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A History of the CD

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

The history of the CD is fascinating and complex

In 1978, two of the greatest technological giants, Sony and Philips, were poised on the edge of a technological development war, both locked in a race to be the first to develop the CD (Compact Disc).

But to understand how this race began, we must look some years back in CD history, to 1957, when the digital video experiments of the Italian Antonio Rubbiani inspired a new generation of scientists to think about digital technology and the possibilities behind it.  CD history was in its infancy, but it had begun.  Twelve years later, in 1969, the experiments began in earnest and in 1970 Philips began to work on ALP (Audio Long Play), a new concept using digital audio as opposed to analogue to make longer playing discs in less space than a vinyl took up.

For a long time, however, the research was slow, and in 1978 Philips failed on its experiments with video disc technology.  Thus, to make up for this loss, it launched the new Compact Disc Project.  The idea behind the Compact Disc was that it would replace the previous vinyl analogue equipment which had dominated the market, and also replace the Compact Cassette Tape which had successfully been running alongside the vinyl for some years.  The name Compact Disc had been decided upon the year before (when Philips had begun to take more note of its digital audio research department), based on the idea that it would remind people of the Compact Cassette and it’s own success.

However Philips, though far ahead on the physical design of the CD to the point at which they had already developed commercial Laserdisc Players, simply did not have the electronic digital audio recording experience necessary to develop the technology any further.  At this time, Sony was also working on the development of the Compact Disc, but was having the opposite problem in that it had just over a decade of digital recording experience under its belt but not the physical understanding to make the CD possible.  So, at a meeting in Japan in 1979, Philips and Sony shocked the world and made a striking development in CD history by coming together to develop the Compact Disc in a joint effort.  The ceasefire was called on the developmental war and for a couple of years, the two companies worked together.  Philips was the primary designer of the disc itself; the pits and lands on the disc’s surface which are read by a laser, with no physical contact required.  On the other hand, Sony was responsible for the digital to analogue circuitry, especially the digital encoding an the error-correction code design.

In 1980, the pair brought out what is now referred to as the ‘Red Book’ format (because of the first publishment’s cover being red), which gave the standards for CDs, including specifications about recording, sampling and the size of the disc itself, which is still the same today.  At 120mm in diameter, the Compact Disc was a more portable, convenient size than the larger vinyl and could also hold more data than either vinyl or cassette tape.  The size, so legend has it, was decided on because Sony insisted that the Compact Disc must be able to hold all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony without interruption.

However, once the CD had been developed, Sony and Philips began their race again, both rushing to be the first company to release a commercial CD audio-drive.  In the end, Sony beat Philips by just one month.  So it was that on October 1st, 1982, Sony brought out the CDP-101 Compact Disc Player, a landmark event in CD history.  It was released first in Japan, then Europe but, surprisingly, did not make it to the USA until early 1983.  This new CD player was soon followed up in 1984 by Sony making the first portable CD player, again beating Philips to making CD history.

The first CD to be pressed was The Visitors by ABBA and the first album to be produced was Billy Joel’s 52nd Street Album.  In fact, despite many music label’s initial concerns, CD’s took off very well, with over one thousand different single’s and albums being brought out in the first year alone.

Although Sony and Philips had raced again in terms of technology, the still collaborated on standard for some years to come and in 1983 released the ‘Yellow Book’ standard (that’s right, this cover was yellow!) which revealed the idea of the CD-R (Compact Disc-Recordable) which allowed, by modifying the de-coding electronics of the CD, for one to be able to store data on a disc which could be read by a computer.  This was  very exciting development in CD history and the implications for technology were astounding:  CD-‘s were more reliable than the previous floppy-disc technology and they could also store a lot more data for their size.  They were also faster.  However they weren’t developed to the standard of general public use until 1990.

After this, the next massive leapt forward came in 1995, when Sony pioneered a nine company investigation in standardising DVDs, a development which had been in the pipeline for a while.  DVDs (Digital Versatile Discs) were aimed not only at replacing the analogue form of video storage, video cassettes, but could also be used in place of CD-ROMs and CD-Rs to store data for computers.  Though to this day they are not wholly standardised (we still have both DVD-R and DVD+R on the market) the conglomerate Sony put together did ensure the accessibility of DVDs to all sectors of the public.

CDs have remained popular now for many years, being used as they were initially intended, replacing vinyls and cassette tapes, but also for many more things, for instance the storage of computer data.  The technological leaps which have come out of Compact Disc history are astounding, including the advent of DVD’s and digital video recording.  A simple disc had had such an impact on our technology, and it looks as if it isn’t done yet:  Blu-Ray discs have recently been brought onto the market, increasing the high definition standards of our films, and goodness knows what else in in the pipeline as an offshoot of the Compact Disc!

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