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



    At a guess i would say that the disk spun at 500rpm at the outside edge also....

      Nope. 200.

        To elaborate a bit further, CDs are different to vinyl in that they don't spin at a set speed. Each block represents a bit of data; and to keep the flow of data at a continuous rate, the speed the disc spins at needs to be adjusted to suit.

          Really? Though the distances travelled and therefore speed would indeed be different (which has always weirded me out), one revolution is still one revolution and all points on a radial line have the same rpm. Explain to me otherwise

        Umh... RPM as in Revolutions Per Minute? Exactly how the CD manages to spin more times on the inside?

        Que? Revolutions per minute are identical at the inner and outer sections of a solid disk.

          True, but the drive varies the speed depending what part of the disk the head is reading from

          Yes, if the disc is spinning at a constant RPM. But as Sam points out, as the laser reads the disc from the center to the outer edge, the player's motor changes the RPM (from 500 down to about 200) so that the pits imprinted on the metal in the disc go past the laser at the same speed (about 1.2–1.4 metres per second, according to Wikipedia).

          I think it's the way the article is written that's cusing the confusion. The CD format mantains a constant linear veloity, so as te laser moves from reading the outside tracks to the inside tracks the angular velocity has to chane to maintain a constant linear velocity. Obviously when the diesk is spinning at 500 RPM, it is spinning at 500 RPM at both the inner and outer tracks, bu the player vaires the speed depending on where it is reading.

    My dad had a CDP 101. Those things were built like a tank.

    I still remember the first CD's we got. Saga's Head or Tales and Rush's Signals. They're still in his collection.

    The Sony was csot prohibitive? :) You guys need a text editor that puts little squiggly lines under incorrect spelling! :)

    Haha, yeah, it would spin at 500 RPM at any point on the disc as long as the disc was spinning at 500 RPM. The disc spins at a variable rate beginning at 500 RPM for the inner-most track, slowing down to 200 RPM for the outer-most track?

    The 500RPM would refer to WHEN THE PLAYER IS READING the inside edge of the disc (the outer edge also spins at the same RPM.

    As Sam pointed out, as the player reads towards the outer edge, the CD spin slower (CLV vs. CAV) so by the time it reads the outer edge, the disc is spinning at a much slower speed (200 according to the author)

    "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."

    You just skipped over CD-Rs there...

    Pretty sure my brother had a vinyl copy of brothers in arms. We got our first CD player in 91 I think a Sanyo boom box with two cassette decks.

      My copy of Brothers in Arms is vinly too. I don't think I'd even heard of CDs when I got it.

      I'm guessing it might have been CD-only for the first few weeks or months.

        There was a vinyl version, but the full length album didn't fit onto a vinyl disc - so it was edited down to fit. There, you're both right. Everyone wins a prize!

          Yeah it was pretty common in the late 80's / early 90's for LP Albums to be missing a track or two that was On CD. I think once CD's became mainstream there was less imputos

            Bloody phones, less of a reason to press double LP's.

        The first ever 'decent sounding' cassette was one I nicked off my dad. His mate had put Brothers in Arms on one side and ZZ Top - Afterburner on the other. Pretty good stuff for an 8yr old. It was even recorded on a 'Metal' tape with Dolby C noise reduction!!

        First ever CD was 'Bad'. Still one of the best sounding CD's I have... we'll, it was, until my brother had a party a few years back and someone nicked it.

      This is correct, it wasn't a digital-only release. Brothers in Arms was the first album that was produced with the CD in mind. It was recorded digitally and was the first album on CD to hit 1 million copies sold.

    Ahh... First CD player in '87... Died in '99 when it was replaced with a $900 multidisc machine, which is now dead too. :(

    These days I think of my CD collection as the "masters" for my music collection, which is all in FLAC and MP3.

    I've bought two albums in compressed formats (AAC and MP3), because the convenience and price was good enough. Usually CD is still the best way to get full-resolution music at an acceptable price.

    IF I could get all the music I want in FLAC for a reasonable price with decent inclusions (as you do with a CD cover booklet), I would stop buying CDs altogether. Until then, I keep my eye out for bargains at JB.

      You should look into SACD then...

        At least someone remembers Super Audio CD :P

    We were one of the first families in town to get a CD-RW drive. Prior to that, I was splitting files over a dozen floppy disks like a boss.

    And the hoops you had to jump over to burn a music (or PS1!) disc on your computer were so numerous, we had a folder of documents sitting by the computer just to know which boxes (Error Correction anyone?) you had to untick in order to get the CD running on the home CD player.

    But I hear of people talking about their first CD and some of them are cringeworthy, but I was (and still am) proud to say that my first album was Oasis : What's the Story (Morning Glory)?

    I gave all my CD's away to charity (after ripping them onto my of course :D), so I cannot go home and play a CD, but I can give a vinyl record a blast instead!

    I still buy CDs :) mostly ALL are soundtracks, however. Or classical.

    I started making MP3s in 1995 with the lame encoder for dos, within two years there were free albums everywhere and napster was born :) I pretty much stopped buying CDs then and there.

    But by the early 2000s I went through a busy period where I didn't acquire any new music and now I can buy any thing I want for under $15 and I have it on multiple devices within minutes.

    Too easy.

    My 1st cd was was purchased in 1996 and was 'The Prodigy: breath' single, and my 1st cd player was actually the 1st PlayStation, worked great.

      then my 1st DVD player was a PS2.. Was a very cheap option at the time to own a DVD player.

    Video CD was through out Asia wilst we where still using VHS , in poorer country's like Indonesia Video CD has been the norm for many years . DVD has only started to dominate in the last couple of years.
    And before anybody mentioned that they have been getting cheap pirated DVDs for a decade there it's the Locals I am talking about that still use the Video CD system to this day.

    The man in between is Herbert Von Karajan. Greatest conductor ever!

    If Apple was involved, they would be suing others to this day

    As of the 17th of July 2013, the CDP-101 would have cost the equivalent of $2568 in today's money. Bloody hell.
    Anyways, great article, helped me a heap with an assessment:)

    I have just received a 3 1/16th cd containing operating instructions with a piece of electronics. I have never seen one before, Do I need a new cd player (smaller) or can it be played safely in the one I presently have?

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