The 35th anniversary of the compact disc

Aug. 11, 2017
by Mark Ollig

Aug. 17, 1982 at the Philips manufacturing plant in Langenhagen, Germany, history was being made.

Rolling down their assembly line were thousands of round, palm-sized plastic plates giving off a shiny rainbow luster.

It was the “passing of the torch” from analog vinyl records to digital plastic-coated discs.

When I was in high school, a CD was a “certificate of deposit” a person would buy at the bank and hold on to and earn some interest.

CD also stands for compact disc.

“It’s 2017; what’s a compact disc, grandpa?”

Going back to 1979, Holland’s Royal Philips Electronics and the Sony Corp. of Japan engineers formed a task force to design a revolutionary type of digital audio disc.

While Philips manufactured the compact disc and laser technology, Sony Corp. contributed their digital encoding expertise.

Not long ago, I was having lunch with my youngest son.

Our conversation found its way to discussing how my generation listened to music when I was in high school.

I told him we used cassette and 8-track tape players, 33 LP and 45 rpm vinyl records, transistor radios, the home stereo tuner, and of course, the AM car radio.

As I described how a 45 rpm record held only one song on each side, he shook his head at me in disbelief.

When I told him we played those records on our hi-fi stereo turntables, he tilted his head to one side wondering what I was talking about.

I explained hi-fi meant “high-fidelity” sound, and described why we called it a “tuner” and a record player a “turntable.”

Back in the day, yours truly would buy a single 45 rpm record just for the song recorded on the one side.

The flip-side of the record usually had a filler song we didn’t listen to – unless it was a Beatles 45 rpm record, in which case both sides were played.

For those wondering, it was March 31, 1949, when RCA introduced the 45 rpm vinyl record to the world.

A CD’s appearance reminds me of a vinyl 45 rpm record.

CD’s have a spiral of tiny pits in them where the encoded digital data bits (1s and 0s) are stored – somewhat similar to the jagged spiral grooves on a vinyl record which holds analog information.

The CD’s audio is scanned by a laser to obtain the data; somewhat analogous to how a record player’s needle in the tone-arm captures the modulated analog sound from the vinyl’s grooves, while the record spins.

The popular thing about CDs is that they don’t wear out like my old 45 rpm records; plus, they held more than two songs.

The sound quality from the CD remains constant for a long period, as there’s no physical contact of the laser to the disc medium.

Feeling nostalgic, I located a 1970s vinyl 45 rpm music record I had in storage, blew off the dust, installed the round, plastic yellow spindle adapter insert, and played it on my old turntable.

The needle was a bit worn, and I probably should have cleaned the record off with some vinyl oil; however, the analog audio off the vinyl still sounded pretty good.

I forgot how accustomed we had become to hearing the occasional “pops” and “hisses” on a record.

While browsing through some articles about the history of the CD, I learned the agreed-upon design of the CD was in fact, based on the shape of a vinyl record.

I also found one interesting explanation of how the circular circumference of the CD came about.

One story said it was made to match the size of a Dutch beer coaster.

This anecdote may have originated in the offices of Holland’s Royal Philips Electronics, where I assume they drank a lot of beer.

Interestingly, the hole in a CD is the same size as a Dutch coin.

One hour’s worth of recorded audio content storage was originally planned for a single CD.

Instead, Sony Corp. reportedly decided to design the audio length of a CD based upon a famous conductor wanting the disc large enough to hold Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

And so it came to be, one CD would hold 74 minutes’ worth of digital audio.

The very first CD player was sold by Sony Corp. in Japan Oct. 1, 1982.

By 1986, CD players were outselling record players; and by 1988, CD’s outsold all vinyl record sales.

2007 marked the production of the 200 billionth CD.

A very detailed history about the CD is available on the Philips Research webpage: “The history of the CD – The beginning” at: http://philips.to/2wrNWwL.

Of course, these days most folks listen to digitized music directly from the cloud; but for me, the music from analog vinyl over a pair of JBL L96 speakers still sounds cool and groovy.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @bitsandbytes.

This article was originally published August 27, 2007, and has been modified by the writer.

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