Reviews Of The Book:

'The Inventor Of Stereo: The Life & Works Of Alan Dower Blumlein'

by Robert Charles Alexander - ISBN 0-240-51628-1, Publ. Focal Press, 1999.


Index of Reviews

For a shortcut, click on the Review name

Andy Emmerson - 405-Alive - Issue 43 - 1999

Blumlein Biography Available At Last - Everyday Practical Electronics - November 1999

Barry Fox - New Scientist - 16 September 1999

Neil Hillman - Studio Sound - December 1999

Linda Daubney - Petersfield Herald - 17 September 1999

Book Of The Month - Everyday Practical Electronics - February 2000

Barry Fox - Glass Audio - Volume 11 Number 6 - 1999

Barry Fox - Audio Electronics - Number 6 - 1999

Pro Audio Reference Books - Rane Corporation - 2000

Geoffrey Horn - Gramophone - Awards Edition - 1999

Hayes & Harlington Gazette - Wednesday, 8 September 1999

Barry Fox - New Scientist - 25 September 1999

Editorial - Glass Audio - Volume 12 Number 1 - 2000

Gino Robair - Mix Magazine - February 2000

Martin Eccles/Robert Alexander - Electronics World - March 2000

Martin Eccles/Robert Alexander - Television - June 2000

Andy Emmerson

405-Alive - Issue 43 1999

For many, many years the world has waited for a proper biography of Blumlein and at last it has appeared. It is not, however, the book that many people may recall was announced some years back by the charlatan Francis Thomson, who succeeded in 'borrowing' valuable materials from the Blumlein family and others - and then never published anything, These materials he took to the grave, depriving other biographers of making use of them.

Never mind. This all-new book by Robert Alexander is an admirable substitute and almost certainly a far superior product. In these 640 pages I can see nothing that has been omitted and we have the full story of Blumlein's employment on telephony at STC and his work on audio, television and radar matters. His work at EMI on high-definition television is particularly well documented, with details of all the patents he secured.

The book is superbly illustrated with diagrams and photographs and I was delighted to discover many little gems of information such as this paragraph:

'The Telecommunications Department of the general Post Office informed Marconi-EMI on 24 July 1935 that the frequencies of 45 megacycles and 41.5 megacycles for vision and sound respectively, which were proposed for use at the projected London Television Station at Alexandra Palace, could be used for the experimental station at Hayes which had, until that time, been working at 44 megacycles and 40 megacycles respectively. It was pointed out that such an arrangement was for experimentation up to the time when public transmissions from Alexandra Palace commenced, at which time it would be necessary to arrange a time schedule for the different transmissions from Hayes.'

I had always wondered what their frequencies were - and at last we know! That is mere fascinating trivia, however, and the book contains far, far more. I sincerely doubt if anyone will ever better this book on the subject of Blumlein.

© Andy Emmerson, 1999

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Blumlein Biography Available At Last!

Everyday Practical Electronics - November 1999

Regular EPE readers will known something of Alan Dower Blumlein from our articles back in September 1991 and June 1999. This excellent well researched book by Robert Alexander should put Blumlein's name firmly up there with Edison and Faraday.

It is not always an easy read because of all the technical information it presents but the book does describe in some depth Blumlein's 1931 invention of binaural recording (now known as stereo), the development of the 405-line television system in the mid-1930s - which was used more or less unaltered in specification until the eighties - and the development of the H2S radar system during the war.

It was while testing airborne radar that Blumlein lost his life, along with several other members of the development team from EMI, in a tragic plane crash. The reasons behind this crash are also explained. This virtually unknown UK inventor lived for just 38 years and instigated 128 patents in that time.

Fascinating man, fascinating inventions, fascinating story behind the 30-year wait for biography.

We recommend you read it - our congratulations to Robert Alexander.

© EPE 1999

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Barry Fox

New Scientist - 16 September 1999

If you want to find out about Thomas Edison, you could consult any one of about 60 books. But look for Alan Blumlein and, until now, you'd be lucky to find the merest mention. What, you may ask, did he do? Nothing that affects you - as long as you've unplugged your personal stereo, turned off the TV, and resolved never to travel by air or sea. Not only did Blumlein invent stereo, he was the creative force behind electronic television and radar too.

Why Blumlein's life and work has remained a unofficial secret is as fascinating as the story of his achievements. I should know, because for 25 years I've been doing my best to get his name more widely recognised. New Scientist readers may recall this brought me into conflict with Francis Thomson, who began writing Blumlein's biography in 1972. Thomson was proud he had researched the Blumlein family history back to the 14th century, and that he had collected vast quantities of material from those who knew the inventor. Initially, he worked with the backing of Blumlein's family.

But in the 1980s Blumlein's son Simon grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress and Thomson's refusal to let anyone else access to what he had collected. Thomson died last year, with Blumlein's biography still unpublished. The whereabouts of the collection are not known.

