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GENIUS! #13: Kees Schouhamer Immink and the compact disc

“If you want to give a nice gift, you give a CD, not a download voucher”

In the 1970s, South-African born Kees Schouhamer Immink worked at Philips Research in the Netherlands on the videodisc: an optical disc that could store up to 60 minutes of analogue video and sound. It was a technical success, but a marketing disaster. The next format, however, would change the audio world forever…

How did you end up with Philips Research working on the compact disc?
At that time, research was split up into three main groups: physics, chemistry and electronics. I am an electronic engineer and optical recording was being investigating in the physics group. Electronic engineers weren’t allowed to work in the physics group – I was the first one who did. Apparently, management found out that a multidisciplinary group would be better. There was a vacancy so I applied and was accepted, and for about five or six years I was the only electronic engineer there.

What led to the development of the actual CD format?
The physicists and myself were working very hard on the ‘video disc’. At some point, the audio industry group asked if we could also make a disc that contained sound only. We were very academic at the time, and very independent, so we said, “Sure, we can. But we don’t. It’s trivial.” So we just said “no” to the people who actually gave us to money to do all the research! A few months, later two engineers from the audio industry group came to do some experiments with these sound-only discs. It was absolutely the initiative of the audio industry group to investigate the possibility of a sound-only disc.

Is it true that the playing time of the CD was designed to accommodate a Beethoven symphony?
At some point in time we received a message from the top brass that the playing time should be 74 minutes. Later, I heard about the Beethoven story… have you ever heard the recording [the Ninth Symphony, recorded during the Bayreuther Festspiele in 1951]? It’s horrible! It’s a noisy, mono recording that nobody wanted to listen to. Why someone would use that as a yardstick for the playing time of the CD, I don’t know! [Laughs].

Was there a specific moment when you realised this was something special?
Well, that’s difficult because I’ve had those moments before. I believed that the video disc would become a very great commercial success, but it wasn’t. It was the greatest blooper I had ever seen! But the CD was, and we were able to develop that in a year because we had so much experience with the videodisc.

What happened next?
When we first brought them to market, sales of CDs were very slow. There were only two factories in the world actually producing them: Phillips and Sony. Nobody else had any interest. It took at least three years before I heard of a third factory starting and I thought, “Now we’re getting somewhere”. But there was initially lots of opposition from the music industry. It was understandable; they were selling vinyl records, making money and the industry was happy with that. Shops had no interest either: they had to make room for CDs, and they were happy selling vinyl. So why change? Eventually it was a success, of course, and in 2000 it reached its peak. Sales are only 20 per cent down from that peak, so it’s not doing so badly.

What do you think about your contribution to the audio industry?
Maybe I was too serious when I did all this work. I should’ve taken more time to do something else. That’s one of those regrets people in their final days always have. The number one regret is always not spending more time with the family. But when you’re in your thirties and forties, you don’t have time for your family [laughs]. I’m joking… but it’s fantastic if you can look back at a career that has so many highlights and has changed the world of consumer electronics so much with digitisation that all started with the introduction of the CD.