Amar G. Bose, 74, founder, owner, and chairman of the Bose Corporation, rocked the automotive world in August by unveiling a suspension system that could make all others obsolete. It uses computer-controlled electric motors to effectively cancel a road’s bumps and dips, giving occupants a glass-smooth ride. The system, more than two decades in development, is expected to show up on cars within four years. It may seem like an unlikely breakthrough from what many regard as a high-end speaker company, but since its founding in 1964, Bose has conquered science and engineering challenges in a variety of fields. The company, which employs 8,000 people, reflects its maverick founder and offers a unique model for revitalizing American corporate research and development. Bose was a professor of electrical engineering at MIT for 45 years.
Photograph by Bob O’Connor
Your father was from Calcutta and was a vocal opponent of British rule in India. When did he come to the United States?
B: He arrived at Ellis Island in 1920 with five dollars in his pocket.
Your mother was American. Was your upbringing more Indian or American?
B: We had a small house in suburban Philadelphia, and Indian people would come stay with us for days, weeks, or months. The food we ate was Indian, and both my mother and father were very deep into the ancient philosophy of India, so it could well have been an Indian household. There were challenges. The prejudice was so bad in the United States at that time that a dark person with a white person would not be served in a restaurant. My father, mother, and I would try it occasionally. We would sit there, and the food would never come. My father would ask for the manager. He would pretend to be an African American because the prejudice was against them, not Indians. He would say in a quiet voice: “I notice that we are good enough to earn money to cook the food, good enough to earn money serving the food, good enough to give our lives in the war for our country. Could you explain to me why it is that we are not good enough to pay money and eat the food?” When he spoke in a quiet voice like that, everyone in the whole restaurant would fall silent, too, and listen to it. Then he would say to my mother and me, “It is time for us to go.”
You admired him?
B: Yes. He lectured from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., for 15 years for the Indian underground movement, describing the atrocities he had seen under British rule in India that were not unlike those in Nazi Germany.
When did you get into electronics?
B: I joined the Boy Scouts when I was 12. One of the other scouts had a radio transmitter. I learned that if I correlated the parts in the transmitter with a diagram, I could learn to read schematic drawings. At 13, I realized that I could fix anything electronic. It was amazing, I could just do it. I started a business repairing radios. It grew to be one of the largest in Philadelphia.
When you went to MIT to study electrical engineering in 1947, what was your goal?
B: I really wanted to do research. That has never changed.
When did you get into acoustics and speaker design?
B: I had studied violin from age 7 to 14. I loved music, and in my ninth year at MIT, I decided to buy a hi-fi set. I figured that all I needed to do was look at the specifications. So I bought what looked like the best one, turned it on, and turned it off in five minutes, the sound was so poor. I was so curious to find out why. In the spring of 1956, I went to India to teach on a Fulbright scholarship, and I read about acoustics at night. In a concert hall, only a tiny bit of the sound comes to you directly; most of it arrives after many reflections from the surfaces of the room. Only about 2 percent of the sound is absorbed with each reflection, so there are many, many reflections. Yet people had been designing loudspeakers that only radiate forward. We did experiments with the Boston Symphony for many years where we measured the angles of incidence of sound arriving at the ears of the audience, then took the measurements back to MIT and analyzed them.
When you started your company in 1964, was your intention to do research?
B: Yes. That’s still the case. One hundred percent of our earnings are reinvested in the company, and a great deal of that goes to research.
Did you have lean times because of that commitment?
B: Sure. There were a couple of times when we were within two weeks of being nonexistent. We passed narrowly over the fire.
Couldn’t you have survived by going public?
B: Yes, but that would have destroyed everything.
You would rather have let the company die than go public?
B: Yes. There was a time when I was wondering about this business of going public, so I visited about a half-dozen companies in the Boston area, all of them formed by MIT faculty and all had gone public. Every one of those CEOs said: “If only we had known the consequences, we never would have gone public. We are spending two-thirds of our time on image building to keep the stock price up.”