This episode was written & produced by Kevin Edds.
The science behind sound reproduction has been studied for centuries. But what will research uncover in the centuries to come? One man made it his life’s mission to find out, and a gift he made to the world will continue that mission for the foreseeable future. Explore the extraordinary life of Dr. Amar Bose in this special holiday episode of Twenty Thousand Hertz. Featuring Ken Jacob from Bose.
MUSIC IN THIS EPISODE
Sometimes - Steven Gutheinz
Embrace - Roary
Starless Night - Dexter Britain
Convoy - Roary
Animal (Instrumental) - The Seige
First Light - One Hundred Years
Imagine - Steven Gutheinz
On the Way - Steven Gutheinz
Ascension - Jordan Critz
The Time to Run - Dexter Britain
Beethoven’s Symphony no. 10
Check out Defacto Sound, the studios that produced Twenty Thousand Hertz, hosted by Dallas Taylor.
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Check out Bose at bose.com/20k.
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View Transcript ▶︎
[SFX: Zzzzz….. phhhhhhhttt….. chhhhhhhhhhcckk…. "Das Pferd frisst keinen Gurkensalat" Chhhhhhccccck…
You're listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz... The stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds. I'm Dallas Taylor.
[SFX: Zzzzz….. phhhhhhhttt….. chhhhhhhhhhcckk…. "The horse eats no cucumber salad". Chhhhhhccccck…]
According to many accounts, “The horse eats no cucumber salad” were the first words transmitted through electronic reproduction. This was way way back in 1861 by Johann Philipp Reis (Yo-hahn Phillip rice). He was developing an early version of the telephone. Before then, sound could only travel long distances in the most pristine environmental conditions—like in the Grand Canyon [echo SFX]. Or by using a horn or megaphone which didn’t amplify the sound, but really just forced it all in the same direction allowing it to travel longer distances [mega phone SFX].
In the years to come, with advances in electronic audio transmission and amplification, the world would slowly be introduced to the joys of reproduced sound. And like Johann Reis, one of the icons in the field of audio reproduction - that not many people know about - is Dr. Amar Bose (ah-mar).
Full disclosure here, Twenty Thousand Hertz is sponsored by Bose. Earlier this year I went to their corporate headquarters to meet with their team and to see all of the new products. But what I didn’t know much about going in to the meeting was the history of their founder and his impact on the sound industry.
After speaking with many people at the company I was so moved by one particular story, that I wanted to make a special episode out of it. To be clear, this was not proposed by Bose, they are not writing the episode, and this is not an ad. This is just a truly great story about the contributions one person made to sound. Even more importantly though is the story of a gift he made that I think is really profound and somehow had never heard of. I’ll leave it at that, because I don’t want to give it away.
So, with these caveats in mind, sit back and enjoy this holiday edition of Twenty Thousand Hertz with our special presentation of… “The Gift.”
[SFX: Beeeeeep, beep, beep. Beep, beep, beeeeep. Beeeeeep, beep, beep. Beep.]
While Johann Reis was able to transmit his voice electronically, and wirelessly, the technology did not advance much over the next half century. In 1906 Morse code was the only reliable way to communicate [morse code SFX] over long distances without wires.
But that Christmas Eve, a mysterious morse code transmission was received by ships off the coast of New England. It alerted them to pay close attention to an important message to follow.
The Morse operators on ships readied their pencils to take down the communication and then quickly share it with their captains, when suddenly, out of their headsets, they heard something that might have sounded like this…
[old radio broadcast of a woman singing “O Holy Night”]
It was no doubt a mind-blowing experience. These men had been trained to listen for the dots and dashes of Morse code [morse code SFX] and then translate that into words and sentences. But now, a live voice was speaking to them. And not just over a wired connection like a telephone, but across many miles of ocean and through the power of radio technology.