Then Robert Alexander decided to try his hand. After an abortive attempt to [persuade Thomson to allow him to examine the collection he decided to write a biography on the strength of information in the public domain. He used Blumlein's 128 patents plus all available archives, mainly those of Blumlein's old employer EMI.

The strength of Alexander's book may also be its weakness. Although there are delightful anecdotes, Alexander's analysis of dusty patents inevitably obstructs the narrative flow. This book may lack mass market appeal, but it is a painstaking chronicle.

The bare bones of the story are that Blumlein was 25 when he joined Sir Isaac Shoenberg's research team at the Columbia Graphophone Company - later to form EMI - in 1929.

Blumlein's brief at EMI was to find a way round the patents on electrical sound recording owned by Bell Labs. He did this and more - he went on to design a complete new electrical recording system, which could work in stereo. He cut two channel discs and recorded stereo on film. It took decades for the world to catch up with stereo LPs and Dolby stereo cinema.

In the mid-1930s EMI and the Marconi Radio Company joined forces to develop an all-electronic TV system to compete with John Logie Baird's spinning wheels. The project was a winner, and Blumlein was a key contributor. In June 1942, Blumlein flew in a Halifax bomber to test H2S, a scanning radar that produced a map of the ground, with the new magnetron-microwave-amplifier. The plane crashed, killing everyone.

The accident was kept secret. After the war Blumlein's name remained unknown. A British engineer, Basil Benzimra, had started to write a biography but died before achieving his goal. Through extraordinary work, Alexander has now achieved what Benzimra said he wanted to do and "raised this man from the dead".

A broader issue of concern remains. There is nothing in law to prevent one man's failure to deliver a biography burying the reputation of another. It's a national tragedy that the Blumlein papers are inaccessible.

© New Scientist, 1999

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Neil Hillman

Studio Sound - December 1999

Denied his rightful place in history books due to reasons that are for the most part inexcusable, Robert Charles Alexander's meticulous book chronicling the enormous achievements of this remarkable man, should start the recognition process that has for too long eluded the undoubted genius of Alan Dower Blumlein.

During a working life of just 15 years - cut tragically short due to his death at age 38 in a wartime aircrash - Blumlein either wrote or co-wrote 128 patents; a rate of one for every 46 days of his career. This in itself would be considered an achievement were it not outshone by the sheer brilliance shown by his originality and the quality of the ways in which Blumlein set about dispatching the problems besetting contemporary engineers of the day.

He built and applied new techniques to the use of microphones; designed a lateral disc-cutting system that enabled the production of modern records in a way that continues today; made possible much of the 405-line high definition television system that continued to be broadcast in Britain until 1986; improved radar systems to the extent that they were still fully-operational 40 years later and developed Stereophonic sound to the point where neither the company he worked for, or many of his colleagues, understood the complexities and possibilities of his system until a decade and a half after his death.

Robert Alexander also brings us Blumlein the man: shy to the point of introversion as child and unable, or rather too busy elsewhere, to read until the age of 11. An early aptitude for matters electrical and fiscal was demonstrated as early as 7, by his repair to the family home doorbell accompanied by an invoice to his mother. This awareness of his own worth continued after graduation with First Class Honours from Imperial College, and grateful employers amply rewarded him throughout his career. Notes however were never meticulously kept by him, and it was not unknown for colleagues to be briefed via a circuit diagram traced onto a misted windscreen whilst driving at speed toward his beloved Gypsy Moth aircraft.

I recommend this book for all aspiring - and those of us in need of inspiring - engineers; and for the general reader so that they may be treated to an insight into the life and works of a man who at last may take his rightful place amongst this century's greatest minds. Move over E=MC2, a new formula is about to rest on our lips: M=1/2(A+B), S=1/2(A-B). And not a moment too soon.

© Neil Hillman, 1999

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Linda Daubney - 'Inventor supreme finally in print'

Petersfield Herald - 17 September 1999

Petersfield's well-known man of music, Simon Blumlein, was in London recently for the launch of the first biography of his father entitled 'The Inventor of Stereo: The Life & Works of Alan Dower Blumlein', by Robert Charles Alexander.

The launch was jointly hosted by publishers Focal Press and EMI Music Archives at the EMI Archives in Hayes. Simon Blumlein and his brother, David, Simon's son James, Alan and grandson William (9) represented the family. Many of Alan Blumlein's colleagues, now in their late 80s and 90s were also present as were senior figures in electrical and electronic engineering.

Alan Blumlein died in a plane crash in 1942, aged 38. By that time he had 128 patents to his name.

Robert Alexander lists his achievements as including numerous microphones; the lateral cutting process which made 'modern' record production possible - despite the compact disc, this method continued well into the 1990s; telegraphic networks linking countries and continents; submarine cables; much of the infrastructure of the 405-line high definition television system which until 1986 was still broadcast in Britain; improved radar systems, some of which helped to win the second world war and again were in use until very recently; and stereophonic sound.

