Disc Wizards

The history and evolution of the compact disc (CD)

A look into the origins of the CD and how it has evolved over the years

In the late 1970s, the two companies Philips and Sony, separately developed prototypes in a bid to become the first to develop the Compact Disc (CD).

Below, we delve into the history of the CD and its evolution.

How it began

The story of the CD started way back in 1957 with experiments involving the rudimentary video disc by the Italian Antonio Rubbiani, that stimulated an entire generation of scientists to think along the lines of digital technology.

Almost 12 years after this, Philips started work on the Audio Long Play (ALP) disc that used the laser technology and which rivaled the traditional analogue vinyl records. The ALP discs played for longer times and occupied less space than their vinyl counterparts.

Under the guidance of the technical director (audio) in Eindhoven, the Philips team tried many experiments with the digital disc technology, including the idea of quadraphonic sound that required a disc as big as 20 cm in diameter. These experiments were later abandoned.

However, in 1978, the project took off on a more serious note and Philips launched the Compact Disc Project. The aim of the Compact Disc Project was for the new format to eventually replace both the analogue video equipment and the Compact Cassette Tape. Both were popular technologies at the time, that had been in use and established for a good many years.

The name for the project (decided in 1977), Compact Disc Project, was chosen by Philips with the hope that it would bring to peoples’ minds, the Compact Cassette’s success. Philips, by then, had started paying more heed to the work done by its digital audio research department. All this research into the project led to a very interesting juncture.

Philips, having already released the commercial laser disc player in to the market, was ahead of its competitors in terms of the physical design of the compact disc. However, Philips lacked the experience of digital audio recording to develop the compact disc any further.

On the other hand, Sony, that was also working alongside to develop the Compact Disc, had exactly the opposite problem to contend with. Whereas it had over a decade of experience in developing and implementing the best digital audio circuitry, it lacked the know-how to make the actually physical CD.

As a result of these developments, in 1979, during a conference in Japan,  Philips and Sony stunned the world with the announcement that both the companies would jointly develop the Compact Disc. Thus, a new deal was forged, and the two companies worked together for the next few years.

Engineers at Philips concentrated on the physical design of the disc: how the laser would read off the information from the pits and lands on the disc surface. Sony’s digital technology specialists worked on the analogue to digital conversion circuit design, with emphasis on the encoding of the digital signals and design of the error correction code.

How CD ‘Red Book’ Standard was developed and got its name

In the year 1980, Philips and Sony, in general acceptance of certain specifications regarding the CDs, brought out the Red Book. The name was attributed to the colour of the cover of the first publication.

The Red Book contained specifications that included the size of the disc, the recording details, the sampling, and other standards, many of which remain unchanged even today.

The CDs could be played in stereo systems, had a diameter of 120mm (making it portable and smaller than the vinyl record), and could hold an immense amount of data, much more than the vinyl record or the cassette did.

The size of the CD has an interesting story to it: Philips’ idea of a 115mm CD had to be shelved because Sony insisted that the longest musical performance should fit on to the disc, which was Beethoven’s entire 9th Symphony, at 74 minutes, and the size of the CD was increased to 120mm.

Soon after, Sony and Philips parted ways and started working separately, trying to produce their own CD-drive equipment. The first commercial CD drive was released a month earlier by Sony on 1st of October 1982, making it a notable event in the history of CD development. The CDP-101 Compact Disc Player by Sony hit the market first in Japan, followed by Europe. It did not reach the shores of America until the early part of 1983.

Sony beat Philips once again for a second time when it released the first portable CD player in the year 1984. The time was ripe for commercial CDs to make a foray into the market. The first commercial CD to be pressed was Visitors by ABBA, the Swedish pop group. Soon after this, the first album, Billy Joel’s 52nd Street, followed.

In spite of the concerns of the major music labels, the popularity of CDs soared and over a thousand different singles and albums were released in the first year alone.

The lesser known ‘Yellow Book’ standard

The second book of standards was once again a collaborative effort of the two companies in spite of the fact that both of them were still on the race separately. The Yellow Book of standards released in 1983 comprised of the basis of the Compact Disc-Recordable (CD-R).

The electronics of the CD could be tweaked in a manner such that one would be able to store data on the disc that could be read off by a computer. This was a landmark development in the history of CDs that had far-reaching effects.

CDs would prove to be an ideal replacement for the existing floppy discs and would store a large amount of data in spite of their size. They would have a greater speed that positively impacted data access times. It was 1990 by the time the standard was ready for commercial use by businesses and individuals.

The next major landmark was in the year 1995, when Sony initiated a move to standardise Digital Versatile Discs (DVDs), a plan that they had had in the pipeline. DVDs were not only expected to replace analogue video storage and video cassettes, but could also be used in computers in place of CD-ROMs and CD-Rs for data storage. The nine-company conglomerate that Sony pioneered for the purpose of standardisation ensured that DVDs could easily be accessed by the public.

However, it is also true that DVDs are not completely standardised even till today as both DVD+Rs and DVD-Rs are still available in the market, offering slightly different functionality, however the difference can be considered negligible as they are quite small.

The future of the compact disc

Although CDs have been put to many uses for several decades, including their intended designation as a replacement for analogue vinyl records and cassettes, they are also used to store, back-up and transfer computer data, and continue to remain popular as proved by recent entertainment sales figures.

The discoveries spurred by the development of CDs are, by themselves, astonishing. The development of the CD led directly to the DVD format and digital video recording. The impact of the simple disc on subsequent technology has still not stopped. The advent of the Blu-Ray disc, which brings high definition video in to our homes, is a direct descendant of the compact disc.

We wait with bated breath for the next advancement in optical disc storage.

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