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Ray Dolby, shaping sound as we know it

Today we celebrate the birthday of Ray Dolby (18 Jan 1933), the American engineer and physicist who invented the Dolby Noise Reduction System.

Dolby Digital - keeping the Dolby name relevant in the digital era.(© All Rights Reserved)
Dolby Digital – keeping the Dolby name relevant in the digital era.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Dolby started his career in sound engineering while still at school, when he worked part-time at the Ampex Corporation. During his college years he became part of a team of engineers who invented the first practical video tape recorder in 1956. He subsequently started his own company, Dolby Laboratories, where he developed his noise reduction technologies, starting with Dolby A (1966), a broadband audio compression and expansion technique aimed at recording studios, with which audible tape hiss in professional tape recording can be significantly reduced without any discernible side-effects.

While Dolby A had real impact in the recording industry, perhaps the better known technology is Dolby B (1968), a sliding band noise reduction system aimed at the consumer market, which helped achieve high fidelity on cassette tapes.

All the Dolby variants work through a technique dubbed ‘companding’, which involves compressing the dynamic range of the sound during recording (‘dynamic pre-emphasis’), and expanding it during playback (‘dynamic de-emphasis’). This basically comes down to increasing the volume of low-level high-frequency sounds during recording and correspondingly reducing them during playback, thus reducing audible levels of tape hiss.

Various further iterations of Dolby’s audio noise reduction have subsequently been introduced, including Dolby C (1980), Dolby SR (1986) and Dolby S (1989).

Beyond noise reduction, Dolby Laboratories have also done ground-breaking work in the field of digital audio encoding and compression. Dolby Digital – first developed for movie theatres and later implemented in DVDs – is a digital audio compression format that was instrumental in the popularisation of surround sound. It has also been adopted as output format in most video game consoles, and several personal computers. Subsequent iterations of this technology include Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Digital Plus and Dolby Digital Live.

To say that Ray Dolby and his noise reduction and audio compression technologies have influenced the way we experience recorded sound, is an understatement. He has fundamentally shaped the way sound is recorded and reproduced, and his technologies have become so pervasive in sound reproduction that it is almost impossible to quantify its impact.

Celebrating imagination and creativity on Kid Inventors’ Day

Today we celebrate the youth. More particularly, clever youngsters through the ages who have come up with great inventions at an early age.

17 January is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin (17 Jan 1706 – 17 April 1790). We all know Franklin as one of the founding fathers of the United States, but what is perhaps less well known is that he is also the inventor of swim fins (what became flippers), at the tender age of 12. In recognition of this fact, 17 January is celebrated as Kid Inventors’ Day.

Childhood - when our minds are open, thinking is uninhibited and the world is a place of wonder.(© All Rights Reserved)
Childhood – when our minds are open, thinking is uninhibited and the world is a place of wonder.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The Kid Inventors’ Day website states some interesting facts. Apparently about half a million children and teens invent gadgets and games each year. Some of the brilliant inventions by youngsters include braille (1824, Louis Braille, age 15), earmuffs (1873, Chester Greenwood, age 15), popsicles (1905, Frank Epperson, age 11), water skis (1922, Ralph Samuelson, age 18), the trampoline (1930, George Nissen, age 16), and of course Benjamin Franklin’s swim fins. The site also claims the television as a child invention, but I’m not too sure about that, especially since there’s such disagreement as to who actually deserves the credit for this invention.

To be honest, I am not surprised that so many well known items were invented by children and teens. In fact, if it wasn’t for the admin around patenting etc, I am sure more inventions may have been credited to kids who probably thought about many concepts before the more famous inventors credited with the eventual inventions.

Given their limitless imagination, uninhibited creativity and sheer energy, young people appear almost destined to come up with great ideas. I believe the great inventors through the ages were probably those people who managed to retain some of this innovative spark into adulthood, somehow managing to avoid having their creativity and imagination curbed by the conventions, norms, biases and prejudices (and medication!) clouding most grown-ups’ minds.

So, on this day, let’s celebrate the great inventions created by kids, and let’s all try to foster and regain some of their ability to live, think and create without inhibitions.

Celebrating Ruth Benerito and her quick-drying, flame-retardant, crease and stain resistant fabrics

Today we celebrate the birthday of Ruth Rogan Benerito (born 12 Jan 1916), the American chemist and inventor whose innovations in fabric technology have saved the world many many hours slogging away in front of the ironing board. Dr Benerito was the inventor of wash and wear cotton fabric.

