The engineer who changed the way the world listens to music
Amar Bose passed away on July 12, at the age of 83, having emphatically shown the world how forefront academic research can spawn a global corporation, and how science can directly change our lives. Somak Raychaudhury writes.india Updated: Jul 14, 2013 04:23 IST
During a quantum physics class at Oxford, my tutor, an eminent nuclear physicist, remarked, "What a brilliant person this Indian man was - Bose. He discovered the laws of quantum statistics, invented the best speakers in the world, and gathered an army from South East Asia to fight against the British". A common error among people in the West, this, not knowing that Bose is one of the most common surnames in Bengal.
Of the three Boses in this statement, while Subhas and Satyen Bose were born and bred in India, the most famous of the Boses, whose name adorns speakers and radios in cars, at restaurants and on mantelpieces all over the world, was born in Philadelphia in 1929.
Amar Bose's father, Nani Gopal Bose, a physics student at Calcutta University and a freedom fighter, had fled the country to avoid judicial custody, arriving at Ellis Island in 1920 with the equivalent of $5 in his pocket. He settled in Philadelphia and married a local schoolteacher.
Amar Bose recalled that the food he ate at home was Indian, but dining out was difficult since few restarants would serve a mixed-race couple. There were few south Asian immigrants in the US at that time, so they would be assumed to be Afro-Caribbean in origin. White kids would chant "Nigger, nigger" as he walked to school with his head hung low.
Arriving in Cambridge, Massachussetts, as an undergraduate at MIT, where he stayed for the rest of his academic life, was to change his life forever.
As a kid, Amar Bose had discovered that he could fix radios at ease, and electronics came naturally to him. After his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, he had spent a year working on audio equipment in Eindhoven, Netherlands, at Philips Electronics.
However, he felt that his career lay in research, and he had returned to MIT to work on a theoretical thesis on non-linear systems with Norbert Wiener and Yuk-Wing Lee.
Following his PhD, and a few months in India as a Fulbright scholar, Bose joined the faculty at MIT. He had also learnt to play the violin as a kid, and loved music, and it was only when he had a teacher's salary could he afford the high-end acoustic speakers that he had coveted.
What followed is a story that I've heard him relate in several talks. He felt the hi-fi sets he had bought were not satisfying, so he took them apart in his MIT labs and started to modify them.
Thus started his lifelong work on advanced acoustic system, along with the fields of psycho-acoustics and psycho-physics, which he helped create.
When Bose founded his company in 1964 to produce his unique acoustic speakers, he made sure that all of the earnings of the company went back into the research that produced these incredible systems. This was an early example of pure research being directly marketed as a profitable commodity.
In 2011, Bose donated his entire stocks in Bose corporation to MIT, where his research had led to the production of his speakers. Under the conditions of the gift, MIT cannot sell its Bose shares, and Bose Corporation will remain a private and independent company.
The dividends will continue to fund basic research at the top technological university in the world.
When I was a research fellow at Harvard in the early 1990s, I was amazed to find that a professor and entrepreneur of the status of Amar Gopal Bose still taught freshman classes every year to the youngest students of MIT.
I would often make the short trip across Cambridge from Harvard to MIT, to sit an the back of classes on introductory circuit theory, dealing with the basics of Kirchhoff's Laws and the Thevenin Theorem, and on basic acoustics.
These classes were large - many hundreds of students at a time. Bose was a charismatic teacher, with crystal-clear diction, offering unique insights, even in these basic subjects, worthy of a giant in the field. His last lecture at MIT, for example, available at the MIT website (http://mit.tv/w42RDk), shows all of these aspects of his lectures.
A lingering memory, for me, will always be the charming talk Amar Bose gave at the 1994 celebration at MIT of the centenary of the birth of his mentor and PhD advisor, the polymath Norbert Wiener.
Wiener believed in nurturing the whole personality of his students, and, he had wanted Bose to learn more about the culture of his father's country. As Bose was close to finishing his PhD, in 1956, Wiener arranged with his friend and collaborator, Prashanta Chandra Mahalanobis, that Bose would take his Fulbright Fellowship to India and, as part of this trip, would spend several months at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata.
Bose was quite daunted at this prospect, since he didn't speak Bengali, and had never been to India. That Wiener and Mahalanobis had detailed plans for him, was slowly revealed, when young students, mostly women, began appearing at his hostel residence on most evenings, asking to take him out to Bengali cultural programmes or to Indian dinners. He found out later that Mahalanobis had to give Wiener detailed reports on the "progress" in his personal and cultural life.
It is thus not surprising that later, on this trip to India, Amar Bose met his future wife, Prema, with whom he had two children, Maya Bose and Vanu G Bose, the latter carrying on his father's enterprise by founding a company that develops innovative ways to enable mobile phone coverage in areas that cannot be profitably covered with existing technology.
Amar Bose passed away on July 12, at the age of 83, having emphatically shown the world how forefront academic research can spawn a global corporation, and how science can directly change our lives.
(The author is head, Department of Physics, Presidency University, Kolkata)
First Published: Jul 13, 2013 20:56 IST