Robert Alexander says of this last invention it was "so advanced that neither the company he worked for, nor many of the colleagues who helped him perfect it, fully understood its complexities until well over 15 years after Blumlein has died, and nearly 30 years since it had been conceived."

He is considered to be one of the twentieth century's foremost scientists, inventors and engineers and yet the name of Alan Dower Blumlein is known to very few people outside the area of his work. He is not even mentioned in Who Was Who and it has taken 57 years for the first biography to be published. Why has this happened?

Part of the answer lies in his work and the manner of his death. Blumlein and his team from EMI were killed in the crash of a Halifax bomber when they were receiving a demonstration of the long range bombing aid H2S radar.

They were part of a group formed by Bernard Lovell, later the director of Jodrell Bank, to turn the experimental system into an operational reality. The bomber's cargo was invaluable - Blumlein, the majority of the development team and the only H2S system using the highly secret cavity magnetron. The crash was so catastrophic that Churchill ordered a blanket of total secrecy. No obituaries were published and there was no mention of the crash in the Press.

H2S was perfected and used through the remainder of the war and, in various versions, continually until the end of the Falklands War in 1982. But the work was never declassified and remained until quite recently very secret. So those who were involved in it were forgotten except by those who knew them. It was not until June 7, 1992, exactly 50 years later, that a memorial window was unveiled in Goodrich Castle near the site of the crash. At last there was a public memorial to those who died when the Halifax crashed and who had given their lives during 40 years of radar research and development.

But this does not explain why it has taken so long for a biography to appear. The strange and complicated story of the Blumlein biography, or rather the lack of it, forms the end of the book.

Two people were designated as 'official biographers'. The first relinquished the task in 1970 when he became ill. The second took over, asked for and acquired a great deal of information, papers and other material but when he died in 1998, the biography had not been written and it is believed the archive of Blumlein papers has been dispersed. Sadly, Simon's mother, Doreen, died ten years ago still waiting for the promised biography to appear.

Simon continued to support the efforts to document his father's work and it was with great pleasure and relief that he saw the Alexander book, the first biography launched. "It is something that after 57 years a biography has been published", Simon Blumlein told the Herald, "and that my father is beginning to get the recognition that so many of his colleagues say he deserves."

Robert Alexander began his work on the biography in January 1995. A consultant audio engineer to the professional music industry, it was during his time as a lecturer in audio engineering he became frustrated by the absence of books on Blumlein. He became increasingly aware that as the century came to and end it was urgent to go ahead while those who knew Blumlein and were close to him were still alive.

In spite of the distance in time and the lack of access to much of the documentation, Alexander has produced a very readable account of Blumlein's life which places the 128 patents in the context of both his working and personal life. Their importance is so well explained that they can be appreciated even by readers outside electrical engineering. He has indeed given us a view of the kind of mind that is capable of conceiving a new patent every 46 days of his working life.

At the launch guests were able to see a series of short binaural (the early term for stereo) films made by Blumlein and his team. These included shots of Alan Blumlein, then 31, which must have been particularly poignant for his sons.

Perhaps at last the process of bringing Alan Dower Blumlein out of the shadows has begun and he will take what Robert Alexander describes as "his rightful place among the very best of this century's scientists and engineers".

© Petersfield Herald 1999

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Book Of The Month

Everyday Practical Electronics - February 2000

This book is the definitive study of the life and works of one of Britain's most important inventors who, due to a cruel set of circumstances has all but been overlooked by history.

Alan Dower Blumlein led an extraordinary life in which his inventive output rate easily surpassed that of Edison, but whose early death during the darkest days of World War Two led to a shroud of secrecy which has covered his life and achievements ever since.

His 1931 Patent for a Binaural Recording system was so revolutionary that most of his contemporaries regarded it at as more than 20 years ahead of its time. Even years after his death, the full magnitude of its detail had not been fully utilised. Among his 128 Patents are the principle electronic circuits critical to the development of the world's first electronic television system. During his short working life, Blumlein produced Patent after Patent breaking entirely new ground in electronic and audio engineering.

During the Second World War, Alan Blumlein was deeply engaged in the very secret work of radar development and contributed enormously to the system eventually to became 'H2S'- blind bombing radar. Tragically, during an experimental H2S flight in June 1942, the Halifax bomber in which Blumlein and several colleagues were flying, crashed and all aboard were killed. He was just days short of his 39th birthday. For many years there have been rumours about a biography of Alan Blumlein, yet none has been forthcoming.

This is the world's first study of a man whose achievements should rank among those of the greatest Britain has produced. This book provides detailed knowledge of every one of his Patents and the process behind them, while giving an in depth study of the life and times of this quite extraordinary man.

