Australian hacker turns German invention into a world standard

No one expects modern inventions to be the work of one person anymore. Nevertheless, the German engineer Karlheinz Brandenburg is regarded as the inventor of the digital music format mp3.

Brandenburg always refers to his entire team at the Fraunhofer Institute in Erlangen; he often speaks of 'we' and in 2000 he distributed a prize of 250,000 euros among his forty employees.

But the technique goes back to his doctorate in the late 1970s at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg; he was in charge of the project that was set up around his findings. The subject of his work was the compression of music data for the ISDN telephone lines of the time. In it he discussed a series of techniques that form the basis for many contemporary audio encoding and compression processes. Influenced by the faster computers, he made a breakthrough in 1987.

It also helped that at that time Germany had world experts in psychoacoustics: the science that studies how humans perceive sound.

Brandenburg: 'What no one heard, I could leave out.' In those years, at least fourteen laboratories in the world were looking for a way to force music digitally through the telephone wire. After 1990 the four of them remained.

In full, Brandenburger's technique was called 'MPEG Audio Layer 3'. The MPEG group (MPEG = Movie Pictures Expert Group) was set up in the eighties with companies including Philips and Thomson for the release of video on CD-ROM.

Layer 1 was later used in the digital compact cassette. Layer 2 became successful in the professional market.

There was no market for Brandenburg's Layer 3 (the later MP3). It was a compression technique far ahead of its application. Around 1993 the time of the internet and gaming arrived. Only then did Brandenburg and his team members really realize the scope of their research.

Before the Windows operating system of those days, a file-end could only contain three characters, so it became mp3. Captured July 14, 1995.

To study the subtleties of their technique, the researchers chose a soft song, Tom's Diner by Suzanne Vega, which earned the American singer the nickname 'the mother of the mp3'. Brandenburg: 'Suzanne Vega's song was a catastrophe for us.

Terribly distorted. Nothing was more difficult to compress without loss of sound quality than Tom's Diner.

The day my developers refined their technology to the point where the compression sounded like the original, I knew we were going to make it. I've listened to one particular 20-second Vega piece at least a thousand times. And I still think it's a beautiful song.'

In 1997, an Australian hacker with a credit card number stolen in Taiwan in Erlangen bought the demo software to encode MP3. He wrote a new interface and made the program available via Sweden on an American server as freeware – a free program.

And he neatly added: 'Thanks to the Fraunhofer Institute.'

Because of that theft, MP3 technology spread rapidly and quickly became the compression standard. Brandenburg said he was 'white with anger' at first, but today the Fraunhofer Institute earns hundreds of millions of euros from the sale of licenses.

Brandenburg has been a professor at the Media Technology Institute of the Technical University in the Thuringian town of Ilmenau since 2000. He is also director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Media Technology, which he founded himself. He rejected numerous offers from American universities. He now has more than a hundred patents to his name (often jointly with others) and under German law receives a share of the royalties that his institute collects for his inventions.

Brandenburg does own an iPod, the most famous mp3 player brand. He bought it himself and did not receive it as a gift from Apple boss Steve Jobs. Will the mobile phone become the music device of the future, instead of such an iPod?

Brandenburg: 'I don't believe in the 'egg legend Wollmilchsau' (in German a standing expression for a fictitious animal that lays eggs, gives wool and milk and, as a pig, also provides meat), not in the multifunctional mobile phone.

Since 2004 he has been working on Iosono, a technology that makes it possible for every moviegoer, wherever he is in the room, to hear perfect surround sound. Will Iosono break through? Brandenburg: 'What is the chance that someone will win the lottery twice?

Not big. But after the first time, the chances are just as great as before.'

In his office in Ilmenau there is a statuette of Einstein sticking out his tongue; Brandenburg likes to read science fiction novels; as a child he devoured the life stories of great inventors and tinkered with his technique box radios together.

The hundred patents he now owns do indeed have their breeding ground.