The Curious Genius Of Amar Bose
The acoustic innovator and founder of the Bose Corporation died Friday. This is the story of how his insatiable curiosity helped launch a better future.
“Better Living Through Curiosity,” by Tom Clynes, originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Popular Science_ magazine. Inventor and engineer Amar Bose died July 12, 2013, at his home in Wayland, Mass. He was 83.—Eds._
Amar Bose is the most lead-footed septuagenarian I have ever seen behind the wheel. We’re zipping along the coast of the Hawaiian island where he spends a few weeks every year, and as Bose maneuvers through the curves, I try to account for his driving confidence. He has professed to me a lifelong enthusiasm for sportscars, so there’s that. There’s also his perfect eyesight (thanks, he says, to a series of eye exercises he does daily). More mundanely, there’s the radar detector on his dashboard.
But after spending a couple days with Bose talking 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, 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.”
It turns out that curiosity did not kill the company. Whatever its founder’s intentions, the Bose Corporation does in fact make money—but what it does with that money is certainly in line with his original mission. According to Bose, most of the profits on the company’s estimated sales of $1.7 billion are 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,” he says. “Public companies have to look good every 90 days to please the markets, so they can’t do that.”
“I would have been fired a hundred times at a company run by MBAs. But I never went into business to make money.”As we drive, Bose, slim and energetic at 75, leans into his stories much as he leans into the road’s curves. He speaks with a gravelly voice and an enthusiasm reminiscent of George C. Scott’s character in the movie Dr. Strangelove.
Bose’s rental Cadillac isn’t equipped with one of the high-end sound systems for which the Bose name is famous. Nor is it outfitted with what may be his most audacious innovation yet, the Bose Suspension System. Unveiled this summer after 24 years of R&D, the Bose suspension is a mega-breakthrough that replaces automotive shock absorbers with ultrafast linear electric motors. The system, which Bose expects to bring to market within four years, isolates the passenger compartment from bumps and dips and, at the same time, eliminates pitching and rolling during braking and turning.
So how did Bose Corp. come to produce such a thing? Simple: The founder got curious. Bose had been tinkering with cars since the 1950s. “I wondered,” he says, “what a car suspension could do without hardware constraints, if you could have any force you wanted, at any time, between the body and the wheel.”
In 1980 he decided to find out. Automakers had spent half a century optimizing fluid-based suspension hardware, but Bose came at it from a completely different direction, disregarding hardware assumptions and limitations and focusing first on figuring out what kind of performance was theoretically possible. The research program began with five years of mathematical analysis, which revealed a tremendous performance gap, one that could not be closed by making adjustments to existing shock-absorber hardware.
“A shock absorber can only absorb energy,” says Tom Froeschle, Bose Corp.’s vice president of engineering. “Plus, the inherent inertia of fluids makes any pneumatic or hydraulic system incapable of reacting fast enough to give us the performance we were looking for.”
In 1985 the team began focusing on an electromagnetic solution. Such an approach would be possible only with high-efficiency, high-power linear motors and amplifiers. It would require extremely complex control algorithms to stabilize the motors and superquick microcomputers to run the system.
None of which existed.
* * *
Bose’s father, a political dissident who had been active in the Indian independence movement, immigrated to the U.S. in 1920, married, and moved to a suburb of Philadelphia. As a kid in the 1930s, Amar began taking model trains apart, and by the time he was 13, he could diagnose and fix most radios.
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.”
Although Bose had tremendous practical experience in electronics, he came to MIT lacking a background in calculus. Realizing that he was “outclassed,” he applied himself to his studies with a tenacity he had lacked in high school. Among other austerity measures, he limited himself to two hours a week listening to his beloved classical music.
Eventually he would debunk most of the prevailing wisdom on high-fidelity sound reproduction.Nine years later, Bose finished his doctoral research and decided to reward himself with a first-class stereo system. He approached the task, he says, like a typical engineer. “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?”
Suddenly the task of writing his doctoral thesis on complex variable theory became drudgery. Now Bose’s thoughts were occupied by acoustics and psychoacoustics (the study of the human perception of sound), obsessions he would pursue over the next 12 years. Eventually he would debunk most of the prevailing wisdom on high-fidelity sound reproduction.
Around the time of the original acoustical disappointment, though, Bose was drafted to teach MIT’s intro network-theory class. He reluctantly agreed to try it for two years.
“Teaching,” he says, “has never been a priority at MIT; it’s mostly lip service. With a few very notable exceptions, the priorities are writing papers and making tenure. There were professors who had an enormous influence on me, but it wasn’t in the subjects they taught. The benefit came through conversations in which they conveyed their way of thinking. That was what I wanted to give to my students: I wanted to teach thought, not formulas.”
Bose threw away the syllabus he was given—”it was more suitable for a technician’s training”—and hauled nine blackboards into his classroom. He drafted a cadre of professors and teaching assistants to lead recitation sessions and encouraged students to ask tough questions. He urged section leaders to “think out loud,” to illustrate the problem-solving process. He abolished exam time limits and allowed open books.
