The CD Player, and the Commercial CD, Turn 30

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Before they were outmoded, they were The Future.

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If you are a 1.2-mm-thick circle of polycarbonate plastic used to store digital data, then today is a bittersweet one. On the one hand: You are, sorry to say it, a compact disc. You are part of the long line of data storage devices -- the cylinder phonograph, the vinyl record, the audiocassette, the CD-ROM, even the flash drive -- that have been made either obsolete or quaint by other, better storage technologies.

On the other hand, though: Today is a milestone for you. Thirty years ago, on October 1, 1982, the first audio CD players were released to the public -- and with them, the first commercially available audio CDs. (CDs had been first manufactured, by the Philips company, in August of the same year.) Sony released its CDP-101 player -- a bulky affair that, for better or worse, doesn't look all that different from the stereo systems we still use today -- to the Japanese public for around $730. The device offered the same play/pause/fast-forward-rewind buttons that consumers had become accustomed to in their cassette players. But it included a significant innovation: the slide-out tray that would become the standard, if not the universal, loading mechanism for CD players throughout the years they dominated the market. 

And along with its new machine, Sony would launch, through a collaboration with CBS, the world's first 50 CD titles -- the first of them being Billy Joel's 52nd Street.

Here is the CDP-101 in action, in all its pulsing, plodding glory:

In retrospect, in a world of iTunes and Spotify and Pandora, it's easy to make fun of a technology that is, to 2012 sensibilities, bulky and unwieldy and pricey -- a machine whose principal failing is, like so many other machines nowadays, the fact that it is made of atoms. But it's also worth remembering that the commercialized CD ushered in nothing short of a technological revolution in the music industry. It brought about the shift from analog to digital music that would lead to the MP3 and the many innovations that came with it. It facilitated the move away from LPs by allowing individual tracks to be displayed more readily as singular units. And it was, Philips points out, "the first ever digital mass consumer product to find its way into almost every consumer's home." 

It's also worth remembering a broader, and maybe just slightly sadder, thing: that when compact discs and their players were introduced in 1982, CDs were The Future. Not only were they decided on as the standard for digital audio discs by the music industry; they were also futuristic in a more aesthetic way. They were almost impossibly thin. They had that knowing, mirrored gleam. They let you skip from song to song, fast-forwarding and rewinding digitally rather than mechanically. They could endure scratches and still, for the most part, work. Their sound quality was relatively sharp and relatively clear. You could write directly on their surfaces -- a nice quality for recording devices that had the potential to store the next generation of mix tapes. CDs were, in short, a vast improvement over what had preceded them, and were, as a technology, pretty advanced for their time. Even when they were playing Billy Joel.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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