Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 14, 2020

From the Cluttered Drawer of Forgotten Technology: Portable Music!

There’s always a risk, opening that drawer: the one containing the old gadgets. I never know if I’ll find what I’m looking for. I’m just as likely to find something I’d forgotten I owned and used, or even that such an item ever existed.

This time, what I was looking for was not only there, but still in working order, once I’d installed a couple of new batteries.

Miniature, remote controlled flying saucer, you ask? Radiation detector? Compact waffle maker?

Ah, memory — like technology — is fleeting.

In a day before music was streamed through the cybersphere, humans used to encode it onto physical media in a variety of “form factors” (viz: shape and size), which required dedicated devices to produce sound. The item above is a portable version of something known as a compact disc player.

Here’s a depiction of its size, along with a compact disc. Inches top, centimeters at bottom.

Always a late adopter of technology, I still have a considerable collection of compact discs, which those of us who remember call “CDs.”

I do have a CD player attached to the living room stereo. But with both computers in the house no longer equipped with disc players, that portable device is a simple means to play music I haven’t captured into digital form.

At the Interface: Buttons?

We all know that “delivery” media evolve: from handwritten manuscripts, to moveable type, to photographs, motion film, audio recordings, etc. What interests me about this player is not the evolution of digital media, but how radically our way of using it has changed in the 17 years or so since that player entered my life.

Instead of touch-sensitive icons or swipes on the screen of a phone, there are physical buttons and other bits of Jurassic analog technology.

Let’s start by inserting a compact disc. This act, alone, is from an earlier era.

Physically slide a release on the side of the player, and the lid pops open, “clamshell” style.

Set your CD into the player, close the lid, and you’re ready to take your music with you.

If you’re not familiar with this technology, CDs are what’s long been referred to as “rotating memory.” The player spins the disc, and an optical reader picks up the information encoded in a spiral track, then turns it into sound waves.

As it happens, this is more or less the way we’ve played audio “information” from the very dawn of sound technology. Beginning in 1877, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison and others developed a means to record audio signals on hollow wax cylinders that spun on a mandrel, the audio signal transferred via a stylus to a crude amplifier. There’s a long, detailed history of these “graphophone” or “phonograph” records, which I’ll spare you.

The cylinders became enormously popular. Here are the boxes for some Edison cylinders.

By about 1910, pressed disc records won out in the marketplace over cylinders, but the core technology wasn’t all that different.

The advent of flash memory is bringing the era of rotating memory to an end, but every computer once relied on it. Computer hard drives used digitally encoded data “read” by magnetic or optical readers, but they were once essential in all their bulky, noisy, heat-producing, prone-to-fail glory. The signals had moved from analog to digital, but still relied on spinning discs: rotating memory.

Going Mobile

“Portable” music, though, was impractical for those analog cylinders and discs through much of the 20th century. In my childhood, there were portable phonograph players, but one had to carry them to a stationary spot before playing.

The advent of the transistor radio made broadcast music portable, but not recorded music.

In 1982, encoding digital information yielded the compact disc format.

Eventually, CDs and players like the one in this article, engineered to minimize the shock of carrying the device, allowed more or less steady play, on the go.

Details From Another Era, Not Long Ago

The liquid crystal display is dim, difficult to photograph, but provides track and time info, as well as how much battery life remains.

Buttons are play/pause, stop, and forward or backward, one track at a time. On the side of the unit are buttons for volume, and another button — advanced technology here — that let you “bookmark” only tracks you wanted to play. Other buttons adjust treble/bass and play modes like “shuffle.”

There’s no speaker. You needed the latest in headphone technology.

The device even had a remote control. That is to say, it was as “remote” so far as the 30 inch wire would reach: no wifi.

Simplifying?

I do have the advanced skills to acquire a new disc player, connect it to my laptop, and — one by one — work through whatever portion of my CDs I want to “rip.” Then, upload the files to the Cloud and do something more or less confusing to download them to my mobile device.

In all honesty, I’m just fine with technology already in my possession that works, without all the doodling.

What say you? Abandoned all your physical media for The Cloud yet? I’ll award a special bonus point if you actually recognize the album I placed in the player. Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Sony and other names on the player and accessories are registered trademarks of Sony Corporation. Edison cylinder collection photo copyright Steve Goldstein, used by kind permission. “No Other” compact disc design and contents copyright Collector’s Choice Music 2002 and/or Electra Entertainment Group and/or Rhino Entertainment Company.


