Noise canceling

To sell his solution, he first had to talk to a problem

Ray Dolby (Portland, Oregon, January 18, 1933)

At the end of 1963, at the age of 30, the American engineer Ray Dolby traveled through India on behalf of Unesco to record sitar music in the ashrams. He was very annoyed with the quality of the recordings, in which a soft murmur could be heard permanently.

Traveling by bus and train to cities such as New Delhi and Bangalore, he came up with the idea of splitting the recording into two channels, one soft and one loud, and inverting them on playback. A simple type of compression that makes the listener perceive less noise.

On his return to England in May 1965, he set up a small firm (four employees) in London to
noise reduction system. In November he was able to give a demonstration to the record company Decca Records. In January 1966, Decca, which had failed to recognize the Beatles' prodigious talents in 1962, bought its first nine sets.

Dolby was on its way. Now his name, or his company's double-D logo, is on nearly every electronic product, from cars to DVD players and high-definition televisions. Since 1975, tens of thousands of cinemas worldwide have been equipped with Dolby Stereo systems.

Dolby is the industry standard for movies. Ray Dolby was not only a passionate inventor, but also a shrewd businessman.

Ray Milton Dolby was born on January 18, 1933 in Portland, Oregon. As a child he wanted to know how everything worked. At age eleven, he was repairing the valves on his father's old Plymouth car. He played the piano and switched to trumpet and clarinet.

He loved music, but he also wanted to know why things sounded the way they sounded. How an organ worked and how the pipes vibrated and produced their different sounds.

Co-inventor of the video recorder

Dolby Digital old logoWhile still in high school, Alexander Poniatoff, the well-known founder of the electronics company Ampex, took him under his wing. Dolby subsequently studied at Stanford University, the cradle of the American computer industry. In his spare time, however, he could always be found at Ampex. In the early 1950s he was part of a six-person team tasked with developing a video recorder. The management was shown a prototype in 1955, in 1957 the machine – still the size of half a wardrobe – was ready. The contribution of the 22-year-old Dolby was fundamental. He graduated from Stanford in 1957 and then obtained his doctorate at Cambridge, where he also met his German wife.

After the Unesco adventure in India, the real work followed. The quick purchase of the Decca record company gave him courage. Ray Dolby: 'I thought: with such a device I will be welcomed with open arms. People will be glad I solved the noise problem.

It was a cold shower to experience how chief engineers of recording studios told me bluntly that they had no noise problem at all.' Nevertheless, by the end of 1969, all pop music studios in London were equipped with Dolby systems.

Those first devices were only given a technical name. One day, as Ray was in the elevator on his way to a record company, he overheard two engineers talking about moving "two Dolbys" that day.

His surname was used as a trademark without his knowledge. He would continue to play that trump card.

Towards the end of the 1960s, he opened a sales center in New York. Five years later, he moved to San Francisco with his family and staff.

Ray is said to have reported to his close associates at the time, saying, "Dagmar and I are going back to California, San Francisco, and you're coming with me." From 1970, Dolby and his wife set out to sell licenses to American, European and Japanese manufacturers of tape recorders and sound systems.

Thus 'Dolby' came into the hands of the ordinary consumer.

The big question was: how do you turn an invention that is relatively easy to imitate into a standard without losing ownership rights?

Dolby had an eye on how Ampex's VCR was faring. "Ampex spent all its time in a hopeless legal battle to keep the technology for itself," he said. "I foresaw that I would end up in the same mess if I made my system exclusive." Dolby came up with a genius solution.

He controlled patents and trademark very tightly, but he sold them at an extremely low price.

The lowest margin at one point was 7.5 cents per tape recorder. "From the beginning it was clear to me that a small amount from a large market was better than the reverse," Dolby later said. "If it was cheaper for a manufacturer to buy our license than to copy us, why wouldn't it choose Dolby technology?"

With office in Hollywood

Dolby: 'When I founded my company, one of the bigger plans was to improve film sound. But I had to wait until 1970 before my company was strong enough to hire engineers for it. The first Dolby mono film was Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange in 1971.

Stereo followed in 1973-1974; Dolby Stereo Surround, with four sound channels, in 1975 with Barbara Streisand's film A Star is Born. With the surround in Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the general public also became aware of what Dolby meant.

Cinema owners had to follow. Star Wars was also the first in a series of films to receive an Oscar for their Dolby technology. Some others include: The Deerhunter, Amadeus, Dances With Wolves, and Jurassic Park.

In 1976, Dolby even established an office in Hollywood, where the company's engineers supervise the mixing of the films. The company continued to develop and innovate continuously. Ray Dolby: 'What I do can be compared to improving the picture in the cinema.

You enlarge the image of such a small negative enormously and you want better color, more sharpness, less grain. The same goes for sound.'

One of the spectacular innovations today is digital sound transmission for cinema films. Besides image and sound, there is not much room left on a traditional film tape. Dolby still found a place to house the digital information, namely between the tooth holes of the film.

This system has also quickly become a standard. You could run the new film tapes in both traditional and advanced equipped cinemas and that was the trump card with which Dolby beat the competition.

The latest development in an endless stream of technological innovation is the beaming of digital films to the cinema. Digital copies of films also still have to be physically delivered.

Dolby has developed a technique to send cinema films to cinemas by satellite.

Dolby Laboratories, with headquarters in London and San Francisco, has barely 1150 employees. The company almost exclusively conducts laboratory research, trades in licenses and monitors their application.

As far as equipment is concerned, it only makes equipment for the radio, film and music industry.

"Anxiety is the key to my success," he says. "That's the difference between an engineer, who generally knows how to approach and solve a problem, and an inventor, who wakes up at night drenched in cold sweats for fear that his plan will fail."

Privately, Dolby owns more than fifty patents. His first dates from when he was 19. He also has a private laboratory in which he works on his own projects. His company has been listed on the stock exchange since 2005.

Over the years, the reserved, somewhat taciturn man has been showered with national and international awards. In 2004, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

In the latest Forbes list of richest Americans, he is number 144 with a net worth of $ 2.9 billion. Together with his wife, 'Dr.

Silence' in 2006 to the University of California, San Francisco, for $16 million to establish a new stem cell research center.