[“This is the voice of Reginald Fessenden speaking to you from Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Merry Christmas” clip]
It had been 45 years since Johann Reis’ first attempts at transmitting a voice electronically without wires. Fessenden’s broad-cast was the first attempt at instant, mass communication. Songs, news, politics, and sporting events could all be transmitted in real time to large audiences.
But again, there would be another long wait before the next big advancements in the technology of reproduced sound. It wouldn’t be until World War I when developments of radio for military communications began to be considered for consumer use.
[1937 World Series broadcast clip]
Tabletop radio development took off, and eventually headsets were replaced with speakers. All of America was crazy about the radio.
[continue 1937 World Series broadcast clip]
Fast-forward to the tumultuous times of World War II, and it was radio broadcasts that gave the latest updates on the fight abroad. Millions of Americans were glued to their one instant source of news. Reis’ creation and Fessenden’s advancements had come a long way.
And it was then that an industrious and inquisitive boy in Philadelphia decided to start repairing radios as a way to earn extra money for his family. His name was Amar Bose.
[Busy Calcutta street, arguing from a crowd of protestors SFX]
A century ago if you were Indian and living on the Indian Subcontinent under British rule life was difficult. Amar Bose’s father, Noni (no-nee), was a student at the University of Calcutta and a freedom fighter against the Crown’s Rule. And in 1920 Noni was forced to flee the country or face execution. Noni made his way to the United States and tried to immigrate through Ellis Island. The only reason he was allowed in to the country was due to the help of an Irish-American immigration guard who shared Noni’s anti-British sentiments.
After settling in Philadelphia Noni met Charlotte, a first grade teacher of French and German ancestry. They were soon married and began to start a family. In 1929 Amar (ah-mar) Gopal (go-pul, no emphasis on either syllable) Bose was born.
Ken: Dr. Bose grows up in a struggling middle class family.
That’s Ken Jacob, a former student at MIT and colleague of Dr. Bose.
Ken: With a white mother and an immigrant father from India. And you think about what was going on in the mid-century in the United States at that time, you can imagine not necessarily having an easy childhood. Bi-racial marriages, even in the North, were very, very much frowned upon.
Growing up Amar experienced racial prejudice and had to endure bullying. Instead of getting angry about it, he chose to ignore it. He found that differences in people, didn’t matter to him. He only cared about what people were capable of, what talents they held.
[toy train SFX]
As a young boy, Amar loved toy trains, but with money tight, his family could only afford to buy used ones, many of them broken. So Amar learned how to repair them. And when his father’s import business was struggling due to the war overseas, 13-year-old Amar shifted his attention to repairing radios to help make ends meet.
[Walter Winchell radio broadcast clip: "Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America from border to border and coast to coast and all the ships at sea.”]
This fascination with radios enabled him to run a business out of his family’s home. Amar’s entrepreneurial skills helped him as he built one of the largest radio repair shops in Philadelphia.
Ken: These were radios that people were enjoying for the same reasons, for the most part, that people enjoy your podcast or music today. And so, I think that's an obvious path. Electronics, tubes, and speakers, that's a radio.
Bose’s talents in radio repair even led him to construct an early version of a television set, years before they were ever available to consumers.
Ken: By the time it came to looking for colleges, his skill and enthusiasm and excitement about electronics had gained some attention. His family couldn't afford to send him to MIT and his grades weren't of a nature that you might get in under just simply because of your academic record. But there were enough people that had observed his brilliance and his energy that I think some recommendations were made that got him into MIT, but did not get him a scholarship.
After being accepted to MIT Amar was determined to not let any more opportunities pass him by due to lack of focus on his academics.
Ken: The way he describes it is that he just went bananas studying at MIT. That he basically had no friends, no life, that he put all of his energy into studying so that his grades would be in that first semester sufficient to get him a scholarship, which is what happened.
After receiving a scholarship, Amar’s love for MIT began to grow and grow.
Ken: He did his undergraduate, Master's, and his PhD, all in sequence at MIT. And as he started to turn from taking classes to more of a research focus, which is typical as you start to pursue a doctorate, and just fell in love with doing technical research.
