Billionaire engineer Ray Dolby, 80, dies at home in San Francisco
The day the music died
Obit Ray Dolby, the engineer who for most of the last half century has improved our ability to record and play high-fidelity sound and who founded Dolby Labs, has passed away at his home in San Francisco after being diagnosed with acute leukemia earlier in the year.
"Today we lost a friend, mentor and true visionary," said Kevin Yeaman, president of Dolby Laboratories. "Ray Dolby founded the company based on a commitment to creating value through innovation and an impassioned belief that if you invested in people and gave them the tools for success they would create great things. Ray's ideals will continue to be a source of inspiration and motivation for us all."
Dolby was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1933, then raised in San Francisco, and became obsessed with sound at an early age. By the time he was 16, Dolby was working for Ampex building the first video recorder, then headed to Stanford University to get a degree in electrical engineering. He got his PhD from Cambridge University with the aid of a Marshal Scholarship, and stayed in the UK to found the company that bears his name in 1965.
The breakthrough Dolby pioneered was a form of audio compression and expansion that dramatically reduced the hiss that is generated by particles of magnetic tape rubbing over the transducers used to read them. Dolby figured out that by using a limiter circuit that allowed low signals through but blocked louder ones.
Dolby Labs' first product was the A301, a professional single-channel sound system used by the music and film industry to clean up recordings and allow hiss-free multi-channel mixing. The technology was bought into the consumer market a few years later for cassette recorders using the Dolby B standard.
"Though he was an engineer at heart, my father's achievements in technology grew out of a love of music and the arts," said his son Tom Dolby. "He brought his appreciation of the artistic process to all of his work in film and audio recording."
Dolby travelled the world selling his kit, and the results were so good that Dolby became the industry standard, a position it still largely holds today. But Dolby then turned his attention to cinema and came up with the concept of a surround-sound system that worked for all viewers, no matter where in the theater they were sitting.
Dolby Surround, developed in conjunction with Kodak, used a directionally enhanced matrix decoder, to enable high-quality stereo sound without costing too much. It was first used in the 1976 film A Star is Born, but it was the epic soundtracks of the original Star Wars film and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that caught Hollywood's ears, and the technique eventually moved into home-theatre systems as well.
Dolby Labs has continued to develop sound standards, most recently including its Atmos system, which uses cinemas with up to 64 different sound streams that can be pumped to specific speakers. After its introduction last year, over 250 cinemas now have Atmos installed, and films such as Star Trek Into Darkness have been recorded for the system.
Over the years, Ray Dolby received two Oscars for his work (and the Academy Award venue was renamed the Dolby Theater last year in his honor), as well as being given the Order of the British Empire by the Queen in 1987 and the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton in 1997.
He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in the US and the Royal Academy of Engineers in the UK in 2004, and is a former president of the Audio Engineering Society. He also became a billionaire after taking Dolby public in 2005, and eventually retired from the firm in 2009 to concentrate on philanthropy, in particular funding stem cell and brain research.
For the last few years, Dolby had been suffering from Alzheimer's, and this summer was diagnosed with advanced leukemia. He is survived by Dagmar, his wife of 47 years, two sons, and four grandchildren.
"My father was a thoughtful, patient and loving man, determined to always do the right thing in business, philanthropy, and as a husband and father," said David Dolby, son and member of Dolby Laboratories' board of directors. "Our family is very proud of his achievements and leadership. He will be sorely missed, but his legacy of innovation will live on." ®