Opinions and Editorials

Oct. 19, 2018

The Hill: Long Live American Ingenuity by Andy Sherman

This post originally appeared in The Hill on October 19, 2018.

On Friday, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will open the “Gateway to Culture,” part of a new “Arts and Culture” wing that will be devoted to music, sports and entertainment.

It is the first of several new Smithsonian exhibits that will honor, in part, the contributions to American culture of the American audio pioneer Ray Dolby, who passed away five years ago.

Ray Dolby was that distinctively-American character — the independent inventor — who has always been such a prominent feature of our nation’s innovation ecosystem. The middle class son of a salesman and homemaker, Ray’s patented noise suppression technologies changed the way we all enjoy music and movies.

Like Thomas Edison before him, who invented the phonograph and movie camera, Ray Dolby revolutionized the entertainment industry and contributed enormously to people’s enjoyment of arts and culture the world over.

Also like Edison, once Ray started inventing — his name is on the world’s first video recorder patent (No. 2,956,114) in 1955 — he never stopped.

Decade after decade, as the Hollywood film industry transitioned from analog high-fidelity to stereo to digital, and as consumer electronics devices evolved from cassette players and VHS recorders to DVDs and now mobile phones, Ray and his team kept on inventing ever-more dazzling sight and sound experiences for people to enjoy in their movies and music.

Businesses very quickly learned that the Dolby brand was a potent draw for entertainment consumers, whether displayed on the marquee of a movie theater or on the front of a DVD player.

For his part, Ray always insisted that he owed much of his half-century of invention success to the encouragement and protections of the U.S. patent system. He understood that only with a patent system like ours could ordinary citizen-inventors like Ray Dolby and Thomas Edison, born without wealth or privilege, be so successful and prolific as inventors.

As Ray Dolby himself once put it, “I won’t go into any area that I can’t get a patent on.”

The Smithsonian’s new exhibit, then, is not just a tribute to arts and entertainment, or even to Ray Dolby. It is also a testament to the power of an American patent system that Abraham Lincoln praised for having “added the fuel of interest to the fires of genius.”