As if this wasn’t enough of a gift to the world, Benerito also came up with numerous other innovations – in total she has been granted no less than 55 patents related to textile technology. Thanks to her we now have fabrics that are quicker drying,  crease and stain resistant, comfortable and better able to retard flames. She also developed a cotton textile cleaning technique (adopted widely in the Japanese textile industry) using radiofrequency cold plasmas. This method replaces the commonly used technique of pre-treating cotton with sodium hydroxide, as such greatly reducing the environmental impact.  Many of her innovations also found application in the wood and paper industries.

No more ironing for hours - just wash, dry and wear.(© All Rights Reserved)
No more ironing for hours – just wash, dry and wear.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The key to the wrinkle-resistant fabric was a process called molecular cross-linking. She discovered that the long chain-like cellulose molecules that make up cotton fibre can be chemically treated so they are bound (cross-linked) together – a process that strengthens the hydrogen bonds between the cellulose molecules, leading to the advantageous result that the cotton becomes less prone to wrinkling.

On an almost completely unrelated note, far removed from her important and ground-breaking work in textiles, Benerito also developed a novel technique to administer fat intravenously to patients too sick or wounded to eat. This innovation has helped save the lives of thousands of people  by maintaining their nutrition levels during severe illness.

From clothing to nutrition, these are some truly useful innovations indeed!

Walter Diemer, the accountant who gave the world bubble gum.

Today we celebrate the birthday of Walter E Diemer, who was born on this day in 1905 and, incidentally, also died on this day 93 years later. In case the name doesn’t ring a bell, Diemer is the guy who gave the world (wait for it…) bubble gum!

He never set out to invent bubble gum, to be honest. Working as an accountant for the Freer Chewing Gum Company, he experimented in his spare time with different recipes for new chewing gum bases. During one of his attempts, in 1928, he accidentally managed to create a base that was less sticky and much more elastic than typical chewing gum.

Bubble gum - creating a whole new way to play with your food.(© All Rights Reserved)
Bubble gum – creating a whole new way to play with your food.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Realising he had something quite unique on his hands, he decided to try his invention in the market. He sold a batch to a local grocery store, where it was sold out in the first afternoon. Leveraging Freer’s distribution networks, he started marketing his bubble gum nationally, using salesmen who were specially taught how to blow bubbles with the gum, so they could serve as product demonstrators when they sold the new Freers bubble gum (named ‘Dubble Bubble’) to stores.

Diemer eventually became Senior Vice-President of Freer, thanks largely to his bubble gum invention. Many years later, he still found it amazing that his five pound batch of gum started a global craze, becoming one of the most popular confections in the world.

Diemer’s original batch of bubble gum was pink in colour, mainly because this was the only food colouring he had available at the time, and after almost a century, this still remains the standard colour for bubble gum.

World Braille Day, celebrating communication via raised dots

January 4th is World Braille Day, a day to celebrate the code of tiny elevated dots that has been instrumental in opening up worlds of information and opportunity to millions of people around the world suffering from blindness or low vision. The date coincides with the commemoration of the birthday of Louis Braille (4 January 1809 – 6 January 1852), the Frenchman credited with the invention of the braille code language over the years 1821 – 1837.

Braille - opening up new worlds of communication through touch.(© All Rights Reserved)
Braille – opening up new worlds of communication through touch.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Louis Braille, while not born blind, was blinded through an accident when he was only 3 years old. He attended the National Institute for Blind Youth in France, one of the first schools in the world for blind children. Here he learned to read using a system developed by the school’s founder, Valentin Hauy, who had books specially printed using a complex wet-printing process, to create raised imprints of the Latin letters in the text. While this was useful, it was very difficult to accurately read the letters by touch, and the complexity of the printing process made it impossible for an individual to use for writing. Braille yearned to read and write as well as any able person, despite his disability, and he knew that effective communication was critical if he was to function fully in a normal world. He is famously quoted as saying: “We must be treated as equals – and communication is the way this can be brought about.”

This passion lead him to devise a set of symbols, consisting of raised dots on paper, that could be felt by hand and read as a sighted person would read printed letters and words on a page. The simplicity of the raised dot system meant that a blind person could also generate a page with the code using simple tools, thus effectively enabling him to write. The system was an improvement on an earlier code system, known as ‘night writing’, developed for military use by Captain Charles Barbier of the French Army.

