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AES PNW Section Meeting Report

The Invention of Optical Digital Recording
James T. Russell

Meeting held January 12, 2005 at the University of Washington Seattle Campus.

Dan Mortensen, Chair of the PNW Section, opened the meeting by welcoming the 33 AES members and guests to the January meeting, and introducing Juan Pampin and Sean Brixey from the UW Center for Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS), who co-sponsored the event at the University of Washington.

Gary Louie, PNW Secretary and MC for the meeting, explained that he attended the 2003 AES Convention in NYC and saw an exhibit about the history of digital recording, which included a presentation by James Russell, a scientist who worked at the Battelle Memorial Institute in Richland, Washington developing optical data storage techniques. Then, on Nov. 29, 2004, he saw an article in the Seattle Times about Mr. Russell pointing out how he invented the underlying technology that led to the development of CDs and DVDs, but made no royalties from his invention. Since Mr. Russell now lives just outside of Seattle, Gary saw an opportunity for an informative meeting.

Jim Russell received his Physics degree from Reed College in 1953. He worked for General Electric at the Hanford Nuclear Facility in Richland, WA, Battelle Labs in Richland, Digital Recording Corporation in Salt Lake City, and Optical Recording Corporation in Toronto, Canada. He is currently semi-retired and an independent consultant/inventor in Bellevue, WA. He holds over 50 patents.

Jim began his presentation by explaining "necessity is the mother of invention." He wanted a better phonograph, with less background noise, less distortion, and longer life. It occurred to him in 1965 that a phonograph record could be made in a form more suited to an optical pickup. PCM (pulse-code modulation) has many advantages over analog coding systems such as binary analog FM and PWM, which were already well developed at the time. The primary advantage of PCM is that it is passive, whereas the others are not, being subject to physical deterioration in the media, resulting in noise and distortion. The disadvantages of PCM include circuit complexity, especially relating to A/D and D/A conversion and error correction. But it was clear to Jim that recently developed integrated circuit techniques would eventually allow very sophisticated electronics systems to be built at a very low cost, which did indeed turn out to be the case.

A symphony rendered in PCM would generate a huge volume of bits, which could only be stored on huge reels of digital computer magnetic tape, much too expensive for mass marketing. If a bit could be reduced to one micron in size, a symphony could be recorded on a 3" x 5" rectangular card, in stereo. So the goal was to convert music to a digital form, reduce the physical size of the bits to a micron, and record the bits on an optical medium.

At Battelle, he was encouraged to proceed with an expanded development of the concept. He experimented with various medium and techniques to accomplish the task, and create "Digital Optical Records."

He realized that besides stereo audio recording, the system could be used for any information storage or publishing. Newspapers and magazines could be replaced, with the benefit of an enormous savings of trees. Personal records, including scanned X-rays, could be carried by anyone.

A subsidiary of Battelle, Battelle Development Corporation (BDC), was responsible for licensing technologies for Battelle and making money. Dr. Cloyd Snavely recognized the potential in the optical recording system and provided funding to demonstrate that it was possible to digitize and reconstruct music. Jim's group used a DEC PDP7 computer to demonstrate that the concept of recording and playback of music was feasible. In the fall of 1966, BDC filed the first application in a family of patents. Shortly after, however, BDC inexplicably stopped the funding and the family of patents concept was scrapped.

In March, 1970, the first patent was issued, which sparked interest. So BDC started marketing the idea. In Dec. of 1971, Eli S. Jacobs, a financier/venture capitalist from New York became interested and formed a company called Digital Recording Corporation, signed an agreement with Battelle and provided funding to Battelle to continue R&D. Though Jacobs recognized the market for stereo audio recording, he surmised that the first recorder should be aimed at consumer video because it is much more complex. It required a high data rate, high density, high reliability, and low-cost players and records. If such a prototype system could be demonstrated, then just about any other application could be developed.