© EPE 2000

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Barry Fox

Glass Audio - Volume 11 Number 6 1999

Audio Electronics - Number 6 1999

In the early 1930s, EMI's Laboratories in London, and Bell Labs in New Jersey, were working on hi-fi and stereo recording. Arthur Keller was the driving force at Bell, and Alan Blumlein pushed the boundaries at EMI. In those days, before electronic publication made the world a global village, neither team knew what the other was doing. Neither spared a thought to the fact that what they were doing was commercially pointless, either. Worldwide unemployment meant that few people could afford one lo-fi loudspeaker, let alone two. But each lab was a hothouse for ideas, with far-sighted management able to see that today's blue sky research earns tomorrow's revenue.

The Early Years

Alan Blumlein had started working in 1924 with International Western Electric (ironically a division of Bell Labs) and he stayed with the company for five years, developing electrical measurement and telephony equipment, while it mutated into the International Standard Electric Corporation and then Standard Telephones and Cables.

During this time Blumlein filed several patents, establishing a routine which thankfully means that although he wrote very few articles or technical papers, a total of 128 patent specifications gives us permanent access to Blumlein's original thoughts. The glory of patent law is once a patent has been granted, no one can change the wording. So mental processes are frozen in time.

By 1929, at the age of 25, Blumlein had become bored with telephony and joined the research team of the Columbia Graphophone Company led by Sir Isaac Shoenberg. His joining brief was to find a way round the Maxfield and Harrisom patents on electrical recording owned by Bell Labs. Another British company, HMV (The Gramophone Company), was also looking for ways round Bell's monopoly.

Blumlein cracked the problem, and went on to design a completely new electrical recording system. In 1931 The Gramophone Company and Columbia Graphophone merged to form Electric and Musical Industries, or EMI. The new company gave Blumlein a bonus for his work.

By then he was working on binaural stereo for loudspeaker reproduction, not restricted headphone listening. While Bell Labs experimented with lines of loudspeakers, Blumlein used two speakers and the baffle effect of the human head to fool the brain into thinking the sound was coming from a wide spread of different directions. Blumlein's now famous patent UK 394,325, filed in 1931, explains how the system lets the ears register low-frequency phase differences and high-frequency intensity differences.

The original patent text is a model of clarity which contrasts starkly with the incomprehensible rubbish which modern inventors often write, either because they do not understand how their inventions work, cannot explain it, or hope to disguise old ideas with new verbiage.

Blumlein also needed a way of recording both channels from a stereo microphone pair in the single groove of a disc. He did this with the 45/45 system of cutting the different signals on each wall of the groove. In 1933 he made several test recordings of "Walking and Talking." The next year he was allowed into EMI's Abbey Road studios to cut stereo discs of Ray Noble's dance band and Sir Thomas Beecham conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Film, Television, and Radar

In 1935 Blumlein moved onto film, splitting the optical soundtrack of 35mm film into two parallel half tracks to capture stereo. He made a series of test films, including fun stunts and playlets. Decades later, it needed only a small modification of a standard Dolby stereo projector to play back the originals (once they had been transferred from the old, explosive, nitrate stock to safety acetate!). Then, with all things stereo sorted, but no commercial market in sight, Blumlein moved on to television.

In the mid-1930s the British Government was being lobbied by John Logie Baird to adopt his mechanical spinning wheel system, and decided to issue an open challenge: anyone was welcome to try to come up with a better system. EMI and the Marconi Radio Company joined forces, again under Shoenberg, to develop an all-electronic system, which used 405 scanning lines. Blumlein was a key figure in the TV team, patenting vital building blocks such as waveform synchronization by line and frame pulses. But Baird continued to improve his system and he was a great self-publicist.

To settle the matter once and for all, the Government licensed both systems for a trial period towards the end of 1936. Transmissions were broadcast for two hours a day, with the Baird system used one week and Marconi-EMI's the next. In 1937, the Baird system was inevitably rejected, and Marconi-EMI's all-electronic TV became the UK standard. Although it was shut down in the war, the same system re-started and remained working until 1985, after 20 years of parallel running with Europe's new 625 line TV.

By now the situation in Germany was deteriorating, and to some people war seemed inevitable. But in the climate of appeasement, preparing for war was an unpopular policy. The EMI team were quietly moved over to highly secret military research on radar. There is good reason to believe that the British Government encouraged the development of electronic TV as a way of ensuring that the electronics industry would develop high-frequency, high-power amplifier tubes and cathode ray display screens, which would be needed for radar. Blumlein also worked on highly directional microphones for pinpointing the sound of incoming aircraft.

Fatal Accident

By 1940 the EMI team had Airborne Interceptor radar working to let British aircraft track German invaders. The next project was H2S, a scanning radar that produced a map of the ground. In June 1942 the EMI team, including Blumlein, was flying in a Halifax bomber to test H2S, with the then-new Magnetron microwave amplifier. The plane crashed, killing all on board, probably because of faulty servicing.

The accident was kept secret, as was Blumlein's death. No one wanted Germany to know what a blow the Allied research project had suffered.

