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Sounding Out Ray Dolby : Inventor of Revolutionary Noise-Reduction System Has Made Money the Old-Fashioned Way

January 29, 1988|DICK RORABACK | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The January day is improbably balmy. From the fourth floor of a house on Presidio Heights, the view of the Golden Gate Bridge is unsurpassed.

There is a grand piano in the oak-paneled fourth-floor room, one that will play by itself if you push the right button. There is an oil painting of the sea and a model sailboat, a binnacle compass and a telescope you can focus on the ships passing in and out of the bay.

The man in the room is sitting at his desk, his back to the splendors below. Occasionally, he glances down at a printed circuit board, the Rosetta Stone of the '80s. On it is what appears to be a random scattering of silicon chips, resistors, diodes, capacitors--a tiny city of self-contained neighborhoods whose purpose is known only to the Master Planner.

The man studies the city, then removes his glasses and stares at a wall, away from the sea. He is at once relaxed and intent, working hard at what he does best.

Ray Dolby is thinking.

Dolby, 55, is the inventor of the noise-reduction systems that bear his name. When a raindrop plops into a pool up there on the movie screen and sounds so real in the second balcony that you want to flick off the spray, that's a Dolby invention.

So, by and large, is the videotape recorder. So is a long-wave X-ray analyzer. So are scores of other useful but recondite contributions understood only by academia, electronia, the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority and the U.S. Pat. Off.

In San Francisco, Dolby is also civic leader (opera, symphony, school system), socialite, husband of Dagmar, father of Tommy and Davey, sailor (good), skier (so-so) and sole owner of Dolby Laboratories on Potrero Avenue.

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He owns another company in London, another house on Lake Tahoe, a sailboat and a powerboat, a Jeep and a Jag.

He is of the old breed of entrepreneur; a household word who did not spring full-blown overnight into the national consciousness, like a Jobs or a Wozniak. He is an inventor who has made money the old-fashioned way.

He confesses to a certain resentment of certain tabs, like the epithet "tinkerer." "A tinkerer," he sniffs, "is someone who hopes to discover or invent something on an unprepared basis. An inventor knows what he wants to do. Inventing is a very exciting process--it must be the thrill explorers had years ago--but one must be cautious because the sudden revelation might be a trap. An inventor has to have taken out a patent. I had my first one at 19."

Nobody knows how many other Dolbys are around. It doesn't matter, really. Ray is the Dolby. He doesn't think about it much, even when he sees the name on every other movie marquee in the Free World.

Few people are so identified with an invention or a product. Bell. Ford. Singer. Jacuzzi and Rubik. Invariably the name, and the accruing wealth, are earned; the fame is accepted as one's due, a report card on effort, as it were.

Dolby is no different. Although he got used to the acclamation of his peers in the industry when he was a teen-ager, fame arrived later--after 18 years overseas as Marshall Scholar at Cambridge, science adviser to UNESCO in India and founder of the first Dolby Lab, in London. But, improbable as it sounds, Dolby says he knew where he was going when he was 3.

Born in Portland and raised in Northern California, Dolby wasn't only interested in "success" at the age of 3, he already had a pretty good idea of how he was going to go about it. Hooked on mechanics, he was obsessed with how things worked--in time, with how they could be made to work better.

During the Depression, "My father was a salesman--usually of real estate but various other things too--but he always had a workshop: power tools, interesting ways of making moldings, castings, the works. And a darkroom, too," Dolby said around a fire in his San Francisco home.

"I was encouraged to use his tools."

Although Dolby says he discovered the library when he was 9, "and made it a part of my life, I didn't read too many Oz books. Technical things took precedence--not to the exclusion of literature, but let's say my literary explorations were confined to fairly childish things: 'Pollyanna' books, 'Barnaby.' "

A 44-year-old memory intrudes: "When I was 11 I offered to pull the cylinder head of my dad's '32 Plymouth and do a valve job for him. I started in the morning and finished that night, alone. . . . "

Boyish enthusiasms overlapped--all of them technical. "My ambition at 12 was to become a cameraman. I had my own projector and camera and I'd write away to those schools in Hollywood that professed to train you to be a cameraman. Visions of glory: sitting up there on a boom focusing on some dramatic scene . . . "

"A prodigy? I don't know. I think my parents just took me for granted . . . and since I was the first child, they had no basis of comparison. They thought it was normal."

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