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Bose and his very sound system

The founder of the radical audio company, Amar Bose, is the second Indian to be inducted into the US National Inventors’ Hall of Fame that includes the likes of Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers, writes Prakash Chandra.

india Updated: Mar 15, 2008 02:07 IST
Prakash Chandra

Time for a shower to honour the inventor of the hour: the US National Inventors’ Hall of Fame, Washington, is to induct 18 inventors — seven living and 11 deceased — this year. Among them, making every Indian proud, is Dr Amar G. Bose, whose revolutionary concept in sound technology will soon share space with such inventions like the television remote control, wrinkle-free cotton, Styrofoam, hip-replacement surgery and computerised telephone switching. Bose finds his rightful place alongside celebrated names like Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers and Alexander Graham Bell. The only other Indian in this august gallery is Rangaswamy Srinivasan, a former IBM scientist, who was honoured for his pioneering work on excimer laser surgery.

Think sound, and ‘Bose’ comes to mind —so immense has been the contribution of this media-shy tech-guru been to acoustics technology. Bose Corporation, the company he founded, is considered the biggest audio brand in the world, with revenues in excess of a billion dollars. The whole world prefers to listen on Bose speakers and audio systems — from space flight centres to homes, theatres and auditoriums. Audiophiles whisper his name in hushed tones, as they wonder at groundbreaking products like the Direct/Reflecting speaker system that Bose regularly rolls out from its stables.

The wonder years

Bose is not quite your quintessential ‘desi-born’ Indian-American. His father, Noni Gopal Bose, was a member of a revolutionary group, while studying physics in Calcutta University. Hounded by the British police, Noni Gopal escaped to the US in 1920 on a boat with no passport and little money, and from there mobilised support for India’s independence struggle. He married an American schoolteacher who was deeply interested in the Vedanta and Hindu philosophy, and the couple settled down in Philadelphia. Today Bose vividly recollects the secret meetings his father had at his house, and the visit of a former inmate of Jallianwala Bagh who told the wide-eyed child stories of British atrocities.

Bose apparently had a ‘bent’ for engineering from childhood, repairing toy trains and earning pocket money by the time he was 13. Then came World War II and he worked on radio sets in the basement of his Philadelphia home, eventually developing the largest network of radio repairs in the area. As a brilliant scholar, he had no difficulty in getting admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering. He joined the MIT faculty in 1956. Although his research at MIT helped him develop several patented technologies, his obsession was the lack of clarity in loudspeakers that didn’t deliver natural sound. So he conducted painstaking research into the science of sound, which eventually led him to found Bose Corporation, in 1964.

High on fidelity

Bose Corporation never cared much for orthodoxy. As Bose himself says, “No one ever won a chess game by betting on each move. Sometimes you have to move backward to get a step forward.” This irreverence has gifted the world with some fantastic audio products over the years. The top-of-the-line 901 speaker system, and the marvellous 601 Series I, II and III floor-standers of the 70s, 80s and 90s all attest to this. As do the great Acoustimass cubes with bass module HT systems, and the legendary Bose 301 bookshelf models. Last heard, Bose is involved in a project where a transducer actually reproduces a cannon shot at a real life listening level.

Bose is very passionate about knowledge creation. His ability to technically dissect acoustic problems threadbare — from wave-guides, normal modes and spherical speakers to non-linear systems — is universally acknowledged. No wonder the Intellectual Property Owners Association named him the Inventor of the Year in 1987. Bose has done a lot of work for the US Armed Forces and Nasa and holds innumerable patents not only in acoustics, but also in electronics, nonlinear systems, communication theory, noise reduction, headphones, automotive suspension systems…the list goes on.

For a scientist, Bose is quite unusual — after all, how many scientists can claim to have successfully juggled research, teaching and management? As Bose admitted in one of his rare interviews, he never relished management, but “realised that it’s very, very important because people are the ingredient which makes everything possible. If you can motivate these people highly, the results are phenomenal.” And the way he motivated people has been nothing short of phenomenal: he not only turned Bose Corporation into a successful acoustics company, but made it virtually synonymous with original sound.