Bose soon gained something of a cult following among students. Despite a hefty homework commitment of 18 to 20 hours a week, Bose’s engineering classes—one was described as “Life 101” by a student course-review guide—ultimately drew mathematicians, physicists, biologists and students from all disciplines at the university. William R. Brody, now the president of Johns Hopkins University, took Bose’s class as an undergraduate in 1962. “He would walk into a lecture to 350 students, and you could hear a pin drop,” Brody recalls. “He
commanded a lot of respect, because of the force of his intellect and his total dedication to the students. His class gave me the courage to tackle high-risk problems; it equipped me with
the problem-solving skills I needed to be successful in several careers. Amar Bose taught me how to think.”
* * *
As Bose developed as a teacher, he continued to devote energy to electronics research, laying the groundwork for new efficiencies in power processing. In 1964 one of Bose’s mentors, Y.W. Lee, called Bose into his office. Yee had been trapped in Shanghai during World War II and had survived by prospecting for artifacts and curios.
“I have a two-part dream I would like to tell you about,” Lee said. “It is a dream that every curio dealer has. The first part of the dream is that one day he will go into the hills and an object will come into his hands. The second part is that he will recognize the value of this object and not let it pass through his fingers.”
“The genius of Lee,” Bose says, “is that he would give you two plus two, and let you discover four. I spent a few days thinking about it, and I finally realized that he was telling me to form a company, to develop some of the applications and patents that we had been working on.” And so he formed the Bose Corporation. A contract to develop power-regulating systems for military jets provided an early revenue stream (today Bose systems regulate the electric power on many commercial jets), which was poured into additional research and development.
“I knew better than to tell him what I thought, because the more people say it can’t be done, the more excited he gets.”
In 1966, encouraged by his years of late-night acoustics research suggesting that the role of reflected sound had been overlooked, Bose introduced a speaker that used multiple small loudspeakers to take advantage of the fact that 80 to 90 percent of sound from a speaker radiates backward. The system did away with woofers and tweeters and incorporated an active equalizer. To work correctly, the speakers had to be placed in the corners of the room.
“To the hi-fi world, it was blasphemy,” Bose says. “They sounded great, but people had their preconceptions, and the reasoning behind our speakers was too hard to explain.”
The first speakers were a flop. But Bose’s reputation grew with the introduction of the second-generation Bose 901 speakers, followed by the 301 speakers and the Wave Radio, which the company introduced after 14 years of R&D. In 1978, on a flight from Zurich, Bose hit on the idea for noise-canceling headphones—and managed to work out the essential equations by the time he landed. And in 1982, drawn by the possibilities for high-quality audio in cars, he teamed up with ACDelco to develop custom-configured sound systems for particular models.
As the company grew, Bose kept looking outward, excited by the opportunities he saw all around him. His son, Vanu, remembers driving in a rainstorm with his father, who squinted through a windshield streaked by poorly performing wipers. “Most people would just complain about how the wipers don’t work right,” Vanu says, “but he was analyzing why they didn’t work and thinking out loud about how to make them better. A few weeks later I saw on his desk a patent application for a new design for windshield wipers. It was only later that I realized that not everyone is always looking for ways to do things better.”
* * *
As we continue on our rambling drive, Bose stops the car often to investigate whatever piques his curiosity: hang-gliders stunt-flying over a canyon, teenage boogie-boarders slicing through eight-foot waves, a particularly beautiful beach. His sense of wonder is earnest, and as we explore the island together, I find it reassuring that a person can retain this sort of innocence and optimism and not only survive, but thrive.
More than anything, Bose’s intense curiosity reminds me of my 15-month-old son. Yet Bose’s attention span is anything but childlike. How many corporate leaders these days have the
patience to sustain a speculative research project for 24 years? “That’s a big problem now in this country,” Bose says. “The average automotive CEO stays on the job for only 4.7 years, so he is not likely to invest money in long-term research. The consequence is that this country, which should be on the frontiers of research, is losing its technological leadership.”
Bose says that his best ideas usually come to him in a flash. “These innovations are not the result of rational thought; it’s an intuitive idea. But if it’s a sophisticated idea, then you need to apply all the rational tools to determine whether, and how, it can be done.” The Bose Suspension System was, to say the least, a sophisticated idea. Vice president Bob Maresca remembers the day, in 1986, when Bose told him about the then-secret project, which was code-named Project Sound.
“Amar was very excited,” Maresca says. “He said a car with this suspension could corner as well as any racecar, but it would have a smoother ride than any luxury car. He said it could crouch down and leap like a leopard, then it would put its paws out and accept the landing. I thought, ‘What an intriguing and exciting fantasy—but impossible, of course.’ I knew better than to tell him what I thought, because the more people say it can’t be done, the more excited he gets.”
Having identified the huge divide between what was available and what was theoretically possible, Bose’s suspension team took on the challenge of designing high-speed linear motors, control algorithms and high-efficiency amplifiers. They bet that the computer industry would make sufficient strides on their fourth essential item, high-speed processing. They began testing designs and software, and by 1989, they had developed a prototype that was ready to be road-tested.
“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.”
