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Thinking About Ray Dolby, a Truly Unique Engineer

Analog and audio engineer and innovator Ray Dolby passed away a few days ago. There's no need to go over his biography or impressive developments here — you can do a search and find quite a few references and obituaries. There is this nice piece “Remembering Ray Dolby” in IEEE Spectrum here. And on EDN, there is this piece by Rich Pell. Unfortunately, while his passing and accomplishments should have been a major story, they were overshadowed by major world events and crises, as well as the latest super-important news from Hollywood and celebrities.

Dolby developed a revolutionary noise reduction system (a characterization we don't use casually) which largely solved the problem of background hiss and noise in magnetic-tape recording/playback systems. The problem was this: Despite the best attempts of materials scientists and electronics engineers to get the inherent noise in such systems down to acceptable levels, there was a floor below which they could not push it.

So Dolby looked at the problem from another angle, and his insight yielded a sophisticated, adaptive-filtering system which assumed there would be noise, and then countered it “on the fly.” It made magnetic tape — even (now-obsolete) cassette units with their slow speed of 1 7/8 inches per second (for longer recording times) — sound good; units with faster speeds sounded very good. Dolby's approach and modified versions of it also played a major role in making digitized audio sound much better than the basic ENOB and SNR specifications would indicate.

My point is not to discuss the details of his technical achievements and how his system worked. What Dolby accomplished beyond that is really quite dramatic: he was an engineer whose name was known to the general public. Think about it: How many engineers' names are known to the average person? Not many, that's for sure.

He also decided not to get into manufacturing products with his system, instead choosing to license his technology to audio vendors for an up-front fee and a per-unit royalty, an unusual move for a technology company at the time. In exchange, companies could use his system name on their products, and tell customers that the product included some version of the Dolby noise reduction system. That, too, was an impressive achievement and recognition of the power of his design.

Ray Dolby is unfortunately gone, but his work lives on in millions of products as well as his eponymous company, Dolby Laboratories. That's another unusual accomplishment.

Can you think of any other engineers who are known to the public for their positive accomplishments, even if they are not sure what those accomplishments actually are? There's Steve Jobs, maybe Steve Wozniak, to start. Are there other consumer, mass-market products which have the name of the engineer on the product itself?

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19 comments on “Thinking About Ray Dolby, a Truly Unique Engineer

  1. antedeluvian2
    September 19, 2013

    The first telephone answering machine (invented in South Africa) was known as a “Colindictor” and thereafterfor many years every answering machine was called a colindictor. I was told that it was named for its inventor Colin Dickman. The story here only refers to a Lee Dickman, so perhaps it is apocryphal.

  2. Bill_Jaffa
    September 19, 2013

    I suppose we could add Alexander Graham Bell–though not an engineer in the formal sense, he did develop the phone and start The Bell Telephone Company!

  3. Netcrawl
    September 20, 2013

    YES @Bill Its Alexander Graham Bell, a great inventor, he started Bell Telephone company which eventually became AT&T.  AT&T pioneered the development of telephone system and communication network. It a good idea to feature Alexander Graham Bell here. 

  4. eafpres
    September 20, 2013

    Although not an engineer, he was a physicist, and many many people know his name, being immortalized with the Mach number.  Of all the dimensionless groups, the Mach number is probably known by more lay people than any other.  Of note, Ernst's son Ludwig carried on the tradition and the Mach Zehnder interferometer carries his name.  Interestingly, MZ Interferometers may play a role in things like Silicon Photonics, so the influence of the Mach family may well extend over more than a century.

  5. Netcrawl
    September 20, 2013

    How about Alan Turing- the founding father of today's modern computer, a man who scholars and historians said made conceptual breakthroughs that laid the groundwork for everything from mainframes, PCs to ­iPhones. 

  6. goafrit2
    September 20, 2013

    >> The first telephone answering machine (invented in South Africa) 

    Did you mean South Africa or South Dakota? I mean if South Africa, that is really refreshing. I never knew they did anything over the years they were in apartheid. But what is a telephone answering machine since every phone is also an answering machine?

  7. goafrit2
    September 20, 2013

    Mr Bell is the most popular one that was communicated in the high school books. Maybe he stole the game with more PR buzz. It is like Steve Jobs stealing all the shows in the smartphone business despire Blackberry inventing the thing many years before.

  8. Bill_Jaffa
    September 20, 2013

    What do you mean, “every phone is also an answering machine”? Before cell phones, a phone (wired) was just a phone, no more no less, no memory, no connection to a server that also handled message storage, nothing. It was just a highly specialized microphone/earpiece unit with interface to the physical wire of the local loop to the nearby telephone office.

