Today, an inventor goes all the way to the
marketplace -- and stays there. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Who's the most famous name
in music today, asks Forbes writer Jeffrey Young.
Pavarotti? Madonna? His candidate may catch you by
surprise. But first, some background.
Our mystery candidate did his Ph.D. in physics at
Cambridge University in 1961. Later he recorded
native Indian music for UNESCO. He had to haul a
big reel-to-reel tape recorder all over India.
That was frustrating. His tapes overlaid the
already delicate sounds of sitars and tablas with a
hiss. What could he do? Since he was in India, he
began by meditating.
He had to get rid of the high-frequency static from
the tape. Then he saw it. Hiss is a problem only in
soft passages. If he boosted the softer sounds
while he recorded them, he'd swamp out the hiss.
Then he could cut the sound back to normal when he
played it. The hiss would scale down to almost
Of course our most-famous-name-in-music is Ray
Dolby. The name Dolby rides on billions of tapes
and players. And he did more than just invent a
hiss suppressor to put it there.
First, he faced the chicken-egg problem. People
already had systems. To use Dolby tapes they needed
Dolby players. And who'd buy a player if he had to
trash all his old tapes to use it? Dolby solved
that by inventing switchable players. He made them
so you could play Dolby or regular tape by pushing
The second problem was that the invention could be
stolen. But Dolby saw what others forget. When
companies are too careful to extract maximum profit
from an invention, greed kills them.
Instead, he cut royalties to the bone. He made
Dolby so cheap it wasn't worth the trouble of
dodging the royalty.
And so, in many ways, he made it easy for people to
buy his product. Finally, Dolby sidestepped another
error that's killed many companies. "My technology
would probably have been pirated [if I'd] tried too
hard to control it," says Dolby.
You see, companies often try to protect themselves
by keeping technology static. They try to keep new
ideas from displacing their success. The far better
way to keep an edge is to lead in the very changes
that will displace you sooner or later.
So Dolby kept innovating. He's gone from analog, to
the leading edge of digital, systems. He's moved
into video. He's kept changing and evolving.
There's personal cost to all this, of course. Dolby
Anxiety is the secret of my success, ... An
inventor ... wakes up at night in a cold sweat sure
that the thing he's trying to do is impossible.
That's pretty dramatic, but we recognize
it for what it is. It's the joyous "I am!" of an
inventor who's supremely pleased with the grand
adventure he's made of his life.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds