The Visitors, Brothers in Arms, Sing to a Happy Birthday CD

MoMA Digital Compact Disc

Photo by Wally Gobetz — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

Can you believe 25 years have passed since you first learned how to open that box?

On August 17, 1982, at a manufacturing plant outside of Hanover, Germany, Philips culminated their collaboration with Sony and pressed the world’s first audio format CD. By November of that year, there were 150 titles available, mostly of classical music. In fact, classical music was the key to the size of the disc.

Originally designed to hold one hour of music, the format and size were expanded to seventy four minutes to accommodate a complete recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The switch from analog recording to digital recording has changed the way we record, play, and store not just music but most of our non-live performances: CD, CD-Rom, DVD, Blu-Ray — you get the picture.

The inspiration for digital recording was to find a better, compact, and scratch-free sound. In fact the recording was so good that for the first time engineers noticed how dominantly some artists’ breathing patterns could affect the recording.

According to Frank van den Berg, who was with Philips-owned Polygram for CD development, “When Chilean pianist Claudio Arrau recorded one of the first CDs for Polygram we discovered that he was grunting and panting while playing. Before on vinyl you didn’t hear that but on CD it was crystal clear.” Jacques Heemskerk, one of the senior engineers for the CD player optics, predicted that the product would have a good run — maybe twenty five years. (We should check with Jacques for other predictions.)

In 1985, Philips worked with Dire Straits to promote the benefits of music on CD. Dire Strait’s Brothers in Arms, recorded completely with the new digital technology, was the first CD to sell over one million copies.

It was not until 1993 that the “ban the box” campaign succeeded in convincing record companies to get rid of the long box, designed to fit in the same display cases as records. (Where’s the “ban the cellophane wrapping that no one can open without a car key, sharp pen, or cat’s claw campaign?)

Back in 1982, as with so many romances, it all began with ABBA. Their album The Visitors was the first one made by Philips. If you watch the video you’ll get a good sense of how we all lived back then — including how to decide where to put that bulky phonograph.

Two hundred billion discs later, the CD has certainly become One of Us.

- Bill Reichblum

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