Life, etc

Amar Bose: A unique sound, stilled

By J Brooks Spector 2 August 2013

The long, productive life and recent death of audio equipment pioneer Amar Bose gives The Daily Maverick’s J. BROOKS SPECTOR an opportunity to contemplate the impact of the children of immigrants on American life and society.

America’s political universe is currently embroiled in an increasingly angry, anxiety-ridden debate over how – or whether – the country can eventually achieve a fundamental immigration reform policy. In a nutshell, the key challenges for the politicians are to find a politically acceptable path to citizenship for the ten million or so illegal immigrants or undocumented aliens (depending on one’s political position in the debate) who are already in the country; and then, to sort out the best way to manage the country’s border control mechanisms to allow for effective policing and regulation of entry into the country.

In this debate, a number of Republican legislators are increasingly giving voice to charges about immigrants that, frankly, verge on an ugly covert form of racism. The difficult irony for Republicans is, of course, that the future of Republican electoral success may well come to depend on attracting a growing share of Hispanic supporters (the group that is now the country’s largest ethnic minority). A significant portion of those individuals might well be attracted to the Republican social and economic message in future, but only if a continuing stream of the not-so-subliminal racist coding now coming from Republican mouths somehow can be brought to an end. In recent weeks, some of those worse excesses have been coming from politicians like Texas Republican Congressman Steve King.

As “Washington Post” columnist (and former top aide to George W Bush) wrote the other day, “The tone of the immigration debate has recently taken a sharp downward turn, which may not be a bad thing for immigration reform’s legislative prospects. Rep. Steve King’s description of the children of undocumented workers as having ‘calves the size of cantaloupes’ from hauling bales of marijuana across the desert brought a cascade of rebuke from his fellow Republicans. ‘There’s no place in this debate for hateful or ignorant comments from elected officials,’ said Speaker John Boehner. King seemed confused by the criticism. Were people offended by ‘my choice of the fruit’? This is the GOP challenge in miniature: how to appeal to an increasingly diverse nation when the behavior of a small but vocal portion of its coalition is both offensive and clueless.”

While this column is not the place to parse Republican (or even Democratic) difficulties in grappling with immigration reform proposals, Congressman King’s ill-tempered remarks can help call attention to one aspect of immigration that seems to be considered only rarely; that is the impact of the longer-term children of immigrants on their parents’ adopted nation. And the recent passing of audio entrepreneur Amar Bose is an appropriate moment to contemplate this phenomenon.

Amar Bose was both founder and chairman of his privately held company that has focused obsessively on the kind of innovative acoustic engineering that has held the attention of the audiophile public for decades. His speakers soon gained a reputation for bringing concert-hall-like sound into the average person’s home. Along the way, his company has added products like some very fancy, very high-end automobile stereo systems and revolutionary noise cancelling earphones for the pilots and air travellers. But it was his astonishing Series 901 direct/reflecting speakers with their distinctive pentagon-shaped configuration and those wonderful tapered space-age-style stainless steel pedestals – like something that would have been right at home in George Jetson’s future home – that caught and then held the audiophile public’s attention for Bose products.

Because Bose consistently declined to sell stock in the company he had founded, he had given himself the space to carry out long-term research without having to face the financial pressures of routinely reporting earnings to the market. As Bose told “Popular Science” magazine, “I would have been fired a hundred times at a company run by M.B.A.’s. But I never went into business to make money. I went into business so that I could do interesting things that hadn’t been done before.” According to Bose, most of the profits on the company’s estimated sales of $1.7 billion were plowed back into research. “One of the best decisions I ever made was keeping the company privately held, so we can take short-term pain for long-term gain. Public companies have to look good every 90 days to please the markets, so they can’t do that.”

Over a half century ago, disappointed by what he felt was the inferior sound of a high-priced stereo setup he had purchased while an engineering student at MIT, his interest in the problem was piqued when he realised most of the sound a person actually hears in the concert hall was indirect sound as it bounces off walls and ceilings before reaching the listeners’ ears. Describing his search for that first really good stereo speaker system, Bose told interviewers he had approached the task like a typical engineer.

Bose said, “I studied the literature and bought the best system based on the specifications. But when I brought it home and plugged it in, it sounded terrible. I was disappointed and confused. Why did so much of what I had been taught say it should be good, when my ears said it wasn’t?” With that challenge in front of him, rather than the dissertation that still had to be finished, his enthusiasm was captured by the science (and art) of acoustics and psychoacoustics (the study of the human perception of sound). That, in turn, led him to begin designing that new arrangement for loudspeakers drawing on a close observation of actual human sound perception. Eventually his design made use of that now-familiar group of smallish speakers designed to reflect sound off of the walls surrounding the speaker as well as a second bank of speakers aimed directly at the listener.

At the suggestion of his faculty advisor at MIT, Dr YW Lee, Bose set up his own company – eventually located in Framingham, Massachusetts, outside of Boston – to carry out his acoustics research. While the company first carried out some military contract research, Bose’s real vision was to make that new generation of stereo speakers. While the first version was not as fully successful as he had hoped, in 1968, the first 901 Direct/Reflecting speakers hit the market and they remained top sellers for a quarter of a century, making Bose’s company a frontrunner in the highly competitive audio components marketplace.

Like so many others back then, this writer was also captured by the beauty and sonic realism of the sound from a pair of 901s owned in the early 1970s. After those speakers, sets of Bose 501s and 301s – suitable for different room sizes in homes around the world – were played very loudly for years. And, now, most recently there is an Acoustic Wave system in the house. Even now, the temptation is strong to purchase yet another Bose audio product for a new home office. That’s brand loyalty with a vengeance.