It is a testament to his intelligence, drive and tenacity that Braille developed most of the code that was to become the basis of the braille language by 1824, when he was a mere 15 years of age. His initial system, published in 1829, contained both dots and dashes, but he replaced this with an updated, simplified edition using only dots, released in 1837.

Braille’s system of communication took some time to gain widespread adoption. First adopted at the school where he was educated, its popularity grew throughout France, and from there it slowly gained recognition in other countries. Almost 2 centuries after its invention, braille remains a critical tool for learning and communication among the visually impaired. Over the years, it has been adapted and expanded for many world languages.

In an incredible twist of fate, the very tool that accidentally blinded Louis Braille at the age of three – an awl – became the tool he used used to write his unique braille code.

Louis Pasteur, founder of microbiology

Today we celebrate another of the big names in science – Louis Pasteur (27 Dec 1822 – 28 Sep 1895), one of the founders of the field of microbiology.

Thanks to Louis Pasteur, your milk stays fresher for longer.(© All Rights Reserved)
Thanks to Louis Pasteur, your milk stays fresher for longer.
(© All Rights Reserved)

The Frenchman Pasteur, a chemist by training, shifted his focus to microbiology when he started studying the role of bacteria in fermentation. His understanding of the process of fermentation led to fundamental insights into the role of germs in infection, and how the process can be manipulated. He figured out that bacteria can be killed by exposing them for a specific time at a given temperature – a process that became known as pasteurisation.

Pasteur made many contributions in the field of human health, creating and testing a range of vaccines for diphtheria, cholera, yellow fever, plague, rabies, anthrax, and tuberculosis.

James Prescott Joule and the conservation of energy

Today we celebrate the birthday of James Prescott Joule (24 Dec 1818 – 11 Oct 1889), the English physicist famous for his discovery that the different forms of energy – mechanical, electrical, and heat – are essentially the same thing, and as such are interchangeable.

In wind energy farms, wind energy (a mechanical energy) is converted to electric energy. In the process, some loss occurs in the form of heat generated. Joule's important contribution was to figure out that the total energy (mechanical + electrical + heat), however, remains constant.(© All Rights Reserved)
In wind energy farms, wind energy (a mechanical energy) is converted to electric energy. In the process, some loss occurs in the form of heat generated. Joule’s important contribution was to figure out that the total energy (mechanical + electrical + heat), however, remains constant.
(© All Rights Reserved)

This discovery lead to his formulation of the First Law of Thermodynamics – the Law of Conservation of Energy. The law states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but can only be changed from one form to another.

Some of his other important contributions to physics include the definition of the relationship between electrical current, resistance and heat, and also, some 10 years later, the kinetic theory of gases.

His important contributions to the understanding of energy was acknowledged when his name was given to the SI unit for energy – the joule (J).

Lyle’s golden syrup – turning waste into gold

Today we celebrate the birthday of Abram Lyle (14 Dec 1820 – 30 Apr 1891), Scottish ship owner, sugar refiner, and the man who gave the world Lyle’s Golden Syrup.

Starting his career in the shipping industry, Lyle later started supplying casks to ship Caribbean sugar and molasses. This got him into the sugar business, starting the Glebe Sugar Refinery with some partners. One of the by-products of the sugar cane refining process was a treacle-like syrup that usually goes to waste, but with the help of chemist Charles Eastick, Lyle found a way to refine it further to make a preserve, called golden syrup.

Yummy pancakes, made that little bit extra special with the compliments of Abram Lyle and his wonderful golden syrup. (© All Rights Reserved)
Yummy pancakes, made that little bit extra special thanks to Abram Lyle and his wonderful golden syrup.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Lyle’s golden syrup was sold in tins featuring a drawing of a rotting lion carcass with a swarm of bees, referring to the bible story where Samson was traveling in the land of the Philistines to find a wife. During his journey he killed a lion, and when he later passed the same way he noticed a swarm of bees had started a hive in the carcass, producing honey inside the lion. From this, Samson created the riddle “Out of the eater came forth meat and out of the strong came forth sweetness”, and the last bit of this riddle, “Out of the strong came forth sweetness”, became the slogan for Lyle’s Golden Syrup.

Golden syrup, being made from those sugars that did not crystalise during refinement, consists mostly of glucose and fructose. It is more water soluble than sucrose, and as a result less likely to form crystals, remaining syrupy under normal room temperatures. It is also sweeter than sucrose, so when using golden syrup as a sugar replacement in cooking etc, about 25% less golden syrup is needed to match the sweetness of sugar.

