When the World Got Introduced to the Amazing Compact Disc (CD) in 1982

The first com­pact discs and play­ers came out in Octo­ber of 1982. That means the for­mat is now 40 years old, which in turn means that most avid music-lis­ten­ers have nev­er known a world with­out it. In fact, all of today’s teenagers — that most musi­cal­ly avid demo­graph­ic — were born after the CD’s com­mer­cial peak in 2002, and to them, no phys­i­cal medi­um could be more passé. Vinyl records have been enjoy­ing a long twen­ty-first-cen­tu­ry resur­gence as a pre­mi­um prod­uct, and even cas­sette tapes exude a retro appeal. But how many under­stand just what a tech­no­log­i­cal mar­vel the CD was when it made its debut, with (what we remem­ber as) its promise of “per­fect sound for­ev­er”?

“You could argue that the CD, with its vast data capac­i­ty, rel­a­tive­ly robust nature, and with the fur­ther devel­op­ments it spurred along, changed how the world did vir­tu­al­ly all media.” So says Alec Wat­son, host of the Youtube chan­nel Tech­nol­o­gy Con­nec­tions, pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture for his five-part series on RCA’s Selec­taVi­sion video disc sys­tem.

But he’s also made a six-part minis­eries on the con­sid­er­ably more suc­cess­ful com­pact disc, whose devel­op­ment “solved the cen­tral prob­lem of dig­i­tal sound: need­ing a for-the-time-absurd­ly mas­sive amount of raw data.” Back then, com­put­er hard dri­ves had a capac­i­ty of about ten megabytes, where­as a sin­gle disc could hold up to 700 megabytes.

Fig­ur­ing out how to encode that much infor­ma­tion onto a thin 120-mil­lime­ter disc required seri­ous resources and engi­neer­ing prowess (avail­able thanks to the involve­ment of two elec­tron­ics giants, Sony and Philips), but it con­sti­tut­ed only one of the tech­no­log­i­cal ele­ments need­ed for the CD to become a viable for­mat. Wat­son cov­ers them all in this minis­eries, begin­ning with the inven­tion of dig­i­tal sound itself (includ­ing the Nyquist-Shan­non sam­pling the­o­rem on which it depends). He also explains such phys­i­cal process­es as how a CD play­er’s laser reads the “pits” and “lands” on a dis­c’s sur­face, pro­duc­ing a stream of num­bers sub­se­quent­ly con­vert­ed back into an audio sig­nal for our lis­ten­ing plea­sure.

The CD has also changed our rela­tion­ship to that plea­sure. “If CDs marked a new era, it is per­haps as much in the way they sug­gest spe­cif­ic ways of inter­act­ing with record­ed music as in ques­tions of fideli­ty,” writes The Qui­etus’ Daryl Wor­thing­ton. “The fact CDs can be pro­grammed, and tracks eas­i­ly skipped, is per­haps their most sig­nif­i­cant fea­ture when it comes to their lega­cy. They loos­ened up the album as a fixed doc­u­ment.” Para­dox­i­cal­ly, “they’re also the for­mat par excel­lence for the album as a com­pre­hen­sive, self-con­tained unit to be played from start to fin­ish.” Even if you can’t remem­ber when last you put one on, four­teen mil­lion of them were sold last year, as against five mil­lion vinyl LPs and 200,000 cas­settes. At 40, the CD may no longer feel like a mirac­u­lous tech­nol­o­gy, but we can hard­ly count it out just yet.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Sto­ry of How Beethoven Helped Make It So That CDs Could Play 74 Min­utes of Music

Dis­cov­er Rare 1980s CDs by Lou Reed, Devo & Talk­ing Heads That Com­bined Music with Com­put­er Graph­ics

The Sto­ry of the Mini­Disc, Sony’s 1990s Audio For­mat That’s Gone But Not For­got­ten

When Movies Came on Vinyl: The Ear­ly-80s Engi­neer­ing Mar­vel and Mar­ket­ing Dis­as­ter That Was RCA’s Selec­taVi­sion

How Vinyl Records Are Made: A Primer from 1956

A Cel­e­bra­tion of Retro Media: Vinyl, Cas­settes, VHS, and Polaroid Too

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • Mike says:

    I recall going to an ear­ly demon­stra­tion of this tech­nol­o­gy in NY. Think­ing it was pre-80’s and host­ed by Phillips. The play­er was a huge ear­ly pro­to­type. Sound qual­i­ty was good but an audio­phile advance­ment was not the goal.

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