The History of the CD-ROM

Emily Suzuki October 13, 2022 4 min read

Throwback alert! Let’s explore the history of the CD-ROM and what the technology contributed to the electronics industry.


If you ask anyone who was a teenager in the 90s and early 2000s about the 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 sweet nostalgia. What made CD-ROMs so special? What impact have they left on technology as a whole? Let’s take a walk down memory lane.

How do CD-ROMs work?

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

Of course, as the name implies, they are limited, as they cannot record. They look just like audio CDs and store and receive data similarly. Thanks to a layer of aluminum, they’re reflective and are composed of 1.2mm polycarbonate plastic. While most are 120 mm, mini versions exist too.

When was the CD-ROM invented?

Though AOL created what is, at least nostalgically, the most memorable CD-ROM (the AOL free trial CD-ROM), they were not the first or the only. James Russell invented the earliest technology that resembled the CD-ROM while working for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory at the United States Department of Energy.

Russell hoped to create a way to store information so it could be played back later and initially proposed digital preservation using photosensitive film. Russell wanted to replace vinyl records with a device that could work without physical contact between the system’s parts.

His optical digital recording (ODR) received several awards in 1974. However, the world didn’t get a disc player until 1980, when Philips and Sony licensed it as a CD-ROM. Since the industry neglected the invention in the 70s, the world thought they’d invented it in the mid-80s. 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


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 became 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 of the CD-ROM


Microsoft launched the very first software in 1987 — 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. Video 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 distribution method 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?


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 modern laptops. Computers today 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. Thanks to the cloud, anyone can share data online, eliminating the need for additional hardware in most cases.

The legacy of the CD-ROM

We’re forever indebted to the CD-ROM, though music streaming has almost entirely replaced the technology. Younger generations may never know the feeling of buying a new CD at the mall or popping a CD into their car on the way to work. Maybe, like records, they’ll be deemed vintage and have a reemergence again one day. But for technology’s sake, the CD-ROM’s inability to change with time was its downfall.

Modern tools for modern engineers

What happened with the CD-ROM isn’t an anomaly, and Autodesk knows that. Technology moves fast, and engineers need to keep up. That’s why Autodesk Fusion 360 is continuously evolving to meet the needs of modern engineers. As tools, technology, and even the larger industry change, we’re committed to providing software that meets the needs of the modern designer. 

Take Fusion 360 for a spin today to see what we mean:

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