Home / Blog / The passing of Ray Dolby

The passing of Ray Dolby

Don’t know if you saw the news, but Ray Dolby, the electrical engineer who brought us surround sound, died a few weeks back.

Because the write up on Dolby’s death by R. Pell in EDN was a bit more technical than others I saw, I’ll quote from it here:

The Dolby system involved both an encoding step, used during recording, and a mirror-image decoding step, used during playback, to reduce noise in audio recordings, as described in a Dolby white paper:

The purpose of encoding is to raise the level of soft, high-frequency passages so they become louder than the tape’s noise. During the trip through the Dolby encoder, loud passages (that hide tape hiss) are not altered. Soft, high-frequency passages (that tape hiss affects) are made louder than normal as they are recorded on the tape. When playing back the tape, [the] loud sounds are left unaltered, while the soft, high-frequency sounds are lowered back down to their original levels…with the noise [that was added during the recording process] automatically getting the same treatment.

The first movie to use Dolby sound?

I wouldn’t have guessed it – it’s a bit before my movie-going time – but it was A Clockwork Orange. Clockwork came out in 1971, and wasn’t exactly the sort of film my folks would have been bringing the kids to see.  As the Dolby audio technology was refined, it gained more traction in movies, and a few years later was used in Close Encounters and Star Wars. (Now we’re talking.)

Personally, my strongest memory of Dolby is its use in the cassette recorders back in the day. I remember quite clearly using the Dolby record and playback capability when, as a kid, I was making recordings. It was a simple but effective concept, which is why it was adopted so widely.

Ray Dolby’s death got quite widespread coverage in the technology, entertainment, business, and general purpose press. To me, this underscores the important role that electrical engineers have played in the latter half of the 20th century, and throughout the opening decades of the 21st century as well.  (Although bio-engineers may end up giving us a run for the money, this is still the EE’s century!)

Admittedly, we’re not all billionaire geniuses, but it still kind of makes me proud when I think of the many contributions that EE’s make to mankind. Our customers are continually bringing breakthrough scientific, medical, manufacturing, and defense products to market, and none of these products would be happening without the work of electrical engineers.

Interestingly, Dolby himself would just have soon been born a century earlier, and is quoted as saying:

“I’ve often thought that I would have made a great 19th century engineer, because I love machinery. I would have liked to have been in a position to make a better steam engine, or to invent the first internal combustion engine; to work on the first car … I just regret that I was born in a time when most [of those types of] mechanical problems had already been solved and what remained were electronic problems.”

The world of movie goers and those who enjoyed cassette recorders is just has glad he held out for solving those “electronic problems.”


I missed this, but Amar Bose, another electrical engineer who was a pioneer when it came to sound, died this past July. I know there’s some overlap in what their respective companies do, but Bose pretty much did for home sound systems what Dolby did for cassette recorders and movie theaters: made for a better listening experience.