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The History of the CD-ROM

Cesca Fleischer


The History and Legacy of the CD-ROM

If you ask anyone who was a teenager in the 90s and early 2000s what comes to mind when you say CD-ROM, their eyes will light up like the shiny underside of the object you’ve inquired about. As you try to redirect their attention, they’re already in another world, eyes glazed over with the sweet nostalgia of the AOL free trial CD-ROM so many slid into their disc drive—the promise of internet so close, and yet so far away.

Though AOL created what is, at least nostalgically, the most memorable CD-ROM, they were not the first or the only. The CD-ROM, or compact disc read-only memory, in all of its non-erasable, non-writable glory, existed long before it infiltrated our systems with its youthful promise of infinite information.

Practically Ancient History


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CD-ROM drives are read by optical means and use laser beams to read binary (digital) data that is encoded on little pits on the optical disc. The drive gives the data to a computer, which then processes it. The CD-ROM was popular thanks to its low cost and higher storage, as compared to the floppy disc.

Of course, as the name implies, they are limited, as they lack the ability to record. They look just like audio CDs and store and receive data in a similar way. Thanks to a layer of aluminum, they’re reflective and are composed of 1.2mm of polycarbonate plastic. While most are 120 mm, mini versions exist too.

The earliest technology resembling the CD-ROM was invented by James Russell, who worked for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory at the United States Department of Energy. He hoped to create a way to store information so that it could be played back later and initially proposed digital preservation using photosensitive film. Russell wanted to replace vinyl records and wanted a device that could work without actual physical contact between the system’s parts.

His optical digital recording (ODR) received a number of awards in 1974, though the world didn’t get a disc player until 1980 when Philips and Sony licensed it as a CD-ROM. Because the idea had been largely neglected after 1974, the world thought they’d invented it in the mid-80s, and the companies did little to dissuade this notion. In 1982, Japanese company Denon developed what we know as a CD-ROM and introduced it with Sony at a computer show in 1984.

A More Modern CD-ROM


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The new version of the digital preservation device came in what we think of as a CD-ROM format and stored graphics, text, and hi-fi stereo sound on a shiny CD that appeared in the Red Book, part of a line referred to as Rainbow Books, which outlined the specifications for CD-ROMs, by Phillips and Sony. The book outlined the specifications of the CD-ROM, which could hold 650 million bytes and soon became the standard.

In 1989, the CD-ROM was standardized with the ISO/IEC 10149 standard and ECMA-130 standard. The Green Book came out, which addressed the technology of CDs and worked to combine audio and data with full motion video. The technology belonged only to Phillips.

The Rise and Fall


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Microsoft launched the very first software in 1987, which was the Microsoft Bookshelf. It came on CD-ROM and was followed in 1991 by the Commodore Dynamic Total Vision, featuring a CD-ROM drive. Macintosh by Apple released the Macintosh IIvx in 1992 with a CD-ROM drive, and video game manufacturers began using the technology to get their products to market in 1992. Eventually, transfer speed increased from single speed 1x to 72x as the CAV drive took over in the 21st century. The CD-ROM quickly became the primary method of distribution for software and video games.

In the early 90s, the CD-R (for recordable) was released, and in 1995, the digital video disc—also known as the DVD.

What Happened to the CD-ROM?


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Sure, compared to a car, a CD-ROM is small. But compared to a laptop, they take up a lot of space. This also means that the disc drive that reads them takes up a lot of space—way too much for a tablet and pushing it for most laptop computers. Modern computers simply don’t allow space for the CD-ROM. Instead, that space is used to extend battery life, improve performance, or boost graphics solutions for gaming.

For such a big object, the CD-ROM yields comparatively low storage next to more modern solutions. DVDs and then Blu-ray discs presented far more space, followed by terabyte drives and then hard drives and solid state drives, which made the CD-ROM nearly obsolete.

Furthermore, the need to store and transport media has become largely obsolete. The smartphone has replaced the camera, video camera, DVD player, and digital music player, among other things. Software is digitally distributed, too, which is less expensive than sending out that shiny CD to mailboxes on a consistent basis—not to mention ongoing issues with compatibility.

Ultimately, the CD-ROM has become more of a transitory object, used to store items as they are transported from one machine to another, converting physical media into digital files to be played back on other machines.

What It All Means


We’re forever indebted to the CD-ROM, though children born today will probably never encounter one, instead relying on whatever the Buzzfeed equivalent of the time is to present them a listicle romanticizing objects of the past. Maybe they’ll be deemed vintage and experience a resurgence as hipster art. But for technology’s sake, the CD-ROM’s inability to change with time is its downfall. Unlike the SSD, which continues to evolve as new technology becomes available, the CD-ROM was nothing if not consistent.

It isn’t an anomaly, and Autodesk knows that, which is why you’ll continue to see Autodesk EAGLE pivot into a tool that keeps up with the modern engineer. As tools, technology, and even the larger industry change, we’re committed to providing software that meets the needs of the modern designer. Download your free version of EAGLE today.

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