I am always endlessly impressed by people like Abram Lyle: those individuals who look at something that others see as a problem, or as waste – in this case the treacle waste – and instead see it as an opportunity to create something new and original.

With Lyle’s end product being golden syrup, I guess this really is a case of turning waste into gold.

Having fun without breaking the bank on Frugal Fun Day

Following hot on the heels of World Smile Day comes Frugal Fun Day, celebrated on the first Saturday of October. As far as I could ascertain, Frugal Fun Day – a day to engage in fun activities that are either free or very inexpensive – is the brainchild of Seth Horowitz, author of “The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty With a Peasant’s Pocketbook.”

The idea of the day is to try and come up with original, imaginative ways to have fun without breaking the bank. Build your own kite and try to fly it. Pitch a tent in the garden and ‘go camping’ for the night. Go play in a sand-pit (or better still, the beach, if you’re lucky enough to live near the sea). Lose yourself in a good book from the library or bought at a secondhand shop. Hold a family concert. Visit museums and art galleries in your region. Go support a school sports event, even if your kid isn’t playing. Use the power of social media and arrange a flash mob.

Want some frugal fun? Invent a new game or sport! Uhm, anyone up for some beach ballet?
(© All Rights Reserved)

If you strongly feel you want to spend your time more constructively, you can have your frugal fun by helping others. Find out about volunteering opportunities and activities in your region and get involved. Few things leave a more lasting good feeling than doing good to others.

If you let your imagination run free, the possibilities are endless – I am sure you can think of many more exciting things to do than I’ve come up with.

Focussing our creative energies on simple, constructive fun is a great way to get away from the stresses of modern life – you probably need less than an hour watching the news of the world to be convinced just how much we all need it. And focussing specifically on the cheap and free side of things is a good reminder that money is not always a prerequisite for enjoying ourselves.

So the challenge is yours – any suggestions?

Celebrating rock ‘n’ roll royalty – Leo Fender and his iconic guitars

Come on, everybody, let your hair down and rock it like you mean it!

If you ever needed an excuse to rock out, you have one today – we celebrate the birthday of Leo Fender (10 Aug 1909 – 21 Mar 1991), the man who gave rock ‘n’ roll a huge adrenalin injection with the invention of the Fender Telecaster, the first (and many would argue still the greatest) solid-body electric guitar.

Through his company, the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, he also made numerous other contributions to the music world, including the legendary Fender Stratocaster guitar and the Fender Precision Bass.

Rock ‘n’ roll royalty – the Fender Stratocaster.
(© All Rights Reserved)

With the changing trends in music towards the end of the 1940s, Leo Fender realised there was potential in the market for a louder, cheaper and more durable guitar than the pickup-equipped archtop guitars used by the earlier dance bands. He prototyped his first thin, solid-body electric guitar in 1949. First released in 1950 as a single pickup design called the Fender Esquire, it was quickly renamed the Broadcaster. After the addition of a second pickup, it became the Fender Telecaster (or ‘Tele’) – one of the most iconic electric guitars, still virtually unchanged, and as popular as ever, today, more than 60 years later.

Based on feedback received from players who wanted something different to what the Telecaster offered, Fender first considered changing and updating the design of the guitar. With so many players committed to the Telecaster, however, he decided to rather introduce a separate new design. The new guitar, called the Stratocaster (or ‘Strat’) – basically a Telecaster on steroids – had a more ergonomic, smooth double-cutaway body, a rounder neck, three pickups and a revolutionary tremolo (string-bending) unit. Another true rock icon, the Fender Stratocaster became the weapon of choice for countless rock guitarists over the past 50 years.

The list of guitarists who play Fender Strats and Teles reads like a who’s who of guitar gods over the ages – Jimi Hendrix, Yngwie Malmsteen, Ritchie Blackmore, Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Kurt Cobain, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Mark Knopfler, David Gilmour, John Mayer and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to list a few of the better known names. You just can’t argue with that!

In addition to their legendary electric guitars, the Fender company also produces acoustic guitars, electric basses, mandolins, banjos, and electric violins, as well as a range of amplifiers and PA systems.

In one of those crazy cosmic coincidences, today also happens to be the day (back in 1897) that aspirin was first created.  So it turns out that the same day that gave us the man who helped put the volume into rock n roll, also gave us the substance that could help relieve the headaches suffered by those who couldn’t handle the volume!