With postwar austerity, hi-fi, stereo recording, and two-channel film remained a very low priority. When the stereo LP standard was set by the RIAA in 1958, Blumlein's 45/45 system was wrongly attributed to Westrex, the Bell Labs subsidiary. In the UK, Percy Wilson, writing in the then-outspoken Gramophone magazine, was furious.

The reason for the RIAA's gaffe was simple. No one, outside a small circle of engineers in the UK, had heard of Alan Blumlein or his achievements. A British engineer, Ben Benzimra, set out "to raise this man from the dead," as he put it, and started to collect information for a biography. Benzimra became ill and died, and the job was taken over by a Francis Paul Thomson of Watford.

For literally decades, Thomson collected every available piece of information on Blumlein. He contacted all Blumlein's associates and wrote open letters to technical magazines asking for private papers and personal reminiscences. All those who had known Blumlein and wanted to see him honoured jumped at the chance. Initially Thomson had the full support of Blumlein's family, too.

But as time wore on, it became obvious that Thomson had developed an obsession with collecting information (not just on Blumlein but other inventors, too) and was out of his depth on the technology. He had worked briefly at EMI as a lab assistant, but then gone off to write books on banking and tapestry.

As suspicions grew, Thomson became increasing paranoiac over any inquiries about his progress on the Blumlein book. He would reply with legal threats, rambling irrelevancies, questions, and offensive rudeness. He claimed raids on his home trash cans and personal attacks.

By the '80s and '90s Thomson's priority had become to stop anyone else from writing a biography of Blumlein, even though he had no hope of producing one himself. In the last years of his life (he died earlier this year), Thomson threatened to burn all the material he had collected. It is still unclear what has become of the vast collection. No one has ever had any way of knowing what he collected, anyway.

The Finished Piece

So how was Robert Alexander able to write a book? After an initial tangle with Thomson, he gave up even trying to access the material which the self-styled biographer had squirreled away. Instead, Alexander sought the help of EMI's archivists, read everything that Blumlein had written in his patents, and even arranged for them to be retyped and posted on the Internet ( He also went to a string of libraries and museums, including the Imperial War Museum in London, the Newspaper Library, the Patent Office records, the Royal Airforce Museum, and the British Library of Recorded Sound. Over a period of five years, and despite Thomson's solid obstruction, Alexander managed to put together a definitive collection of all available factual information.

Focal Press, a publisher of technical books, had never previously handled a biography, but made an exception. The result is a definitive biography which provides long overdue documentation of Blumlein's life. Engineers, unless they are nit-pickers, will surely welcome it. So will anyone with an interest in audio and electronics history. But this book is not an easy read and is unlikely to spark mass market interest.

Personally, I have always believed it would be impossible for anyone to write one book that tells the human story of Alan Blumlein, while at the same time doing justice to his engineering achievements. That is why there are around 60 biographies of Thomas Edison. Reading this book does not change my mind. But Robert Alexander has done what no one else has done, and I salute him for it.

© Barry Fox, 1999

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Pro Audio Reference Books


Blumlein, Alan Dower (1903-1942) English engineer who in a short working lifespan of 15 years wrote or co-wrote 128 patents, developed stereophonic sound, designed new uses for microphones, designed a lateral disc-cutting system making modern records possible, developed much of the 405-line high definition television system broadcast in Britain until 1986, and improved radar systems such that they still operated 40 years later. Indeed, a genius by any definition, yet his story had to wait until 1999 to be told completely.

Thanks to Robert Charles Alexander, former Executive Editor of Audio Media magazine, a definitive biography now exists. Not only that, but Alexander has created a web site dedicated to Blumlein that, by the end of 2000, will have all 128 patents reproduced in their entirety, along with all of his binaural recordings (another of his inventions), downloadable as MP3 files, including binaural film clips (the world's first stereo films).

© Rane Corporation, 1999, 2000

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Geoffrey Horn

Gramophone Magazine - Awards Edition 1999

At last, the full story of the man who invented stereophonic sound has been put between hardback covers. Robert Alexander's biography, 'The Inventor of Stereo - The Life and Works of Alan Dower Blumlein' is one of the most complete accounts of the development of Blumlein's invention.

Audiophiles can only speculate on what this remarkable engineer might have achieved in the age of the transistor, had he not died, at the age of 39, in a wartime aircraft accident.

Alexander's 448-page book is a fine tribute which must be considered a standard reference. Readers will also find that Blumlein can take credit for much more than the invention of stereo.

On the 26th of August a very distinguished group of people met at the EMI Central Research Laboratories in Hayes. The occasion was the launch of Robert Alexander's biography of Alan Dower Blumlein; subtitled, 'The Inventor of Stereo', its relevance to our pages is obvious.

However, its appearance 57 years after his death, aged 39, in a wartime aircraft accident reveals a remarkable series of obfuscation's which have denied history the full story of a most remarkable engineer for all these years.

