A physicist and engineer, from an early age Dolby was fascinated by sound: how it was made, and how it could be recorded. “I was fascinated by the technology of music,” he said. “How organs worked, how reeds vibrated, why things sounded the way they did.” As a high-schooler, he met Alexander Poniatoff, who was so impressed with Dolby’s abilities he offered him a job. “I was so far ahead in my credits that I didn’t have to worry about getting into college,” Dolby remembered later, “so I went to school three hours a day and worked five at Ampex.” It was a good training ground: Ampex had recently introduced their tape recorders, and were working on the next logical extension of that: recording audio and video — the first broadcast-quality videotape recorder. Dolby was assigned to work on its electronics. The project head was Charlie Ginsburg, and he gave Dolby most of the credit. “I’d say that Ray essentially was the inventor of that whole system,” even though “he had virtually no formal education then, no college.” Dolby was awarded his first patent at age 19.
After a stint in the Army, schooling at Stanford and Cambridge Universities, and two years as a UNESCO science adviser to India, Dolby started his own company: Dolby Labs. The one thing that really bothered him about tape-recorded sound was the constant hiss, especially noticeable during quiet moments. He went to work on fixing that, and came up with Dolby Noise Reduction. It was quickly adopted by record companies, and then by Hollywood for movies. “You could divide film sound in half,” said sound editor Walter Murch last year. “There is BD, before Dolby, and there is AD, after Dolby.” After solving the hiss, Dolby went on to create the Digital Surround Sound system still used today in most theaters. “Ray’s pioneering work in sound played a pivotal role in allowing ’Star Wars’ to be the truly immersive experience I had always dreamed it would be,” said director George Lucas. Dolby Labs says that today, more than 7.4 billion consumer products use Dolby technology to improve sound quality: not just stereo and TV systems, but also smartphones, computers, and video games. For his work, Dolby received Emmy, Oscar, and Grammy awards. He retired in 2009, and gave much of his fortune to charity, most notably $36 million to the University of California for stem cell research. He died at his San Francisco home on September 12 from leukemia. He was 80.