Object lesson No. 17

28th April 2000 at 01:00
Slide the record from its sleeve and dust it down gently. Holding it by the edges, lay it carefully on the turntable, adjusted to the correct speed - 33 revolutions per minute for albums, 45 for singles. Place the needle on the lead-in grooves, sit back and relax.

What a performance! The lengths people once went to just to listen to music. And to think you still had to get up out of your chair halfway through to turn it over.

Until 15 years ago - in the years BCD (Before Compact Discs) - most people still practised this ritual, almost unchanged since the invention of the gramophone 100 years ago. Vinyl recordings, with their unique patterns of grooves and elaborate sleeve art, were like precious artefacts. But vinyl would warp or break or get scratched. And the more you liked a record, the more you played it and the more you wore it out.

And that was exactly the problem, thought James T Russell, as he surveyed his deteriorating record collection. A physicist by trade, he came up with the first comact disc prototype in the late 1960s. It made a digital imprint on an aluminium disc, read it back by laser and converted it into sound.

With no physical contact between the moving parts, CDs lasted longer. In fact, they were virtually indestructible. You could throw them on the floor, write on them and even spread jam on them.

Music suddenly became less precious and more expensive. At first, people resented paying twice as much for their music, but little silver salvers soon supplanted big black plates as the favoured format, and by the late 1980s CD players were the fastest-selling electronic consumer durable ever.

CDs are everywhere, but for how much longer? MP3, the technology which lets you download music from the Internet, is already the most popular search word on the web. Soon it could send the CD to join vinyl, consigned to attics, secondhand shops and die-hard fans. And leaving future generations to wonder: "You mean you had to go out to the shops to buy music?" Harvey McGavin

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