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Whether you're a hard-core audiophile who wants the principal timpanist from the New York Philharmonic to sound as if he's in your living room, or merely someone who likes to crank up the volume on the stereo and play air guitar to Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love," Bose is a brand you surely recognize. The 49-year-old Massachusetts-based company is one of the most illustrious names in audio equipment, making everything from noise-cancelling headphones to the loudspeaker system in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel.
Given the nature of its business, you might think that Bose is some sort of geeky acronym. In fact, though, it's the surname of the company's founder, Amar Bose, who died on July 12 at age 83 in Wayland, Mass.
As a young engineering student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s, Bose became frustrated that his own record player and speakers just didn't sound good to him. His quest for more realistic-sounding recorded music led him to found Bose Corp. in 1964 and, ultimately, to become both a famed inventor and entrepreneur and a member of Forbes magazine's 2011 list of global billionaires.
Here are some facts about Bose and why your ears should be grateful to him:
- A Philadelphia native, Bose was the son of an Indian physicist and freedom-fighter who escaped from a prison in his native country, where the British had sent him for opposing colonial rule, and made his way to the United States, where he married a schoolteacher and started a business importing coconut-fiber doormats.
- As a teenager during World War II, Bose began repairing radio sets to make pocket money. After the war ended, he got some surplus radar tubes and an oil-burner transformer and used them to build his neighborhood's first working television set.
- Bose, who earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from MIT in the 1950s, was so brilliant that he was selected as a Fulbright scholar and afterward was invited to join the MIT faculty. He taught at the university for 45 years, while simultaneously building his audio equipment empire. He was so revered as a teacher that former Johns Hopkins University president William R. Brody, who took one of Bose's classes in 1962, recalled that "he would walk into a lecture to 350 students, and you could hear a pin drop."
- Bose's breakthrough insight was that 80 to 90 percent of the sound that audiences hear in concert halls is reflected off the walls and ceilings and reaches listeners' ears indirectly. To mimic that effect, Bose designed sound systems that incorporated multiple small speakers aimed at the walls in a room, rather than at the listener. His Bose 901 speaker system, introduced in 1968, mixed direct and reflected sound, and became a bestseller for the next 25 years.
- Early on, Bose ignited a controversy by insisting that his speakers had to be placed in the corners of a room. "To the hi-fi world, it was blasphemy," he later told Popular Science.
- While on a airline flight home from Switzerland in 1978, he got the inspiration for noise-cancelling headphones - and completed the design by the time the plane touched down.
- After becoming frustrated because he couldn't see while driving in a rainstorm, he devised a new design for windshield wipers.
- In 1994, Bose's company developed the Bose Auditioner, a software program that allows engineers to simulate the sound a listener will experience in any particular seat in a concert hall - even before the building is built. It's been used to design sound systems for auditoriums ranging from Staples Center in Los Angeles and Masjid al-Haram, the grand mosque in Mecca.
- Bose refused to take his company public, even though selling stock would have made him vastly richer. As he told Popular Science in 2004: "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."
- Despite his billionaire status, Bose insisted that he was uninterested in wealth and lived frugally. As he told a British newspaper in 2011: "I don't want a second house, I have one car, and that's enough. These things don't give me pleasure, but thinking about great little ideas gives me real pleasure."
Here's a vintage Bose commercial, which makes the point that its speakers may reproduce sound too realistically.