In view of the time lapse it is a very detailed and accurate account of a man whose achievements put him amongst the greatest, and a fascinating journey through the 20th century world of electronic development from its crude beginnings to an established science. Naturally our visit to the home of EMI Archives was primarily concerned with the stereo work undertaken there in the early 1930s and we met a number of his co-workers who had been invited and who featured in some of the binaural test films of the period which we were shown. There was also a sight of some of his equipment in the EMI museum.

As this book of over 400 pages, with its impressive listing of references, sets out, there was far more to Blumlein's credit than stereophonic sound. In 1931, his efforts were attracted to another future development, electronic television, and this was eventually to take up all his time, developing new circuits and apparatus as the need arose; many of his 128 patents date from this time.

World War Two turned this work to great advantage in the field of Radar and it was the testing of a revolutionary system of electronic ground mapping on a cathode ray tube that eventually brought about his death. One is left to ponder what his exceptional mind might have dreamed up had he lived into the world of the transistor.

Robert Alexander's book is not only a wonderful tribute it represents the most complete documentation of these developments that I have so far come across and as such is a standard reference.

© Geoffrey Horn 1999

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Hayes-based inventor hailed in a new biography.

"Forgotten pioneer of the world of sound"

Hayes and Harlington Gazette - Wednesday, 8 September 1999

The man behind stereo, modern television and the radar system that helped win World War Two has had his work recognised in a new biography.

Alan Dower Blumlein, who in the 1930s worked for EMI in Dawley Road, Hayes, was one of the 20th Century's most foremost engineers.

Robert Alexander, a consultant to the music industry, and author of the recently published biography, said "Without him we would still be listening to records and watching films in mono. Blumlein invented stereo sound while he was working in Hayes. Human beings have two ears after all, and he recognised anything which reproduces that gives a truer impression."

Stereo, said Mr Alexander, is an electronic reproduction of the dual channels of Human hearing.

"I believe it was the single most important development of the 20th century. It's what all records and CDs are recorded in now."

Blumlein came up with the idea of stereo sound in 1931, the year he started working for EMI. It involved linking electronic circuits to microphones and a record turntable, but it was so far ahead of its time his colleagues never fully understood it.

His work was passed over, as engineers concentrated on television research instead, but others picked up and developed the idea after the war.

Blumlein, who lived in Ealing, also played a major part in television development.

Mr Alexander said: "I think it's a great travesty that John Logie Baird is considered as the inventor of television. He only came up with the mechanical system, which was rather like a flicker book (where images appear to move due to the rapid flicking of the pages).

Blumlein developed an electronic system of relaying images on to a TV screen, which gave a better contrast and brightness - things we take for granted now."

Blumlein and his team built stereo sound film cameras. One of his first films was of a train leaving Hayes Station, where the noise of the puffing engine moved from one speaker to another.

During World War Two, Blumlein moved to radar research and developed the H2S system, which helped bomber crews navigate by producing an electronic map of the area they were flying over.

Blumlein, 38, was killed in an air crash in Herefordshire in 1942 while testing H2S. At the time of his death he had 128 patents to his name.

Mr Alexander said: "He was an extraordinary man. His work was crucial and I believe he has never fully be credited for it. Who knows what else he would have invented if it wasn't for his early death?"

© Hayes & Harlington Gazette 1999

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Barry Fox

New Scientist - 25 September 1999

Having a genius as a father can be a hard act to follow.

At last there is a biography of Alan Blumlein, the neglected pioneer of stereo recording, TV and radar, who died in 1942 (The Inventor of Stereo: The Life and Works of Alan Dower Blumlein, by Robert Alexander, Focal Press, 1999).

His son, Simon Blumlein, was at the launch party held at EMI's Central Research Laboratories in Hayes, where the great man worked. Simon, who now runs a successful record shop in Petersfield, is the first to admit that he was never cut out to be an electronic engineer.

But as a teenager it was always assumed that he would be another genius. So his first job was in the same labs at CRL. On his first day, one of EMI's top boffins came up to him and said: "I was talking to your father just before he died and he promised to help with a problem. I've never been able to solve it. Can you help me this afternoon?" The boffin then outlined an extremely tricky circuit problem. "Ah yes," said Blumlein Junior, nodding sagely. "I'll need a bit of time to think about that."

Not too long afterwards, he left CRL and headed for the safer waters of his record shop. As far as he knows, the boffin's problem still hasn't been solved.

© New Scientist, 1999

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Glass Audio - Volume 12 Number 1 2000

The long awaited biography of Alan Blumlein is now available. The definitive study of the life and works of one of Britain's most important inventors. Finally available, the book contains hitherto unavailable top secret information. Overall a fascinating look into developments in audio, electronics and radar.

