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Rampant Curiosity

The tenacity of Amar Bose ‘51, SM ‘52, ScD ‘56, which brought the world better speakers, will soon give us a smoother car ride.

In 1986, Amar Bose had a vision of a car that could pounce like a cat. Bose ‘51, SM ‘52, ScD ‘56, is founder of the company that bears his name, and Bose Corporation has prospered by developing inventive sound systems. But when he had his vision, Bose was intent on creating not a better loudspeaker or CD player but a better suspension for automobiles. It was a project that his research staff had already been working on for six years, creating mathematical models of suspension performance. When Bose described his vision, “He talked about how the car would extend its front paws and land like a leopard,” recalls Robert Maresca, now vice president of the company’s home entertainment division. “At that point, I started looking for a tether to reality.”

But as Maresca says this, he smiles. Nineteen years later, Bose Corporation has produced a video of a Lexus, equipped with the company’s new suspension, literally leaping over a curb-high barrier in the road. The leap may not be exactly feline, and it’s a publicity stunt, but it’s nevertheless startling. Just as startling are the smooth ride and stable handling of a car equipped with the new technology.

The technology delights Bose, who for 41 years has channeled entrepreneurship, persistence, stubborn independence, and extraordinary curiosity into a privately held company whose annual sales are estimated at $1.7 billion. Bose Corporation’s successful consumer products include the 901 direct/reflecting speakers, the Wave music system, and QuietComfort noise-canceling headphones. When Bose founded the company, he dictated that there would be no mandatory retirement age, and at 75 he remains active in management and research. The expansive whiteboard in his office in Framingham, MA, is covered with equations in several marker colors. Bose clearly has every intention of continuing to come to work each day to pursue the question that has driven him throughout his career: Why doesn’t this work better?

Kenneth D. Jacob, director and chief engineer of the live-music technology group at Bose, says his boss is governed by “uncontrollable curiosity.” The two traveled to India in June 1995. Jacob no longer remembers why they went, but he does remember breakfast on their first day. Bose met him at the table, and Jacob asked if he’d slept well. Yes, Bose said, he’d slept well but not long. “I asked him, ‘Why not?’” Jacob recalls. “And he said, ‘I was up trying to figure out what was wrong with the toilet.’”

Bose has been turning inquisitiveness into profit ever since he was a kid in Philadelphia during World War II. When he was 13, he studied schematic drawings, figured out how they correlated with actual circuitry, and taught himself to repair radios. Most of the adults with the same skills had entered the military, and new radios were scarce, so young Amar was in demand. He advertised his services in hardware stores and eventually attracted so much business that he had to skip school on Fridays to keep up with it.

He entered MIT planning to stay for four years. He stayed nine and emerged with a ScD in electrical engineering. “The only thing I knew when I graduated was that I never wanted to be a teacher,” Bose says. MIT all but drafted him to join its faculty anyway, and he soon displayed a gift for pedagogy. He remained at MIT for 45 years and proved extraordinarily popular with students.

Bose’s penchant for teaching is evident in the way he runs his company. Tom Froeschle, SM ‘65, vice president of research, was the second MIT graduate Bose hired, in 1965. He describes how Bose will put people to work in areas where they have no expertise, assuming they will learn whatever they need to learn. “His audacity is remarkable,” Froeschle says. “And unusual.” Says Maresca, “He’s the ultimate professor. He loves to see people flourish under his tutelage.”

If Bose’s methods are audacious, however, it’s an audacity he can afford. He has kept his company private and free of long-term debt because he has never wanted Wall Street analysts, investors, bankers, or anyone else to dictate how it operates. And his independence has created room for his persistence. He kept working on the auto suspension for 24 years because he was convinced his company could produce revolutionary technology. Such long-range work, he says, “could never be done in a public company,” where CEOs are judged by their near-term contribution to the bottom line.

The company also embodies its founder’s approach to innovation: examine how something works, analyze the fundamental reasoning behind it, and then find a better way. As a professor, Bose always focused on process. William R. Brody ‘65, SM ‘66, who is now president of Johns Hopkins University, first took an electrical-engineering class from Bose in 1962. He says, “I went from learning the material to learning how to think and how to approach problems. ‘I am not interested in the answers to the problems we assign to you,’ [Bose] used to say. ‘We already know the answers. In real life you will be asked to solve problems that haven’t yet been posed. Therefore, I am interested in how you approach problems.’”

This method has led to two of the company’s biggest technological breakthroughs. The first was the direct/reflecting speaker. While a student at MIT in 1956, Bose bought a new pair of stereo speakers that, according to their specifications, were the best he could afford. When he played a recording of a violin through them, though, he was disappointed. “They measured well and sounded badly,” he recalls. “If the measurements were truthful, then the technology was wrong.” He set out to fix it. He spent years schooling himself in acoustics and the recording of music and realized that as little as 20 percent of the sound produced in a live performance travels directly to the listener’s ear; the rest first bounces off surrounding surfaces. Yet all stereo speakers tried to beam sound straight at the listener. Bose reasoned that, to realistically reproduce concert sound, a speaker should direct most of its sound waves at reflective surfaces. This overthrow of conventional thinking resulted in the Bose 901, the company’s breakout consumer audio product. First offered in 1968, the 901 remains a mainstay of the company’s product line.

Bose approached automobile suspensions in the same way. For decades, every improvement in suspensions had been achieved by refining the same basic spring and shock absorber technology–as Bose says, “Pick the hardware, get the highest level out of that hardware that you could.” In 1980, he began working with company engineers on a mathematical model of the theoretical optimal suspension for a car. After five years of calculations, he concluded that a far superior system was possible, but it would require technology that had not yet been invented. After 19 more years of research and development, Bose produced a new suspension system that replaces the shock absorber on each wheel with a linear electromagnetic motor. Sensors monitor the road, and algorithms extend or retract each wheel’s linear motor to counter irregularities in the road surface or to stop the car’s body from rolling during turns or pitching at sudden stops and starts. (Because the system is programmable, Bose engineers could command the linear motors to extend with enough force to propel the car over a barrier, which is how they performed the curb-hopping stunt in the promotional video.) The company hopes to bring the suspension to market in four or five years. “Half of nights I wake up dreaming about it,” Bose says.

Bose plans to will his company, which now employs more than 8,000 people worldwide, to an educational institution of his own design. There was a better way to reproduce music and a better way to smooth a rough road, and Bose believes he knows a better way to pursue higher education. He doesn’t reveal much about the new school, but he says that it will challenge conventions. “It’s my firm, firm, firm belief that a lot can be done in education, but I couldn’t get it done in a university. We’re going to try an educational approach that can do more. It won’t have tenure, and it’ll have a minimum of politics.” Given Bose’s track record, it’s also likely to be distinctive in design and original in approach.

When Bose unveiled his company’s suspension system to the automotive press last year, reporters asked him what he felt. “I told them, ‘I don’t feel it at all.’ Because I’m looking for the next thing. That’s what’s exciting for me. The rest is past.”

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