Monday, February 27, 2017
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Celebrating Ray Dolby
Walter Salm, Editor

Once, when I was still in high school, I drove the 35 miles to Schenectady, NY (my mother came along as chaperone) to see a day's worth of live TV production at the local station, GE's WRGB. This was the one and only TV channel we could receive at the time, and only with a very tall antenna. It was on the air just three days a week. The network still hadn't reached Upstate New York, so all programming originated in the large boxlike one-size-fits-all studio where we saw a drama, a dog show, and later two boxing matches. In the studio. They did this all with just three cameras, which were very costly in those days, and production technology was very primitive. Later, the network finally reached Schenectady, so we were treated to programming originating in the Big Apple (New York City) and at one point I learned that the network had also reached as far as Chicago.

This month, I am celebrating Ray Dolby. I had known for a long time that he had been one of the principal contributors to the original Ampex video recorders, but a little research revealed some fascinating details. He grew up on the San Francisco Peninsula surrounded by new technology and went to work part time at Ampex during his senior year. The company had called his high school and asked for a projectionist, and they sent Dolby. We were the same age. We both graduated from high school in 1951 and went off to college, him to San Jose State College for electrical engineering, while I went to Union College in Schenectady as a physics major. We were both drafted in 1953 because there was a war going on in a far-off place called Korea. He became an army electronics instructor in St. Louis, while I became an electronics student at New Jersey's Fort Monmouth. The big difference: he was a genius, I was not.

After the army, I remember attending live press demonstrations of machines that used 1/4-inch tape whizzing by recording heads at a breathtaking 400 ips in the quest to obtain video recording. I also witnessed the incredible tape shredding that happened when a tape broke. You did not want to try to pick up the pieces.

Years later, I met Dolby and his gorgeous wife Dagmar at an NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) convention. At the time, I was managing editor of Broadcast Management/Engineering magazine.

At one point, I wangled the loan of an early Ampex helical scan recorder, not broadcast quality, but pretty sharp black-and-white, and worth about $10,000 (in 1967 dollars). It used some very costly 1-inch-wide reel-to-reel tape. I wrote articles about home video recording for a couple of national magazines to justify the loaner, and Ampex didn't ask for the return of the machine for about a year. I used to tape Peyton Place for delayed viewing, so my wife (number one) could watch it later, because she had a conflict; she was attending night classes in electronics to become a little more knowledgeable about the freelance articles she retyped for me. One time, her instructor asked her if she was any relation to Walter Salm, and thus I discovered that I had fans everywhere.

One day, the recorder developed some problems and when I contacted Ampex, I fully expected them to ask for its return. Instead the doorbell rang the next day, and there was a clean-cut young Ampex techie, carrying a fully equipped Tektronix oscilloscope. It was army "portable" because it had a large fold-down handle. He ran some diagnostics, made some repairs, and the recorder was as good as new. I dreaded to think of what that service call would have cost if I had to pay for it.

Ray Dolby spent much of his life in Silicon Valley, and according to Wikipedia, his widow (still in Silicon Valley) is today worth $1.3 billion. He went to Cambridge for advanced studies, receiving a PhD there, and then worked as technical advisor to the U.N. in India. Ampex was the first company with practical video recording, later working out a cross-licensing deal with RCA for NTSC color technology. Ampex held the keys to the kingdom for quite a while, and we have that company to thank for countless regurgitations of old TV shows, instant replay, and the many low-cost lower-resolution machines to come out of Japan (Betamax and then VHS), technology that was ultimately displaced by digital recording. Thank you Ampex and thank you Ray Dolby. Now turn to Tech Watch on Page 10 for a really neat look at video recording and how it came to be.  

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