To reward himself for earning his Ph.D. Bose bought himself the newest and best loudspeaker system on the market. His love of radio as a young boy had never left him. He invited a friend who was a musician over to his home to hear his new speaker system. But the results were a disaster [distorted violin SFX]. The violin sounded nothing like it should in real life. So Dr. Bose secretly used the acoustics lab at MIT to conduct some research for fun.
Ken: So, in addition to some of the power electronics research work that they were doing that had led to these quite fundamental patents, he had carried through this interest in radio to MIT, where there was other people that were interested in high fidelity, which at the time was just kind of getting started.
In the 1950s the dominant mode of listening to the radio was a tabletop system that didn't sound all that great. It produced very mid-range, middle frequency sounds. Not deep bass, and not the kind of great high frequency sounds that together make something sound high fidelity.
Ken: And so, they were kind of sneaking around at night working on some ideas or pursuing some interest in high fidelity.
After receiving his PhD from MIT Dr. Bose was approached to teach. This was not something he planned on doing, but he fell in love with it and it allowed him to continue his research at the school. Dr. Bose would soon develop and receive key patents in the field of electronics. And those patents could be sold or licensed to make him some extra money. But the companies that wanted to buy these patents would not necessarily put them to work. Sometimes they were bought just to make sure a competitor wouldn’t use them. So Dr. Bose came to the only logical conclusion that made sense to him: start a business. And in 1964 the Bose Corporation was born.
During the day Dr. Bose and his staff would do contract work for NASA and the US government developing power-processing systems. But at night they’d work on another one of their true passions: audio.
Psychoacoustics, the scientific study of sound perception, fascinated Bose. As a boy he had learned to play the violin, but he knew that loudspeakers of the era could not accurately reproduce the sound of stringed instruments very naturally. [SFX: violin(s) solo dissolves into mono playback] So he visited the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
[SFX: Orchestral Music]
Dr. Bose and his team decided to conduct research in the field. They recorded the orchestra with microphones placed on either side of the head of a mannequin sitting in the audience. This is what’s called a binaural recording. When playing the recording back for the conductor he listened to the binaural playback on a pair of headphones and was amazed. He was hearing his own orchestra for the first time the same way his audience would hear it. When Bose switched the recording to mono [mono orchestral music SFX] the conductor gasped—it sounded like a regular old set of speakers from that era.
Ken: So, they were just doing this all out of excitement and curiosity and wanting to know, is there something fundamental that we could discover about sound reproduction? That would lead to a device that behaved very differently in order to try to come close to the natural sound of a real musical instrument.
Over the next several decades the Bose Corporation developed speakers that changed the landscape of audio reproduction and made the company into a success. But their dedication to research never changed. To Dr. Bose, research and finding where that path takes you was more important than earning a quick buck.
In his early years on the MIT faculty Dr. Bose had consulted for several publicly held companies. And he saw how the need to maximize company stock value led to short-term thinking. He didn’t want his company to work that way.
Ken: If you want to have the freedom to invest in expensive long term research, and Dr. Bose's definition of research was quite clear, which is research is when you don't know if it's possible. Development is when you know that it's possible and you need to do the engineering work to try to make it into a device or an invention.
And so, research by its very nature, a lot of it ends up in the trash bin. If you are trying to satisfy public stockholders one of the first things to go is research. He was unwilling to sacrifice that essential element of the company. And it’s how he fundamentally saw new and better things coming to be.
To do that, it means that you have to earn enough to self-fund. Bose has always been a self-funding company.
There were times in our history when we had hit products, where we could have taken out a couple hundred million dollar loan in order to quickly build a new plant. We didn't allow ourselves to do that.
As the Bose Corporation grew over the years Dr. Bose began to think about the legacy of the company and what he hoped for its future. In fact, others asked him the same thing. But Dr. Bose would not state what his vision for the company was. He didn’t want to, in essence, create robots to carry out his plan. Instead, when speaking about his employees, he said, “If they work creatively and in cooperation they can create much better things in the future than I can envision today.”
