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The History Of The Compact Disc

30 years ago today, workers in a factory outside of Hanover, Germany played host to executives from Polygram, Sony and Philips. These executives were here to see something they knew was going to be special. After a while, they were handed a small, circular disc. These executives were holding the first Compact Disc ever pressed. 30 years have passed since that day, and now, on the technology’s 30th birthday, we take a look back at how it became one of the world’s most popular formats.

The CD was conceived in a meeting between Philips (then known as Royal Philips Electronics) and Sony in 1979. The two companies argued about what size, shape and technology the CD should support. It was eventually settled on a disc of 115 millimetres in diameter and 74 minutes worth of storage. Why 74 minutes? To fit Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, of course.

Sony & Philips announce a joint CD taskforce in 1979. Credit: Philips

It measured 1.2 millimetres thick and spun at around 500 RPM on the inside of the disc.

The CD marked a transition from analogue technology to digital sound and it has paved the way for advancements in entertainment the likes of which couldn’t be fathomed at the time. The first CD ever made was pressed on August 17, 1982. It was actually a pressing of ABBAs The Visitors album.

The head of Philips’ CD-Lab, Joop Sinjou, with the first CD. Credit: Philips

It took a few months for CDs to hit the market, but by the time they reached shelves in November of 1982, 150 titles were available. ABBAs album was one of them, and it was joined by a slew of classical music titles.

The first CD player was the oh-so trendy Sony CDP-101 for the insane price of $US1000. It was seen as far too cost prohibitive for the average consumer to buy but it was the first portable, durable CD player the world had ever seen.

Sony CDP-101. Credit: Atreyu/Wikipedia

CDs were first released in Japan, and by March of 1983, the discs had made their way to the US and Europe. By that time, there were over 1000 titles on compact disc and the digital revolution was well and truly underway.

Despite the fact that CDs were gaining traction around the world, a lot of bands were still releasing their tracks on multiple formats. It took Dire Straits, one of the world’s biggest band at the time (you know, The Sultans!), to take the plunge and release their album “Brothers in Arms” on digital only to promote the format. As a result, it was the first CD ever to sell over a million copies. This was the tipping point for the humble compact disc.

Over the next 20 years, 200 billion CDs would be sold, while at the same time, the technology rapidly evolved to fit new purposes like video.

The CD met traditional computing tech in 1991 when the CD-i format was minted. The CD-i was designed to hold video, lyrics, animations and other interactive content that could be played with a compatible player. Within a year, 50 titles were available in CD-i format.

The Video CD took off in 1994 and was pitched by co-founder Sony for the recording and playback concerts, karaoke or to play interactive content pitched at children. Nobody would blame you if you hadn’t heard of the Video CD, though, as the superior DVD format quickly sprung up to kill it.

The Digital Versatile Disc (or digital videodisc as it was known in the 1990s) won a format war against the Video CD and several other formats in 1995 to become the most popular way to distribute video discs. It was invented by Philips, Sony, Toshiba and Panasonic and eventually went on to kill the humble VHS tape much like CD had killed analogue audio before it.

Meanwhile, people at home wanted to get in on the CD action, and in 1997, the first rewritable CD — the CD-RW — hit the market. The problem of price came into the equation once again, though which prevented their immediate take off. The co-founder of the format — Philips — came back into the fold and released a CD-RW writer in the same year. Discs for the rewritable format were flogged off at €5.45 each.

Formats gradually evolved and recordable CDs were replaced by recordable DVDs and then recordable Blu-ray took the stage.

Despite a successful 30 years, the CD is now facing an uncertain future.

CD sales began declining in 2000 due to the increasing popularity of a new digital format known as the MP3. Labels began noticing the decline of sales and in 2003, many of them were presented with an idea by a technology executive by the name of Steve Jobs. The idea was for a centralised store where music could be sold and downloaded to a user’s computer was an instant winner, with almost 300,000 tracks sold in the first 24 hours of the service opening. The iTunes Store as we know it today has sold over 1 billion songs and spawned hundreds of other digital music markets like it the world over.

All the while, the CD is still in the Autumn of its years, as record stores that built their business model on the CD like HMV and Sanity are forced close their doors all over the country.

So tonight, make sure to go home and pull out your favourite CD and give it a play, for old time’s sake.

Top image: John Ward


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