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From Pinkeltje to Ubiquity: CD Turns 30

IEEE Salutes the Compact Disc on the Anniversary of the Prototype’s Debut

Today most of us take the ubiquitous compact disc for granted. But perhaps we shouldn’t. The audio CD demonstrated for the first time that through the use of digital optical recording and playback technology, outstanding audio quality could be achieved.

The IEEE recently bestowed its prestigious Milestones in Electrical Engineering and Computing Award to Royal Philips Electronics for its contribution to the development of CD technology. The award coincided with the 30th anniversary of the demonstration of a prototype on March 8, 1979.

Reporters inspect the CD prototype — code named Pinkeltje after a children’s character in Dutch literature — at a press conference in March 1979. (Image courtesy IEEE)

Actually introduced to market in 1982, the CD quickly became the first mass-produced digital consumer product to find its way into virtually every consumer’s home. To date, 3.5 billion audio CD players, 3 billion CD ROM drives and 240 billion CD discs have been sold.

The compact disc was the second major consumer audio format introduced by Philips. The company also developed the audio cassette format in 1962.


“The compact disc was a revolutionary new concept that fulfilled a great consumer demand for a robust, high-quality compact audio medium,” says John Vig, IEEE president and chief executive officer.

“By leveraging research advances in optics, mechatronics, microelectronics, digital signal processing and error control coding, a unique platform was created that has really changed the audio as well as the computing world.”

Although it was developed three decades ago, the design and development of the compact disc provide lessons for economists and technologists facing today’s economic challenges.

Despite an economic recession in the early 1980s, Philips and Sony, which collaborated on the development of compact discs, allocated funds for the development of the technology and planned for the commercial introduction of audio CD players and discs in 1982.

Rick Harwig, chief technology officer of Philips Electronics, said, “The compact disc demonstrated clearly that continued long-term investments in breakthrough innovation during an economic downturn can not only contribute significantly to the company’s success, but even have the power to revitalize a complete industry in decline.”

The award

The IEEE Milestone Award program is an initiative of the IEEE History Center.

Only 83 such awards have been given since the recognition was established.

Rob Colburn, research coordinator for awards, said, “The program was begun in 1983 as a visible means of showing the public the contributions that electrical engineering makes to our everyday lives. Our program was modeled after those of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the American Society of Civil Engineers.”

Each award acknowledges an outstanding achievement that occurred at least 25 years ago in the areas of electrical, electronic, computer engineering and associated technologies. Awards recognize excellence in technology that benefits humanity through unique products, services, seminal papers and patents.

Proposals for Milestones are submitted to the IEEE History Committee. Nominations usually come from IEEE organizational units such as sections, societies or chapters. A member of the committee acts as an advocate for the proposal, and guides the nominators through the process. Documentation is submitted to support the authenticity of the proposed milestone.

“Documentation can take the form of chapters from books, copies of patents, lab notebooks, newspaper accounts, or other records that establish the date that an event occurred,” Colburn said.

Upon approval of the History Committee, the nomination is submitted for approval by the IEEE board. Typically the time from submission of the initial proposal to dedication of the Milestone is nine to 15 months. Once the milestone is approved, a plaque is cast which describes the event. The plaque is placed in a spot accessible to the public, and a dedication ceremony is usually held. Text of all Milestone plaques is also viewable on the IEEE Web site.

For more information about the CD and the award, including video and photos from the 1979 and 2009 events as well as numerous links of interest, see

Milestone Sampler

A few relevant Milestone Awards are listed below. The full, fascinating list, from the work of Benjamin Franklin and Alessandro Volta to word processors and data compression algorithms is on the IEEE Global History Network Web site.

A September 2003 award recognized Gugliemo Marconi’s early wireless experiments of 1895 in Italy. He first transmitted a signal over a few meters. Later, after calculations and adjustments, a signal was sent over one and a half kilometers. This transmission marked the beginning of Marconi’s involvement in radio.

The first transmission of transatlantic radio signals took place in Poldhu, Cornwall, England in December of 1901. A radio transmission of the Morse code letter S was broadcast using equipment built by John Flemming. At Signal Hill in Newfoundland, Marconi, using a long-wire antenna connected to a kite, confirmed the reception of these first transatlantic signals, making the first QSL in history. These experiments demonstrated that radio signals could propagate far beyond the horizon, paving the way for global communication and international broadcasting. The award was given on the 100th anniversary of the event, in December 2001.

An arc transmitter for generating continuous-wave radio signals was developed by Danish engineer Vlademir Poulsen. The first such transmitter was constructed in Lyngby, Denmark, and used for experimental transmissions to receiving sites in Denmark and Great Britain. Poulsen-arc transmitters were used for international communications until they were replaced by vacuum-tube devices. The award was dedicated in May of 1994.

John Ambrose Fleming, a professor and University College London investigated the Edison effect, where electrons in a vacuum travel from the filament to plate. Fleming refined this technique, and eventually built a device which would detect wireless signals. His work began in the 1880s, and ended with a patent being issued for the Fleming valve in 1904. Later developers would add additional elements to the valve, permitting amplification and oscillation of electronic signals thus giving birth to vacuum tube electronics. The Milestone Award was presented on the 100th anniversary in July of 2004.

A Milestone Award was given as well in honor of what some consider the first radio broadcast of music and entertainment, transmitted from Brant Rock, Mass., on Dec. 24, 1906. This work was the culmination of years of research by Reginald A. Fessenden, who developed amplitude modulated (AM) transmitters and receivers. The system marked a radical departure from the transmission of Morse code using continuous wave (CW) technology. The question of whether Fessenden’s Christmas Eve broadcast occurred in the form it was later reported has been discussed in recent articles in Radio World.

Westinghouse radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh pioneered commercial broadcasting. Beginning with the broadcast of the Harding-Cox presidential returns on Nov. 2, 1920, KDKA transmitted with 100 watts on 360 meters. Conceived by C. P. Davis, broadcasting as a public service evolved from the weekly experimental broadcasts of Frank Conrad over his amateur radio station 8XK. The award and plaque were dedicated in June of 1994.

Monochrome-compatible electronic color television was developed by RCA laboratories in Princeton, N.J. Engineers at RCA worked with other engineers in the industry from 1946–1953 to develop this standard, which lasted until the advent of DTV. The award was dedicated in November 2001.

In Andover, Maine, the first transatlantic transmission of a television signal via satellite originated in July 1962. The signal was relayed to a receiving station in Pleumeur-Bodou, France via the Telestar satellite. Telestar and its associated earth stations demonstrated the potential for global satellite communications. On the 40 anniversary, July 2002, an award and plaque were dedicated.

The VHS (Video Home System) format was developed at the Yokohama plant of Victor Company of Japan, or JVC. A team of engineers led by Shizou Takano and Yuma Shiraishi envisioned a need for home video tape recorders, and invented the helical-scan system of video recording and related technologies. VHS soon became the world standard for home video recording. A dedication and awards ceremony were held in Tokyo during October 2006, the 30th anniversary of the premiere JVC HR-3300 home video recorder.