In order to get the data spots down to one micron (center-to-center), the recording material had to have a very fine grain. Rectangular glass plates with photo-sensitive coating (high-resolution silver halide coating made for high-resolution spectroscopy) were made by Kodak and could be purchased off the shelf and recorded with a helium-neon laser.

It became evident that their team of three was insufficient to tackle all the various design issues that needed to be addressed (i.e., TV format, video processing, data formatting, data compression, laser modulation, laser modulation compensation, geometrical optics, physical optics, precision mechanicals, photosensitive chemistry and processing, optical tracking and data synchronization, servo control, and video signal reconstruction). In short, apart from some knowledge of digital logic and optics, they did not know what they were doing because there was no prior art. They learned as they went along.

Soon they achieved 21 Mbits/second, with 1 micron spacing between bits and 4 microns between tracks. One 4" x 5" record could store about 20 minutes of video. He showed a picture of a record that was used to record the early videos, and brought along a sample for show-and-tell. The first recognizable video was produced in January of 1973. The first color video was produced in January of 1974.

In July of 1973 a patent application was filed that specifically describes a type of synchronization techniques for optical records using unique code words in the data stream to provide synchronization for the word clock. This unique code is logically distinguishable from the data yet optically identical with the data. This is the system used for CDs and CD-ROMs today.

In mid 1973, representatives from various companies came to see demonstrations of the system, including Mitsubishi Electric, GM Research, Bell and Howell, Hitachi, Ricoh, and RCA Princeton. Sony sent a representative in August of 1974, and a representative from Polygram Philips came in September of 1974.

The president of Digital Recording Corporation (DRC) visited Philips in November of 1974 to tout the system. The consumer electronics lead at Philips said digitizing analog and video signals couldn't be done. They had clearly never considered optical digital.

In April of 1976, Tom Stockham, former president of the AES, visited from Soundstream.

In 1980, Jacobs decided to set up a separate company to develop the technology. DRC bought Soundstream and moved the optical digital recording operation there in Salt Lake City. Jim quit Battelle and moved to Salt Lake City to continue working on optical digital development with DRC/Soundstream. DRC/Soundstream continued its mastering and editing operations there as well.

In 1984, a Sony representative was asked if Sony would like to pay royalties on Russell's patents. You can imagine their answer. For a number of reasons, DRC/Soundstream began running out of money, and in the spring of 1985, the optical equipment technology and intellectual property was sold to Optical Recording Corporation (ORC) in Toronto. Russell moved to Toronto on a two-year consulting contract with ORC. The emphasis in Toronto was to develop a novel recording medium that was more sensitive.

Jim managed to convince the owner that some of his patents covered the general concept, data format, and synchronization scheme of a compact disc and predated any work by Philips or any other identifiable entity by many years.

In 1986, ORC notified all companies in the CD business that they were infringing on their patent.

In the spring of 1988, after Jim's consulting contract was up and he was no longer involved with ORC, they started licensing Sony, and later Philips and several other equipment companies. In May of 1992, ORC brought an infringement suit against Time-Warner and other disc-making companies. The patents were judged to be valid and were intentionally infringed making Time-Warner liable for triple damages. ORC won a $30 million initial judgement.

In 1992, the key patents had expired and that is the end of Jim's story on the history of optical digital recording.

Unquestionably, the CD may never have come to fruition without the enormous engineering, development, marketing, and standardization efforts of Sony and Philips to bring the CD to market, an investment of at least 1 billion dollars. Sony and Philips were, and perhaps still are, unique in their ability to bring all the technologies together.

This concluded Mr. Russell's presentation. About 40 minutes of questions and answers followed a short break and refreshments.

Thanks to Jim Russell for taking the time out of his busy schedule for this presentation, and to the University of Washington and DXARTS for providing the use their facility.

Reported by Dave Franzwa, AES PNW Section Treasurer.

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Last modified 11/11/2005.