Responses

  1. If you don’t look carefully, the cylinders in the photograph of them could well be jars of peanut butter. You came up with a good phrase in “Jurassic analog technology.” I still have half of the hundreds of records I bought from the 1960s through the 1980s, along with all the CDs I accumulated after that. I’ve transferred about a thousand tracks to my iPhone but rarely listen to any except on long airplane flights.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I confess to stealing “Jurassic technology.” There’s a “Museum of Jurassic Technology” in Los Angeles, which –although I’ve never visited — sounds like a fascinating place.
      The CD player was for PRECISELY that application: plane flights, during my corporate years when I flew one or two times per month, and didn’t want to sit with the laptop on my lap and run down the battery — before I had a mobile phone.
      Thanks for commenting, Steve. Keep shooting!

      Like

  2. I still have my sizable CD collection, as well as my old albums. However, even with more than a couple of working turntables in the house, I almost never play those. I do refer to them quite often for information. I play my CDs mostly in my car. And of course, I do own those cylindrical discs in the photo above and the 120 year old Edison Gramophone that plays them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I look forward to having a chance to hear a cylinder played on that gramophone, Steve. Not something I’ve ever heard, despite my age. Thanks again for sharing the photo from your collection.

      Like

  3. I ripped all the tracks I needed from CDs long ago, but nonetheless still have the actual CDs, in their cases, still stacked in the corner of the family room. Similarly for LP disks, standing upright of course, which nowadays I have no means at all of playing.

    Sue still keeps a few CDs in her automobile which she does listen to, having not come to adequate terms with the technology of streaming from her iPhone.

    Our last portable CD player gave up the ghost about a 5 years ago, after a long period of idleness.

    Our main “music” listening device nowadays is a stereo pair of Apple Homepods, which are wonderful. Recently we have started the process of adding HomePod minis around the house for casual listening to both stored music and “radio” streams. Apart from keeping one portable radio for emergency purposes, our other “transistors” are heading for the dust-bin of history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I could probably do that, laziness aside. To readers in other hemispheres, I point out that Mr. Bolton’s “emergency purposes” sometimes include firestorms engulfing southeastern Australia, which we hope the coming summer will spare them.
      And I point out that Mr. Bolton, himself, is a musician, and can make his own music, with or without supporting technology. So there.

      Like

  4. Abandon cd technology for the cloud? Certainly not! I have a small combo cd/tape player on my night table that I primarily play old tapes on, and I have a larger cd/radio/record player/tape player and recorder (like a boom box) that I mainly use to play cds.

    I also burn my own dvds of movies and TV shows and cds of playlists on my laptop and play them on my dvd player, sometimes using the soundbar hooked up to my TV. And because I still have a lot of old video tapes of movies, I have kept my two VCRs, one hooked up to the TV and a new one kept in storage from years ago for when the one in current use clonks out.

    For good reason, VCRs are difficult to buy these days, and I suspect it won’t be long before you can’t buy dvd players either. Hence, also the reason for my keeping backup dvd players in storage. Why not convert all of my old stuff to new storable technology instead of buying and keeping outdated machines? Who has the time or inclination for that? Just play it while you’ve got it!

    Yeah, I’m not only old school, but pretty old.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Technology ages more quickly than its users. If there are still media that require “old” technology, it’s appropriate to utilize it. As I say.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. When I bought my new PC I specifically looked for one with a CD/DVD drive.
    I’ve never heard the term “spinning memory” but I still use it.
    I have a draw full of old cameras, cell phones and a portable CD player. I’ll have to see if it still works!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. My portable CD player finally died, but I still have that stack of CDs, and play them primarily in the car. Of course, my car (being a 2011 model) has no ability to play anything but a CD, and the radio. On the other hand, for reasons too complicated to go into here, I’m currently driving a rental car with 13K miles and California plates. It has no CD player at all — at least, that I could find. It has touch screens and SiriusXM and menus galore, but there’s no way to play my favorite road music. It seems I could plug my iPad into the system somehow, but I’ve not figured that out, and there’s no question. the car is sneering at my flip phone.

    On the other hand, the car does think it’s reasonable to flash what appears to be a steaming cup of cappucino in my face every fifty miles or so while asking,”Don’t you think it’s time to take a break?”. I don’t like people who nag, let alone automobiles.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Sorry your car is nagging you. Ours does it at 2 hour intervals, which apparently is supposed to be my attention span, according to programmers. Little do they know, I’m good for about a dozen hours of driving, with or without the thousand-dollar sound system the original owner sprung (or sprang) for. That gets you from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, or maybe halfway across Texas or so, more or less, and in that time, you have to replace all 6 CDs in the player at least once, or play through all 9 Beethoven symphonies twice.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My 2004 BMW may have finally died yesterday. I used to call it the best stereo I ever had. I don’t think new cars have cd players. Apparently they want to sell you XM radio and cups of coffee!

        Liked by 2 people

      • That’s funny … except for the multi-thousand dollar price on your old stereo. I’m in the same boat. Great audio!

        Liked by 2 people


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