In 1887, the gramophone made it possible to hear sounds, such as voices or music, that had been physically recorded on a flat disk. Less than 100 years later, those recorded sounds could be represented by zeros-and-ones.
But what is sound? Vibrations in the air, right? Those vibrations pass through our eardrums as a continuous wave, and our brains interpret the vibrations as sounds (which might harmonious or dissonant).
We must capture those vibrations, sound, in such a way that we can play them back. The first invention that captured sound created a drawing of the wave; there was no attempt to recreate the sound, just to record it. Thanks to science and math, the singular groove in a vinyl record can recreate those vibrations as a continuous wave like the original.
It was the dawn of record companies.
In 1921 General Electric acquired the American branch of Marconi Wireless Telegraph and renamed it “Radio Corporation of America” (RCA). In 1924 the Music Corporation of America (MCA) was founded in Chicago as a talent agency, and the German record company Deutsche Grammophon (DG) opened the Polydor company to distribute records abroad.
That physical groove on a record, however, can collect dust or scratches which will affect (degrade) what we hear. It was that imperfection which inspired American physicist James Russell to attempt to improve record players.
A graduate of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, Russell worked for General Electric at the Hanford Nuclear Plant in Richland, Washington.
He was among the first to use a color TV screen and keyboard as the primary interface between computer and operator. He also designed and built the first electron beam welder.
Alone at home on a Saturday afternoon, he suddenly realized that the wear and tear on the records due to the contact from the stylus to the record can be avoided by using a light to read the music without physically touching the disk. Moreover, as he was familiar with digital data (in a punch card or magnetic tape form), he could digitally accomplish this task more efficiently and effectively. He realized that if he could make the binary code compact enough, he could store not only symphonies but entire encyclopedias on a small piece of film.
In 1966, still working at Hanford but now with Battelle Memorial Institute, Russell filed the first patent for an analog-to-digital-to-optical recording and playback system. The patent office awarded him (and Battelle) patent US3501586 on 17 March 1970.
He was (way) ahead of the curve.
By 1974, Russell could record television shows on glass plates.
In 1975, Philips Electronics delegates discounted Russell’s invention after visiting him and his lab. His compact disc, they said, might work for data but not for video or sound.
However seven years later, on 17 August 1982, Philips Electronics produced the world’s first musical compact disc. The Visitors by ABBA was that first CD-ROM. Polygram, which was then owned by Philips, “pressed” it at its German factory.
Note: CD-ROM stands for Compact Disc – Read-Only Memory
The most valuable of Russell’s 51 patents “was a method of synchronizing the data to create more than just a stream of ones and zeros.”
A key advantage of digital recording technology is that every copy is theoretically the same as the original (the “master”). There is also no physical contact during playback; the content of the CD-ROM is “read” by a laser. This eliminates the degradation that prompted Russell to tackle the problem.
How did Philips move from skepticism to the first commercial CD in less than a decade?
In 1979, Philips and Sony began jointly developing the specifications for a new music medium.
The original target storage capacity for a CD was one hour of audio content, and a disc diameter of 115 mm was sufficient for this, however both parties extended the capacity to 74 minutes to accommodate a complete performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
Piet Kramer, who at the time was a member of the optical group at Philips that made a significant contribution to the CD technology, commented on Philips’ and Sony’s collaborative work:
“When Philips teamed up with Sony to develop the CD, our first target was to win over the world for the CD. We did this by collaborating openly to agree on a new standard. For Philips, this open innovation was a new approach – and it paid off. In the late 70s and early 80s, we never imagined that one day the computing and entertainment industries would also opt for the digital CD for storing the growing volume of data for computer programs and movies.”
They licensed Russell’s digital recording patents (after a fight) but he has never received a cent.
Russell’s only payment is the gratitude of friends and others who know his story.
Philips and Sony began selling both the recordings and players in Japan that November. The catalogue contained about 150 titles, primarily classical music. They introduced the new music format in the US and Europe March 1983.
The Sony CDP-101 was the first CD-player. It retailed for about $730 (about $2,200 today).
Perhaps Sony had learned something from its drumming in the video format war (VHS v Betamax). Collaboration makes the pie larger for everyone. By mid-1985, Polygram was the world’s largest CD producer. In second place, CBS/Sony.
We’ll leave the issue of “but which format sounds the best?” for another day!