During Blumlein's short life he acquired 128 patents critical to developments in electronics and audio engineering. The 1931 patent for a Binaural Recording System is only one of his many ground-breaking achievements. His death in 1942, while working on the highly secretive H2S blind-bombing radar led to a shroud of secrecy which has covered his life and achievements ever since.

This book uncovers these achievements, while providing an in-depth study into the life and times of this quite extraordinary man.

© Amateur Audio Corporation, 2000

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Gino Robair

Mix Magazine - February 2000

Don't let the title fool you into thinking this is a dry textbook about Arcane microphone facts. On the contrary, The Inventor of Stereo: The Life and Works of Alan Dower Blumlein reads at times like a spy novel, with Blumlein as one of the main characters.

Blumlein is well known for his pioneering work in binaural recording (he gained a patent for it in 1931 at the age of 28).

What makes this book so interesting is that it delves deeper into the life and work of Blumlein, from his pioneering work for the Columbia Gramophone Company and EMI, through his pre-war work in early forms of television, to his premature death during the war researching radar systems for the RAF. In fact, The Inventor of Stereo Sound includes the first detailed investigation of the events surrounding the crash of Halifax V9977, the plane in which Blumlein and 10 others were killed during a secret flight in 1942.

Engaging, enlightening, and only slightly nerdy, The Inventor of Stereo is a fascinating and enjoyable read.

© Gino Robair, 2000

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Martin Eccles/Robert Alexander

Electronics World - March 2000

Television - June 2000

Shortly after 4.20 p.m. on Sunday, 7 June 1942, a glorious summer's day, clear skies, warm sunshine and perfect visibility for flying, a Halifax bomber crashed into the steep hillside of a valley just north of the River Wye near the village of Welsh Bicknor in Herefordshire. All eleven occupants aboard were killed in the enormous fire, which engulfed the aircraft on impact. Of the scientific personnel who died that day, Alan Dower Blumlein stands out as possibly the greatest loss. "A national tragedy", one of his colleagues would call it, for Blumlein was, without any doubt, at a time when scientific genius was at its foremost, one of the most brilliant engineers of the twentieth century.

Born in Hampstead in June 1903, Blumlein had graduated from City & Guilds in 1921 with a first class degree in Heavy Electrical Engineering. This in itself would not bear mention were it not for the fact that by age thirteen the precocious and often eccentric young Blumlein could still not read and write. He simply found no need for the skill and, as with all things in his life up to this time, if he saw no need, he showed no interest. It was only through sheer determination upon realising that in order to advance his passion for everything electrical, that Alan Blumlein set himself the task of learning to read detailed reference books on his chosen subject.

His career initially took gradual steps. In 1925, he co-published a somewhat elementary paper on basic electrical principles in Wireless World. Though presented the following year to the IEE and subsequently awarded for the work, Blumlein would only return once to the printed word in order to enlighten the world of his thinking. Following a short but eventful career with Standard Telephones & Cables, during which he applied for the first of his 128 patents, Alan Blumlein applied for a position at The Columbia Graphophone Company in early 1929. There he would meet his employer, mentor and later friend, Isaac Shoenberg (later Sir).

Shoenberg was looking for an engineer to design and construct a recording mechanism which could overcome the patent which Bell Laboratories were imposing upon everybody in the record making business. Blumlein set about designing the elements of a recording and reproducing system which, by 1930, had successfully bypassed the Bell system and would go on to earn Columbia a fortune. One day in 1931, while at the cinema with his fiancée Doreen, Blumlein enquired of her if she had noticed how the voice for the person on the screen only ever came from one place. Not being of a technical nature, Doreen said that she had not. "Well, I have a way of making the voice follow the person", Blumlein replied. This casual remark was the first indication of the train of thought which would lead to Alan Blumleins 'Binaural Sound' patent, arguably his best, and certainly to become one the most important advances in audio engineering of the twentieth century.

Binaural Sound is of course known today as stereo, and works on the basis that human beings have two ears which, because of their orientation on the head, receive sound at slightly different times. This basic principal was ingeniously incorporated by Alan Blumlein in an electronic method which reproduced this effect at two output loudspeakers. Unfortunately, it was so far ahead of its time in 1931, that many of his colleagues at EMI, did not realise its full potential (EMI had been formed earlier the same year when Columbia and HMV had merged). Blumlein continued with this work for several more years making the first stereo recordings and also the first stereo films before binaural was shelved for a more enlightened time.

EMI had, by this time, become involved in the quest to develop a feasible television service. In 1934, the government had formed a committee to investigate the potential of television and this had concluded that a British television service should be developed by the end of 1936. Two companies stood out among those who tendered systems for a television service. Baird Television, whose founder, John Logie Baird, had persisted with a mechanical method of projection which, despite its ingenious complexity, produced poor quality picture resolution. The other company was Marconi-EMI who had decided to work with an all-electronic method of picture transmission and reception using cathode ray tube technology, then still in its infancy.