The company’s famous noise-cancelling headphones proved to be so successful, thousands of military and commercial flyers have adopted them for use while in the air. Meanwhile, yet another product, a unique Bose software program, has made it possible for acoustic engineers to simulate the sound being heard from any point in almost any large concert venue, even before it has been constructed. This, in turn, has allowed acoustic engineers to design sound systems for places as varied as The Staples Center in Los Angeles, The Sistine Chapel and The Masjid al-Haram, the grand mosque in Mecca.

If all this was not enough for one man and one company, in the early 1980s, top-line automakers like Porsche and Mercedes-Benz began installing Bose sound systems in their pricey automobiles. Bose systems have remained firm favourites among auto buyers in that price bracket for years now. And after a quarter of a century of R&D, Bose’s company is now perfecting a real breakthrough that will be able to replace old-style automotive shock absorbers with ultrafast linear electric motors that can balance a car’s suspension in conjunction with computer chips.

But throughout his life, Bose’s enthusiasm was not just limited to research. After earning Bachelor and Masters of Science and PhD degrees in electrical engineering at MIT, and after a Fulbright scholarship stint in India under his belt, Bose joined MIT’s faculty in 1956 and remained on the university’s teaching staff for some 45 more years. In 2011 he gave a majority of his shares in his own company to the school to generate an annual cash dividend for MIT.

Bose’s university colleagues have been effusive about both his love for teaching and the impact he had on his students. On colleague, Prof Alan Oppenheim, said of Bose’s continuously popular course on acoustics, Bose “talked not only about acoustics but about philosophy, personal behavior, what is important in life. He was somebody with extraordinary standards.” And Dr William Brody, the head of the Salk Institute, a student of Bose’s back in 1962, added, “His class gave me the courage to tackle high-risk problems and equipped me with the problem-solving skills I needed to be successful in several careers. Amar Bose taught me how to think.”

Popular Science magazine writer Tom Clynes wrote of Bose after spending several days with him in Hawaii some years ago, and after talking with him about “everything from network theory and cold fusion to philosophy and badminton, I’m convinced that there’s something more fundamental behind his penchant for speed. Amar Bose is just incredibly eager to get to the future. As an MIT professor and as CEO of the eponymous company that he built from scratch, Bose has made breakthroughs in an astonishingly broad range of disciplines, including acoustics, aviation, and defense, even nuclear physics. At times, he says, he has risked the entire company in pursuit of a particular idea. ‘I would have been fired a hundred times at a company run by MBAs,’ he tells me. ‘But I never went into business to make money. I went into business so that I could do interesting things that hadn’t been done before.’ ”

But Amar Gopal Bose was not just a class A researcher and teacher, he was also the son of an immigrant to the US. His father was Noni Gopal Bose, a Bengali freedom fighter and physics student at Calcutta University who was arrested and imprisoned for his opposition to British colonial rule over India. Bose, the father, somehow escaped from prison and then came into the United States as a political refugee. Once in America, he married an American schoolteacher and set up house in Philadelphia. In the midst of the Great Depression, Amar Bose, while only thirteen years old, began repairing radios to earn money when his father’s import business first began to founder in the bad economic times.

Popular Science magazine adds more detail. “During World War II, the elder Bose’s business—importing coconut-fiber doormats from India—became impossible when nonmilitary shipping was suspended. The teenage Amar suggested that his father post signs at the hardware stores where he once sold his mats, offering radio-repair services. With his father gathering the radios and young Amar fixing them in the basement after school, the business helped support the family through the war years. After the war ended, Bose used surplus radar tubes and an oil-burner transformer to build the neighborhood’s first television. In 1947 his father borrowed $10,000 so that Bose could attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to which he says he was admitted ‘by the skin of my teeth.’ ” When Bose entered MIT in 1947, he became a protégé of the renowned mathematician Norbert Wiener.

The thing of it is, Bose represents the best of what the sons (and daughters) of immigrants can achieve in America. Given the chance “to spread their wings and take to the sky,” they find opportunities to study, then build new businesses, make contributions to the country’s economy and – as often is the case and was so in Bose’s – to find ways to repay the opportunities they received and the successes they had – as with things like Bose’s gift to his lifelong university. Bose’s credo was, as he so famously told his many students, “The future isn’t in solving the problems to which we already know the answers. It’s in learning how to work through the problems you’ll experience in life, in any subject.”

Amar Bose died on 12 July this year, aged 83. Given his life and the examples of so many other immigrants’ children, what seems so surprising – and distressing – in  America’s debate on immigration reform, so far at least, is how little the multi-generational impact of immigration and the ultimate contributions of those immigrant families are being discussed. That is, save for the sniggering tone in remarks like those of Congressman King and others of his ilk – as with King’s recounting of those almost certainly apocryphal marijuana-smuggling, immigrant children. DM

Read more:

  • The GOP divide on immigration at the Washington Post
  • The Curious Genius Of Amar Bose at Popular Science
  • Amar Bose ’51, SM ’52, ScD ’56, Bose Corporation’s founder, has died at 83. Entrepreneur served on faculty for 45 years; championed long-term corporate research at the MIT news office website
  • Amar Bose at the Telegraph (UK)
  • G. Bose, Acoustic Engineer and Inventor, Dies at 83 at the New York Times

Photo: Amar Bose (Wikia.com)

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