Ray Dolby, creator of his namesake audio system, was born on January 18, 1933 in Portland, Oregon. He began playing the piano at the age of ten and later took up the clarinet. As a youngster, he took an interest in sound, how it worked, and why the musical instruments he played sounded the way they did. He also developed an affinity for movies and photography. As a teenager, he met Alex Poniatoff, who had founded the tape recording company Ampex. Soon Dolby began working part-time for the company, where he contributed to the development of the first videotape recorder and gained an understanding of audio technology. He continued to work with the company until 1957.
That year, Dolby was awarded a BS in electrical engineering from Stanford University. He continued on to Cambridge University in England where he completed a PhD in physics in 1961. He traveled to India for two years as part of a United Nations team sent to set up a scientific instrumentation lab. It was there, while helping to record some local traditional music for UNESCO, that he first dreamed up an idea for noise reduction on audio tape recordings. He returned to England and in 1965, started his own company, Dolby Laboratories, in London.
Dolby set to work creating the revolutionary Dolby® noise reduction system, which electronically reduces tape “hiss” and other noise that is inherent in analog audio tape recording and playback. The process involves passing sound through an encoder as it is recorded. Then the sound is played back through a decoder. This reduces background noise dramatically, with no adverse side effects, so that a crisp, clear, true sound is produced for the listener.
Decca Records became the first recording company to use the Dolby system. By 1967, major record labels including RCA and MCA signed on to use it, too. Soon the Dolby name was known throughout the recording industry. Dolby moved the company to San Francisco in 1967 and added manufacturing and research facilities. In the 1970s, he and his team began developing technology for film production and other industries, among them the Dolby Digital Surround Sound system used by tens of thousands of movie theaters worldwide. To date, more than 850 million Dolby-licensed products have been sold, and the company’s technology is part of virtually every music cassette, cassette recorder, pre-recorded videotape, and DVD movie.
In recent years, Dolby Labs has developed digital technologies including home theater systems, digital music file transmission systems, and sound technologies for PCs and computer games. Ray Dolby served as the company’s Chairman until he retired in 2009 to focus on philanthropy, specifically donating to stem cell and brain research. He died on September 12, 2013, after battling Alzheimer’s and acute luekemia for a number of years.
A holder of more than 50 U.S. patents, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2004. Among his numerous honors and awards are the Alexander M. Poniatoff Gold Medal, the IEEE's Masaru Ibuka Consumer Electronics Award, and in 1997, the U.S. National Medal of Technology. In 1986, he was named an honorary Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE). He was also honored with a Scientific and Engineering Award in 1979 by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has received an Oscar, an Emmy, and a Grammy Award.