  9. Davidled
    September 20, 2013

    I am wondering what Bell Lab is doing today. They need more engineers who are capable of inventing new telecommunication related to information technology in very competitive market.

  10. Netcrawl
    September 21, 2013

    @Daej the market is getting tough, competition has just morphed into new level- something brutal. Tight budget and growing competition, these are just some of the issues Bell Lab face. They still in the game, busy doing something, dong some “skunkworks”.

    One thing that surprise me most in telecommunication arena is the downfall of once-powerful telecom equipment maker- the legendary Nortel Networks. I guess its the extreme competition and poor management that led to the great downfall, how far this Goliath would fall. I have no idea, the isze is totally unimaginable! It's too big to fall, during the collapse the company has able to sell some 6000 patents pertaining to wireless technology, LTE 4G, data networking, voice tehnologies and many more, the auction was the final steps in Nortel's dissolution following a great downfall.   

  11. Netcrawl
    September 21, 2013

    But the Bell Telephone company (formerly AT&T) he has created has break up into several specialized and regional companies, Verizon Wireless and Bell Atlantic are just offsprings of the massive Bell Telephone Company. How wonder if how many of those offsprings still active today. 

  12. goafrit2
    September 21, 2013

    >>Before cell phones, a phone (wired) was just a phone, no more no less, no memory, no connection to a server that also handled message 

    @Bill, there is a misunderstanding here. Sure, when I began to use wired phone, all the phones and most have memory capabilities to store messages. Thanks for the clarifications. We do take these things for granted and I am culpable of that.

  13. vbiancomano
    September 21, 2013

    You'd have to include Guglielmo Marconi, who was actually a practical engineer rather than a physicist (notwithstanding his Nobel Prize). Much as Charles Guillaume was more a materials engineer with a better measuring rod who was awarded the Nobel (1920) while the Committee went into self-destruct mode for seven years in wrestling with how, or if, to award Einstein for his accomplishments.

    Marconi in his day was as much in the public eye as anyone today, even though the average guy in the street might question exactly what he did. One of the things he did have was the well-known Marconi Company for a good time, and his Marconi Institute (in the early 1900s, became RCA Institutes), which was his contribution to education.  

     

     

      

  14. antedeluvian
    September 23, 2013

    goafrit2

    Did you mean South Africa or South Dakota?

    No, I really did mean South Africa. Here is a something that describes some of the South Africa “firsts” although some of the claims are a bit dubious. The oil from coal was in fact developed initially in Germany during WWII. And the heart transplant was probably discussed medically for many years before Dr Barnard did it. Here is another bunch of claims. And I already mentioned the Wadley loop elsewhere on Planet Analog.

    I was also told that the white line down the middle of the road was a SA invention although Wikipdia ignores the claim. And then there is that bain of my life, the 4-way-stop intersection. The town that first implemented the idea is in fact called “Four Ways” just outside Johannesburg.

    Ubuntu is from South Africa.

    I mean if South Africa, that is really refreshing.

    I hope you feel refreshed!

  15. goafrit2
    September 25, 2013

    >> You'd have to include Guglielmo Marconi

    This guy must be really not popular as I have not read about him in any textbook – high school or college. That explains it. Perhaps it is not in EE beneficial fields.

  16. goafrit2
    September 25, 2013

    Ubuntu is not a great big idea. It is a flavor of Linux. I think they do not have to brag for Ubuntu because they did nothing big. Ubuntu is there, so is Redheart. I do not see that as a heavy accomplishment when Linux Trovalds that created Linux is still here.  I know Elon Musk is from South Africa, but not sure we can count Ubuntu as one of South Africa's great discoveries.

  17. Brad_Albing
    September 26, 2013

    @Vince – I would agree that the name Marconi (in his day) was as well known as “Dolby” is today. Along the same lines we can add Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse – all well known names from the late 19th century to early 20th century.

  18. vbiancomano
    September 26, 2013

    @BA–When I hear Westinghouse, there was one giant figure with a connection to that company who likely was more remembered by the public for his protracted legal battles than for his great engineering—-Edwin Armstrong. The public certainly became well aware of him in 1954, at the end of his personal battle with RCA and David Sarnoff (another big name in radio, although mostly known as a businessman) over the invention of FM, among other things.

  19. SunitaT
    September 30, 2013

    Steven Jobs was an American marketer, and inventor, entrepreneur, chairman, co-founder, and CEO of Apple. By Apple, he is extensively renowned as a charming innovator of the PC rebellion and for his powerful career in the customer electronics fields and computer, converting one company after another, from PC and smart phones to movies and music.

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