Alan Blumlein was one of the most prolific inventors of the twentieth century filing 128 patents for electronic and audio engineering, but one we have to thank him for is ‘binaural sound’ or what we today would call stereo.
Blumlein was born in London in 1903, the son a German-born naturalised British subject of Jewish descent.
He was not the greatest scholar and was barely able to read until he was in his teens, but he had a natural talent for the things that interested him and he signalled his future when at the age of seven he presented his father with an invoice for fixing their doorbell signed ‘Alan Blumlein, Electrical Engineer’.
Leaving school in 1921, Blumlein went on to study at the City and Guilds College, part of Imperial College, and graduated with a First-Class Honours BSc two years later.
His first job was with International Western Electrics in 1924 and soon after patented an improved coil which reduced loss and crosstalk in long-distance telephone calls and what became known as the Blumlein Bridge, an improved form of AC measurement.
In 1929 he joined the Columbia Gramophone Company and his first task was to invent a way of cutting discs different enough from the Bell patented system to get around the expensive royalties. The system he produced not only circumvented the patent but also significantly improved the sound quality.
In was in 1931 that Blumlein set his mind to the issue of stereophonic sound. He and his wife were at the cinema and as was the case with the early talkies, they used a single speaker so an actor might be speaking on one side of the screen but the sound would come from the other. Blumlein set himself the task of finding a way to make the sound follow the actor across the screen.
He applied for a patent for ‘Improvements in and relating to Sound-transmission, Sound-recording and Sound-reproducing Systems’ later the same year and many of his ideas are still in use today.
The first stereo discs were cut in 1933 and the development work for its use in the cinema was completed in 1935 with two short test films (see below) that realised Blumlein’s vision of the sound following the actor on screen, as well as the first stereo recording at Abbey Road Studios in London, that of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony.
Blumlein went on to work in the development of television and that of the HS2 airborne radar system that would play a significant role in the Second World War. Sadly, it was the latter that would lead to Blumlein’s death. He was involved in a test flight in July 1942 in a plane equipped with HS2 when it crashed killing all those on board. Such was the secrecy surrounding the project that his death was not officially announced until after the war.
A Blue Plaque was erected outside Blumlein’s home in Ealing in 1977 and in 2015 the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers dedicated a Milestone plaque in his memory at the Abbey Road Studios, while in February this year he was given a posthumous Grammy Award.
Below is Blumlein’s ‘Trains at Hayes’ from 1935, the world’s first stereo film.