If you watched TV during the 1980s and 1990s then you’ll probably be familiar with the work of the Quantel Paintbox, even if you don’t know it. A high-end computer system aimed at providing professional graphics for television studios, the Paintbox propelled graphics from being either painstaking or amateurish to the easy-to-use and slick presentations we see today.
Quantel was a British electronics company founded in the 1970s, early expertise in both digital and video technologies led to the creation of the Paintbox in 1981. Put simply, the original Paintbox was a true-colour digital graphics system that was years ahead of its rivals. The primary interface was a massive touch-sensitive digital tablet, but the clever end was a rack-mountable computer based on the Motorola 68000 processor but with a mass of custom-designed computer hardware to handle everything, including a massive 14" hard disk for storage. All of this was designed and built in Newbury, England.
Designed from the point of view of the digital artist, the Paintbox was both easy to use and very powerful. But all of this came at a cost - £120,000 in 1980, equivalent to about half a million pounds today. But for most established TV production companies of the time, price was not a barrier.
It wasn’t just TV, artists such as David Hockney used the Paintbox and it played a role in Dire Strait’s famous video for “Money for Nothing”, and it found its way onto eighties album covers. But on TV it was everywhere – title sequences, weather forcecasts, maps, captions… it defined the look of late 1980s television.
Buoyed by success, Quantel’s range grew to include digital libraries, animation systems and a host of other related technologies. All of this expertise made Quantel the go-to company for digital production, and despite cheaper systems such as the Video Toaster nipping at their heels it seemed that Quantel had the market sewn up. But by the early 2000s competition was becoming fiercer, and it was becoming possible to do digital editing on off-the-shelf computer systems. Quantel’s market share slipped, and they merged with rivals Snell & Wilcox, were then acquired by Belden and finally spun out into the Grass Valley company – still serving the same market, and still with an office in Newbury. The Grass Valley Rio system is the modern descendant of those 80s and 90s Quantel systems.
Martin Deutsch via Flickr - CC BY-NC-ND 2.0