But how could he set things up in a way where guarantee his company would continue on this path and not one day turn into a profit-maximizing entity? Every time Dr. Bose thought he had a solution, he would find a problem. Finally, after more than 15 years of thought, and research, he solved the problem. And it was beautiful. He would give ownership of the company, but not control, to MIT. The institution where he not only received his education, but had also been teaching at for 45 years, all while running The Bose Corporation.
Ken: Bose could continue, as a company, to be privately held and in control of its destiny, able to invest in the long haul, including expensive and speculative technical research, including pursuing things that are unconventional.
When Dr. Bose made his donation former MIT President Susan Hockfield put it best: “Dr. Bose has always been more concerned about the next two decades than about the next two quarters.”
[clock ticking SFX]
Dr. Bose loved metaphors, and one of his favorites, from the book Built to Last, was about the concept of time telling versus clock building. Someone can be great at telling time and as long as they’re still alive and always around. But if you could build a clock that future generations could use to tell time, that’s long lasting. What Dr. Bose wanted to do was to turn his own company into a clock.
And only two years after making this announcement, Dr. Amar Gopal Bose, the boy wonder who built Philadelphia’s largest radio repair shop, and industry-leading engineer who created the world’s most research-obsessed audio corporation, passed away… no longer around to tell the time. But in his place he engineered the best clock he could imagine.
Ken: There's books written on what are now called elegant solutions. I'm not trying to compare in a precise way. Einstein reducing the universe to E=mc2 certainly qualifies.
So, allowing the company to continue operating by its timeless beliefs and principles and at the same time helping MIT to me qualifies as an extraordinarily elegant solution. It's mind-blowing.
This is a pay-it-forward gift. If we continue in the way that Dr. Bose set us up in terms of principles, beliefs, values, this gift will go down in history as one of the largest ever in education. But if we screw it up, there's nothing.
[clock ticking SFX]
Unlike other philanthropic endeavors, Dr. Bose’s gift isn’t a simple monetary transaction. It’s in itself an invention. A self-perpetuating mechanism, a beautiful solution from an engineering mind.
Ken: This is a mechanism that compels both institutions to try to keep doing what they've done, but in a constantly changing, incredibly dynamic and challenging, competitive world. It's unbelievable!
But as the saying goes, with great gifts come great responsibilities (or is it responsibility?).
Ken: It's also at times daunting because the responsibility weighs on us to make that gift pay out so that it does become one of the greatest, most generous gifts in the history of education.
From horses eating no cucumber salad, to Christmas carols broadcast to ships in the North Atlantic, to surround-sound speaker systems that truly represent what violins really sound like, audio reproduction has advanced far beyond what Johann Reis and Reginald Fessenden could ever have imagined.
That’s what made Dr. Amar Bose like us. He loved sound. He knew sound was special. Whether to educate, facilitate, or just entertain, sound matters. And he wanted to reproduce it for everyone, better than ever before.
Ken: I went to MIT. I was a student of Dr. Bose's. I knew instantaneously that it was somebody I wanted to work for. One thing that motivates me is trying to take the things that he's set up, this pay-it-forward gift. I think I worked with him for 30 years, and all of that pales in comparison to the gift. Really. The future.
20K Hz is produced out of the studios of DeFacto Sound. A sound design team dedicated to making television, film, and games sound incredible. Find out more at DefactoSound.com.
This episode was written, produced, and edited by Kevin Edds… and me, Dallas Taylor… with help from Sam Schneble. It was sound designed and mixed by Colin DeVarney.
Many thanks to Ken Jacob, of the Bose Corporation.
The music in this episode is from Musicbed. They represent more than 650 great artists, ranging from indie rock and hip-hop to classical and electronic. Head over to music.20k.org to hear our exclusive playlist.
Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter at the handle 20korg. You can find our website at 20k dot org. There you can send us feedback, suggestions for future episodes, or just generally say hey.
Thanks for listening.