Local Unsung Hero Honored By IEEE
The Little-known Story Of Optical Digital Storage
Ask anyone who invented the light bulb, who built the first working airplane, and who made telephone communications possible, and you'll likely get a prompt answer. But if you ask who invented one of the most important recording devices in recent history, probably all you'll get is a blank stare.
While the inventor's name is unfamiliar to most, his invention is universal. His technology has been used to store everything from the sounds of Mozart to computer programs to the latest movies and games. The invention, of course, is the compact disc. The man behind it all is the lesser-known James T. Russell.
The Puget Sound Engineering Council selected Russell as the 2005 Industry Engineer of the Year. And despite all of his accomplishments, it wasn't until Joe Decuir of Seattle's chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., (IEEE) saw a story about Russell in the local newspaper that he suggested Russell's name to the committee last fall.
"In my opinion, he is the most underrated and least recognized inventor of the twentieth century,” says the IEEE-Seattle awards chair Leonard Carlson. He compares Russell to the Thomas Edison of his time.
To say that Russell is a music lover is like saying that Johnny Carson was a comedian. In fact, the reason record stores are lined with shelf after shelf of plastic CDs rather than vinyl records has roots in Russell's passion for music.
Russell's fondness for classical music is the reason he started looking for alternatives to vinyl. In the mid 1950s, he was frustrated with the sound quality of LPs, which started wearing out after only a dozen plays. He even tried using a cactus needle to play records because the jewel needle wore out the vinyl faster and didn't sound as clear. Russell wanted a way to capture the complexity and nuances of classical music without damaging the recording. And the idea that sparked a multi-billion dollar industry was about to take shape in Russell's mind.
Russell grew up tinkering with electronics. In fifth grade, he started building radios out of parts he scrounged from the neighbors. In high school, he took a job setting up a commercial radio station, even though he didn't know how to hook up most of the equipment. "But I learned– rapidly,” he laughs.
After graduating from Reed College with a degree in physics in 1953, Russell took a job with General Electric in the Hanford Nuclear Plant doing experimental work. "That was great fun,” he smiles. And he laughingly says the computers they used in those days were "ginormous,” which is listed by Merriam-Webster as one of the top ten favorite words not found in the dictionary. But that's all part of Russell's charm. In case you are wondering, ginormous is an adjective and it refers to something that is "bigger than gigantic and bigger than enormous.”
Battelle took over the Hanford Laboratories in 1965 and gave Russell a lab and time to work on some of his imaginings, including the crazy idea that sound could be converted to strings of numbers and reproduced using light. "Why would anyone want a piece of plastic with numbers on it? Come on now,” he says.
Ironically, the man who revolutionized the music industry says he needs complete silence when he's thinking, and it was in that environment that everything just clicked. Russell recalls the event vividly.
It was a Saturday morning, and his wife, Barbara, had taken their three children out to buy new shoes. His younger daughter, Kristen, who was about 10 or 11 at the time, had a keen eye for fashion. Russell laughs that she probably tried on every shoe in the store, but that meant the house was empty–and silent–all morning. "If I'm trying to think, it has to be absolutely quiet, no distractions,” he says. When his family finally returned, Russell had figured out a way to do the seemingly impossible.
He had come up with a way of using a laser to read digital bits of information, which later became the most widely-used way to read just about everything. By using a light to read the data, the record would never wear out. The data are encoded as microscopic pit marks on the surface of the disk, which, when spun, can be read to reproduce high-quality sound. A human hair is actually 40 times wider than the marks, so a lot of information can be stored in a very small space.
The first devices were called Optical Digital Data Storage –the term CD is actually a trademark of Philips. The original storage units were made of glass plates, about the size of large index cards, which could be read as a laser scanned over them.
The original goal was to record television shows, not music, because adding visuals would be more difficult. If television couldn't be recorded digitally, Russell and his backers decided they would at least know where they stood. In 1973, they were successful, but they were ahead of their time. Amazingly, no one wanted to buy a license for the precursor to the DVD.
By 1991, about 25 years after he came up with the idea, CDs were outselling their predecessors, audio tapes, in record stores nationwide. Now, sales of the mirror-like plastic discs are in the billions every year, but the man behind it all has gotten neither fame nor riches. The company that held the patents sold the rights for a song. Now, Russell has a few artifacts from the early days, a scrapbook full of pictures, and a handful of plaques and trophies to show for all his work. But all he can do is shrug ruefully, "I didn't invent the CD, I invented the technology.”
Russell compares himself to the Wright brothers, who went against all conventional wisdom to come up with something that engineers said wouldn't work. And once the invention did work, everyone agreed that it was obviously possible and useful. Others took the original idea and made improvements. "What Philips ended up with was more sophisticated and worked much better than my original prototype,” he says.
Today, Russell has more than 50 patents to his name. He continues his work from the basement of his Bellevue home where he and Barbara have lived for more than a decade. When he's concentrating, he says he still needs silence, but if he's working on something mechanically, he'll pop in a classical CD and work with the Olympic Mountains framed in the windows. Although he is in his 70s, he says his work is far from finished. He is a consultant for hi-tech companies, and can't divulge what he is currently working on. But who knows? If he comes up with another record-shattering idea, James T. Russell's name could be as well-known as Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Alexander Graham Bell.
Stephanie Cartier is pursuing a master's degree in technical communication at the University of Washington.
Top: James Russell displays his awards that he has earned in the years since he created optical digital storage. Photo: Stephanie Cartier
Middle: The glass plate Russell is holding is actually what the first optical digital data storage looked like. A laser reads the tiny marks by moving across the surface. Photo: Stephanie Cartier
Bottom: Russell continues to work as a consultant from his Bellevue home basement. Photo: Stephanie Cartier