Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 721:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 721.

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 created them.

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 nothing.

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 a button.

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 says,

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 work.

(Theme music)

Young, J., The Inventor from the Ashram. Forbes, August 3, 1992.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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