Time Machines: Silver platters

Disk meet data.

Welcome to Time Machines, where we offer up a selection of mechanical oddities, milestone gadgets and unique inventions to test out your tech-history skills.

It bears a passing resemblance to the vinyl record, but this futuristic concept was envisioned as more than just sound on a platter. The recording method involved electron beams and lasers; the base material was a coated, transparent plastic disc; and you'd get both an eyeful and an earful from the end product. Its intended goal in the market may have initially flubbed, but its core design has been patently embedded into a variety of successful formats ever since. Take a spin past the break to find out more about this invention.

Time Machines TKTKTKTK

Optical disc technology

That pile of plastic discs that litters your living space or sits in a "free" box by your doorstep has a history that goes back more than 50 years. The inventor, David Paul Gregg, has been dubbed the "Father of the Optical Disc" by some, but it's indisputable that his ideas lie at the heart of the technology. His innovative designs for recording video were ahead of their time in the '60s and managed to pique the interest of many in the industry. Unfortunately, the commercial release saw limited adoption and strong competition from its videotape-based competitors. The core elements of the format, however, had broader applications than simply video playback.

Gregg began to form the idea for the optical disc in the late 1950s while working at a motion picture and audio company called Westrex. His design was a deviation from the costly tape technology in use at the time. It involved writing data onto an optical disc, stamping for mass replication and using a concentrated light source to play back the data. In 1960, he took a job with Mincom, a video division at 3M, which had been looking for new, marketable technologies. He authored at least one patent for the company while he was there, one that described electron beam-based recording onto a multilayered surface. Gregg was cagey about his concept, though, and kept most of his ideas close to the chest.

In 1967, Gauss Electrophysics filed for a key patent describing a "transparent recording disc," along with a turntable assembly and a method for writing data onto the disc using an electron beam or laser.

Around 1965, he broke away from 3M to start his own company called Gauss Electrophysics. It designed and built high-speed tape duplicators, but it also gave Gregg a chance to develop his optical disc format while maintaining direct control of his hard-earned intellectual property. In 1967, Gauss Electrophysics filed for a key patent describing a "transparent recording disc," along with a turntable assembly and a method for writing data onto the disc using an electron beam or laser. Gregg's company now had a revolutionary product that would offer high-fidelity audio and video playback in a unique new format. The only thing missing was an interested partner to take the idea to market. Soon enough, the Music Corporation of America (MCA) came knocking on the door.

At the time, MCA was best known as a film studio with roots in music, but it was looking to branch out into other avenues. The company received word of Gregg's ideas and saw an opportunity to offer its vast film catalog in a format that viewers could enjoy at home. MCA purchased Gauss Electrophysics in 1968 and in two years, it developed the first DRAW (direct read after write) optical disc recorder.

After the buyout, Gauss Electrophysics was renamed MCA Disco-Vision -- no relation to the flash-in-the-pan music scene -- and its new Torrance, Calif., laboratories focused on developing the technology for consumers. Public demonstrations of the new "video disc" format began around 1972, with the company proudly displaying the ability to access random information anywhere on the disc and freeze a single frame of video.

MCA Discovision (it eventually lost the hyphen) had high hopes for its new product and partnered with Philips -- which had been developing a similar technology -- to create an optical disc standard called the "Videodisc System." To help with the hardware end of things, it teamed up with Pioneer, leading to the company's first consumer optical disc player under the company name of "Universal Pioneer." Not surprisingly, the potential for these devices went beyond simply watching films. The ability to navigate quickly to any section of data on the disc was equally useful in the industrial sector, and General Motors put it to use as an interactive sales tool in its automotive showrooms.

IBM also showed interest in the technology, seeing the potential for data storage applications, and in 1979 it partnered with the company, leading to the new name: Discovision Associates (DVA). It was good news that the format's multifaceted capabilities were appealing, because the technology fell short as a consumer video product, suffering frequent disc errors on considerably expensive players. While the videodisc suffered, VHS and Betamax flourished, offering the ability to play and record, all at a much lower price point. In a surprising move, Pioneer chose to purchase the majority of DVA's flagging videodisc assets during the mid '80s and continued to market the product under a new name: LaserDisc.

Time Machines

While it took a few decades for technology to match the high standards of Gregg's innovative vision, its final form influenced a major market shift. In stores, displays once stacked high with videotapes and cassettes gave way to slim, all-purpose plastic discs. The product was cheap, easy to mass-produce and offered the sharp clarity of digital for both audio and video output. The optical disc helped users escape the questionable fidelity of consumer tape products, bridging the gap until bandwidth and processing power made digital downloads plausible. Optical disc technology brought us the age of CDs, CD-ROMs and perhaps most notably, DVDs and Blu-ray discs, which came full circle to the optical disc's origins, finally delivering the product as it was originally intended.

Images: US Patent 3430966 (drawing); SSPL via Getty Images (LaserVision disc); Getty Images (LaserDisc player)]