Dolby Joins Hall of Fame

It's safe to say that few audio engineers are more famous than Ray Dolby. On May 1, the founder and chairman of Dolby Laboratories was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, joining such luminaries as Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, and Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb and the phonograph.

The 71-year-old Dolby was inducted into the Hall of Fame "in recognition of his invention of the Dolby noise reduction system, which electronically reduces the tape hiss and other noise inherent in analog audio tape recording and playback," according to an official press release from Dolby Labs.

Dolby's noise-reduction technology not only improved the ability of audio professionals to make more realistic recordings, but also ushered in an era of private recording by music fans that presaged the current controversy over downloading and CD burning. Originally a device for dictation and memos, the cassette tape was catapulted into the hi-fi realm primarily by the invention of Dolby-B and Dolby-C noise reduction. Combined with refinements in circuitry and transport mechanics by companies like Nakamichi and Tandberg, which were widely imitated by other manufacturers, Dolby's noise reduction technology made audio recording a popular pastime among literally hundreds of millions of music lovers worldwide.

Ray Dolby earned his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1957 and a Ph.D in physics from Cambridge University in 1961. The idea for his noise reduction system came to him in 1963, when he was traveling around India as a technical advisor to a UN mission, making and playing recordings with a big Ampex open-reel recorder. He knew that audio engineers had been trying in vain to solve the problem of magnetic tape hiss since the 1930s. His great engineering insight was that he could exploit the dynamic differences between loud and soft signals to mask the noise, thereby rendering recordings with quieter backgrounds. The concept was a variation on an idea he developed for his doctoral thesis, which dealt with reducing the noise of background radiation.

In 1965 he established Dolby Laboratories in England—still the European headquarters for the company; the global headquarters moved to San Francisco in 1976—and by the following year was marketing his first prototype recorder with his namesake technology. Decca Records in London was his first customer, buying out his entire production for six months of that year, according to a March 29 profile in the San Francisco Chronicle by John Shinal. In 1967 the first Dolby-equipped cassette deck hit the market—a product that eventually found its way into the hands of well over a billion consumers. Almost every cassette deck manufactured from the late 1960s on used Dolby noise reduction, and each one paid the inventor a nice little royalty. Dolby's great business insight was the recognition that issuing licensing agreements to manufacturers was infinitely easier and more profitable than trying to corner the market on hardware.

That decision made Ray Dolby rich beyond his dreams and Dolby Labs one of the few truly dominant companies in the audio industry. Developing technologies and establishing elevated standards has long been the company's emphasis—and convincing manufacturers, recording studios, and movie studios to get with the program. Dolby sound became a household word with the release of Star Wars in 1977, by which time it was already synonymous with good sound among music lovers. Dolby introduced Dolby Pro Logic, an analog surround-sound format, in the early 1980s, and the first version of Dolby Digital in 1992.

Today, there is almost no aspect of sound recording and playback that hasn't felt the effects of the fertile mind of Ray Dolby—he has been issued more than 40 patents—or those of his company's many engineers. Dolby has always encouraged his employees to think creatively rather than adhere to a company line, which explains the company's aggregate 780 patents. He also encourages a rational balance of work with private life, to such an extent that company policy allows every employee to have every other Friday off. It's no surprise that Dolby Labs is one of the most desirable employers in San Francisco. Long a privately held company, Dolby Labs may launch an initial public stock offering (IPO) later this year, estimated by The San Francisco Chronicle to be worth half a billion dollars.

"Ray Dolby changed the face of the recording industry with his noise reduction system . . . recording techniques that blossomed in the late 1960s and early 1970s would have been impossible without Dolby's invention," said Fred Allen, head of the selection committee for the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation. To qualify for the honor, an inductee's invention "must have contributed to the welfare of society and have promoted the progress of science and the useful arts." Also inducted into the Hall with Dolby were 19 other inventors including Frederick Banting, Charles Best, and James Collip, the inventors of synthetic insulin; Harry Coover, the inventor of Superglue; and Ivan Getting and Bradford Parkinson, inventors of the Global Positioning Systems (GPS).