined version of this spreadsheet, Lotus 1-2-3, became the killer app that put IBM PCs in offices and homes around the world. The Macintosh, which floundered in 1985 after early adopter sales trailed off, found a profitable niche in the new world of desktop publishing with two killer apps: Aldus Pagemaker and Adobe Photoshop.
To keep up with the Joneses, the Amiga needed a killer app to survive—it found one with the Video Toaster.
The world of video in 1985 was very different from what we know today. Not only was there no YouTube, there was no World Wide Web to view video on. Video content was completely analog and stored on magnetic tape. Computers of the day, like the IBM PC and Macintosh, worked with their own digital displays that didn’t interoperate at all with the world of analog video.
The Amiga, however, was originally designed as a game console, and so it was compatible with standard television frequencies. Where the Amiga designers showed insight and forethought, however, was in creating a bridge between analog and digital. The very first Amiga contained a genlock, which matched video timings with an NTSC or PAL signal and allowed the user to overlay this signal with the Amiga’s internally generated graphics. The first person to realize the potential of this was an engineer living in Topeka, Kansas. His name was Tim Jenison.
Tim and Paul
Tim Jenison was born in 1956, the son of an electrical-mechanical engineer. He once sat on his father’s knee at age five as his dad explained Ohm’s Law. Growing up in rural Iowa, he lived far away from most people. Vacuum tubes and transistors became his best friends.
For his seventh-grade science fair project, Jenison built a rudimentary digital computer that could add and multiply numbers in base 10. He built his first real computer with a Motorola 6800 CPU hooked up to a Teletype because he couldn’t afford kits like the Altair that were popular at the time. “It was so exciting to say, ‘Wow, I have a computer!’” Jenison recalled in an interview with Wired. “But then you had to figure out what to do with it! That was the hard part.”
As a kid, Jenison dabbled in making 8mm home movies. It was a frustrating experience being an aspiring filmmaker at the time. To make any kind of edit required literally cutting and pasting film together. After dropping out of college and teaching himself engineering and programming, he started a small business selling software for the Tandy Color Computer. The very fact that the word “color” was in the name of the computer showed how primitive the technology was. Yet back then, Tim was already dreaming about doing video on a computer.
Around the same time in California, a man named Paul Montgomery went into a RadioShack to look for a device to spruce up his homemade videos. The sales manager showed him a special effects generator that cost about $450. The conversation went like this:
“This looks great! Can I fade from one image to another?” Montgomery asked.
“No, no way,” the RadioShack associate replied.
“Can it do fades at all?”
“Yeah, you can fade to black.”
“Can it do anything else?”
“Yeah, fade to red or green.”
“What about squeezing the image and flipping it?”
“No, no way. That takes a $100,000 piece of equipment. You’re never gonna find that here.”
Montgomery left the RadioShack empty-handed and disappointed.
The Amiga arrives
When Jenison read about the capabilities of the Amiga in the August 1985 issue of Byte, he went straight down to the nearest Commodore dealer and bought the first Amiga 1000 that came in. He immediately created a product called DigiView that was a simple video capture device. It would take snapshots of a single frame of video and save it to a floppy disc in the Amiga’s 4096-color HAM mode.
Jenison had saved three demo pictures on a single floppy when he ran into Jeff Bruette, a Commodore employee. Jeff asked if he could make a copy and take it back to Commodore with him. Tim agreed, but he asked that Bruette delete the disk’s READ.ME file, since it contained his home phone number. But within 24 hours, Tim’s phone started ringing. “This thing had spread all across the country,” he said.
Paul Montgomery was one of the first people to call. His friend Brad Carvey (an engineer and the brother of comedian Dana Carvey) had come over to his house and showed him the images. There was silence in the room as they stared at the pictures; it was like a religious experience. Computers weren’t supposed to be able to do things like that.
Jenison knew he had a winner on his hands with DigiView, so he sold his interest in the Tandy CoCo software company and started a new company to make video products for the Amiga. This was the beginning of NewTek. DigiView eventually sold more than 100,000 units, and it spawned DigiPaint, a paint program that worked with the Amiga’s 4096-color mode. Originally, this HAM mode was supposed to only work with static images because of the sequential algorithms used to store the data. DigiPaint simply worked around that problem to achieve what had formerly been impossible.