At its heart are linear electromagnetic motors installed at each wheel in place of traditional shock absorbers. Power amplifiers—based on technologies Bose pioneered at MIT—deliver electricity to the motors in response to signals from the control algorithms. The motors move so quickly and forcefully that they can extend downward to roll the tire through a deep rut and then retract fast enough that the car’s occupants perceive nothing more than a mild stirring. On the far side of the pothole, the motor operates as a generator, so the suspension requires less than a third the power of a typical car air-conditioning system.
In August I previewed the suspension system at Bose headquarters in Framingham, Massachusetts. In a Lexus LS400 atop a ride simulator, I bounced around on a facsimile of a terribly rutted cobblestone road as it would feel with a conventional high-end suspension. Next, in Bose mode, the car took on the same mangled road, but inside I felt only subtle vibrations. Looking at a mirror on the wall of the garage, I could see the Lexus’s tires bouncing insanely, as if they belonged to another car.
Later I watched a film of two test drivers taking a basic LS400 and a Bose-retrofitted LS400 through a series of side-by-side tests. In a double-lane-change maneuver, a bumps course and deep cornering, the Bose-equipped Lexus remained completely flat, with no hint of body pitch or roll.
At the end of the film, the Bose Lexus accelerated toward a curb. The car crouched down and leaped like a leopard, hurdling over the obstruction. As it descended, it extended its “paws”—the wheels—out to accept the landing. The driver got out and bowed. Next to him, the empty car bowed too.
* * *
“The future,” Bose famously told his students, “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.”
In 1983 engineering graduate student Ken Jacob enrolled in Bose’s acoustics class during his final semester at MIT. As a teenager, Jacob was one of many audiophiles who had bought black-market kits to build pirated copies of the pricey Bose 901 speakers, and at MIT he had heard the buzz about Bose’s teaching. After his coursework was finished, Jacob was planning to design sound for Broadway productions.
“Within 20 minutes of the start of that first lecture,” Jacob says, “all my plans had changed. Professor Bose connected everything I had learned and put all the pieces together. I said, ‘I’ve got to work for this guy.'”
Jacob would go on to become the director and chief engineer of Bose’s Live Music Technology Group, which in 1994 unveiled the Bose Auditioner program, a software tool that allows acoustic engineers to hear precisely what a proposed audio system will sound like from any seat in a large venue even before building construction begins. The program has been used to design public address systems at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Sistine Chapel, and even Masjid al-Haram, the grand mosque at Mecca, a challenging environment, full of reverberating marble, with a history of failed audio solutions.
On the day that Jacob unveiled the project, Bose admitted that he hadn’t expected it to succeed. “He let me work on that with a team of five engineers for 10 years—most of the time thinking that it was impossible,” Jacob told me, shaking his head in disbelief. When I repeat Jacob’s quote to Bose, he grins. “I thought the computational power wouldn’t be there,” he says. “But the problem was tough enough and the team was talented enough that I thought their research would yield something good. Besides, Ken was so passionate about his idea that I couldn’t bring myself to hold him back.”
* * *
When we stop for some ice cream, I ask Bose how he accounts for the impact he has had on such diverse fields. He tells me that he once asked his mentor, the brilliant mathematician Norbert Wiener, the same question. “We were walking through the courtyard, and he stopped and turned toward me, and said two words: ‘Insatiable curiosity.’ “
Perhaps not surprisingly, something as straightforward as creating a mission statement can be difficult at a company whose core value seems to be inquisitiveness. “Amar doesn’t like to be narrowly defined,” says Joe Veranth, Bose vice president of research and development. “He’ll say, ‘How do we know we won’t be doing this and this and this five years from now? Why should we limit ourselves?’ “
The value of Amar Bose isn’t so much in the things he has invented, but in the sense of possibility he inspires.
Even the company’s consumer slogan—BETTER SOUND THROUGH RESEARCH—appears on the trucks only, Veranth says, “because trucks can be repainted.” In the lobby of Bose headquarters, set in stone, is a broader slogan: BETTER PRODUCTS THROUGH RESEARCH.
Even that seems limiting; a somewhat drab, Jetsons-era paean to the redemptive power of products and technology. The value of Amar Bose—and by extension, his company—isn’t so much in the things he has invented, but in the sense of possibility he inspires. Bose reminds us that we could all afford to be much more skyward-looking, far-fetched and curious, and
that we could all believe more strongly in our own potential to create.
When we jump back in the Cadillac and continue careening along the Hawaiian coast, I ask Bose about the suspension system’s market potential. He says he has no clue. “It will be expensive. But we know that we have a technology that’s so different and so much better that just about anyone who tries it will want it.”
In the automotive world, there’s not much that is more fundamental than the interface between a car’s body and the road’s surface. But now that Bose has mastered suspension, what is the next big unsolved problem with cars?
Bose laughs big when he hears the question, and I realize that for the first time today, I’m not going to get an answer. I watch his eyes for clues, but I see only a glimmer, a trace of the spark of genius and mischief converging. He grins, clearly satisfied with himself, and keeps his gaze fast on the road ahead.
“We’re working on it,” he says.
Click here to see this story as it originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Popular Science_ magazine._