At the same time, Montgomery moved on to work at Electronic Arts but resigned when the company failed to live up to its founders’ goals of pushing computing forward with the Amiga. He ended up moving to Topeka and joining NewTek right at the time when the company was looking to expand with a new product.
Montgomery asked Jenison if the Amiga would be able to serve as the centerpiece for a video effects generator. Jenison liked the idea, but Montgomery kept pushing: “What about squeezing the image and flipping it?” he asked.
“No, that would take a $100,000 piece of equipment.” Jenison replied.
“OK, yeah, I knew that,” Montgomery said. “But it would be pretty cool if you could do it.”
In the story of the Amiga, there were many points in which an engineer was challenged to do something impossible. In this instance, Jenison went off and thought more about the problem. Eventually, he figured out a way to do the squeezing and flipping effect—and that was the beginning of the Toaster prototype.
The Toaster takes shape
Montgomery suggested that Jenison meet his friend Brad Carvey, who had been working on projects involving robotic vision. The three of them got together in a pizza restaurant in Topeka and started drawing block diagrams on the placemats.
Brad built the first wire wrap prototype of the board, and Jenison and software engineer Steve Kell helped get it working. In a few days, it was doing the flipping effect, and they were on their way.
The prototype was unveiled at Comdex in November 1987, causing quite a stir. By itself, the Toaster was already an impressive video effects board at an unbeatable price. But Jenison and the NewTek engineers wanted it to be much more. Their dream was for anyone to be able to afford video effects that looked as good as what professional TV studios produced. Creating a single, affordable, add-on card to replace network studio equipment seemed impossible.
In World War II, the slogan of the Army Corps of Engineers was, “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.” And despite the Amiga’s propensity for handling video, some things couldn’t be done without building new custom chips. To get the performance they needed on the software side, much of the 350,000 lines of code were written in 68000 assembly language. Finishing the Toaster took 15 engineers, three years, and 5,325 hand-made cinnamon cat candies, but the end result was astonishing.
The Video Toaster was released in December 1990 for an entry-level price of $2,399. It consisted of a large expansion card that plugged into an Amiga 2000 and a set of programs on eight floppy disks. The complete package, including the Amiga, could be purchased for less than $5,000.
For that money, an aspiring video editor received a four-input switcher, two 24-bit frame buffers, a chrominance keyer (for doing green or blue screen overlays), and an improved genlock. The software allowed video inputs to switch back and forth using a dazzling array of custom wipes and fades, including the squishing and flipping effect that Montgomery had originally wanted.
Bundled with the system was Toaster CG (a character generator to make titles), Toaster Paint (an updated DigiPaint for making static graphic overlays), Chroma F/X (for modifying the color balance of images), and the real kicker: Lightwave 3D, a full-featured 3D modeling and animation package written by Allen Hastings and Stuart Ferguson.
At the time, 3D modeling and animation was the sort of thing people did on $20,000 SGI workstations, using software that cost nearly as much as the hardware it ran on. Bundling Lightwave with the Toaster was like including a free 3D printer with a new computer. It meant that Toaster users could create any digital effect that they could imagine.
Suddenly, star wipes
The launch of the Toaster changed the entire equation of producing video content. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission had long established rules defining a minimum level of video quality called Broadcast-safe that was required to air programming on television. Consumer-level video cameras didn’t reach this level and couldn’t be used to make content for TV, and there were only a few exceptions for news programs showing short video clips taken by amateurs or in other countries. The equipment required to produce broadcast-safe video was expensive, running from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars. This meant that unless you were an employee of a major television network, you couldn’t make your own programs and show them to anyone but your friends and family.
The Toaster changed this. For less than five thousand dollars, anyone could create programs that looked as good as the networks. One of the earliest and most enthusiastic Toaster adopters was rock bands that needed to make exciting videos for MTV on a budget. Rocker Todd Rundgren got especially motivated and connected 10 Toasters together to render his revolutionary music video for the song “Change Myself.” Effects that we consider “cheesy” today, like star wipes, only became that way because the Toaster made them commonplace. Just as the Macintosh led to a brief period of font abuse in the 1980s, the Toaster made possible a time of wild transitions and fades in the 1990s. The concept of “Wayne’s World” was very much a Toaster-based phenomenon.
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