Several seemingly insurmountable problems presented themselves to these pioneers, not the least of which was that in many cases the entire electrical circuitry of the system needed to be invented from scratch. Luckily EMI possessed an extraordinary set of individuals who, as a engineering team, managed to invent, construct and demonstrate a fully working television system in the now quite unbelievable period of just fourteen months. Alan Blumlein, as leader of the team in charge of developing the circuitry for the new system had possibly the most enormous task. Yet from this period of his life more than half of his 128 patents were to emerge with many of them critical to the eventual 405-line television system that the BBC adopted. In November 1936, a three month trial began with transmissions from Alexandra Palace with the Baird and Marconi-EMI systems transmitting on an alternate basis. By spring 1937, following the conclusion of the trial, the government and the BBC chose the Marconi-EMI system as it had proved far superior to that of Baird.

It is therefore a curious irony that to this day many consider John Logie Baird to be the inventor of the television (though he himself never actually claimed this), and yet his mechanical television system proved inadequate for transmission. It was in fact the team at EMI, who numbers included Alan Blumlein, who should in fact be given the credit for the 'invention' of the system we know as television. As a testimony to their work, the 405-line transmissions (which had originally been intended to only run for a few years before being updated), actually continued until 1986, much as they had during those first trials at Alexandra Palace some fifty years earlier.

With war in Europe looming, much attention was being directed towards a method of early warning against attack from the air. The first practical method of electronic radio detection finding (RDF) or Radar as it would eventually be known, had been demonstrated by Robert Watson Watt in early 1935. These experimental radio detection finding systems and their subsequent developments (which had led to the construction of the Chain Home (CH) system), were shrouded in enormous secrecy. There were however, methods other than radio that could be used for the detecting of approaching aircraft, and it was to this end that EMI and Alan Blumlein now found themselves interested.

Sound detection systems had been tried during the First World War. By 1938, larger, more effect 'ears' to the sky were being experimented with. Blumlein realised that by incorporating the basis of his binaural sound system in to an aircraft sound detector, a much more accurate fix could be obtained. If this were then displayed on a cathode ray tube, a visual indicating system would be available. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, EMI had produced the first of a series of prototype sound detection systems which were used extensively during 1940 and 1941.

Having demonstrated shown the initiative for aircraft detection methods, somewhat surprisingly EMI were not told of the advances that had been made in electronic detection methods. Despite the obvious advantages they had (not the least of which was their extraordinary scientific team), it seemed that the ministry of defence and many of the companies already contracted to produce military electronic hardware, did not consider EMI up to the task. After all, EMI had produced gramophone players and television sets before the war, hardly precision military specification products. Another demonstration of Blumlein's genius would be required to prove to the ministry that EMI should be a part of the radar generation.

During the first months of the war, often referred to as the 'phoney war', much concern was made of the fact that Britain had woefully inadequate methods of detecting aircraft at night. Worse, when British night fighters were finding the German night bombers they were not shooting them down often enough before they lost them again. What was desperately needed was an airborne detection system that could find an aircraft at night. This would then allow the night fighter to home in on an unsuspecting German bomber and close the range between the two aircraft to a distance adequate for the bomber to be brought down.

Despite the incredible secrecy that surrounded the development of such systems, EMI were eventually made aware of the problem. With the expertise they possessed, they developed an airborne interception system that at a stroke not only improved upon any other method, it brought EMI into the radar business which they so desperately wanted.

During the dark months of 1940 and 1941, the war went very badly for Britain. It seemed that little could be done to stop the marauding German advances. British morale was at an all-time low and something needed to be done to show the public that Britain was fighting back. However, with her Navy penned in the Atlantic protecting the vital convoys of food and provisions from U-boat attack, and her armies depleted on all fronts, the only method of hitting back at the Germans was through bombing. Every night bombers flew missions to Germany which British propaganda claimed were hitting the enemy hard. The truth however, was far different.

Bomber Command were indeed flying the missions, but without a practical system for locating the target most bombs that were being dropped were falling literally miles from their intended targets. What was needed was a system that could locate and detect a town from the air, regardless of weather conditions, accurate enough to allow a bomber to carry out its mission. That radar system would eventually be known as H2S and its development would become one of the closest guarded secrets of the war.

The H2S system relied upon the centimetric properties of the cavity magnetron for its success. The magnetron had been invented at Birmingham University in 1940, and allowed far shorter wavelength of pulses to be produced which in turn gave a clearer image on a cathode ray tube display of the terrain below the aircraft. EMI and Alan Blumlein were part of the team that had been contracted to develop and test the circuitry of the H2S system throughout the spring and early summer of 1942.

It was during this series of tests on 7 June 1942, that the Halifax bomber carrying the only prototype H2S system crashed at Welsh Bicknor. Alan Blumlein and two colleagues from EMI, along with eight others were killed. Together they represented the core of the H2S scientific development team.

That the H2S project was finished at all is a testimony to those who remained after the crash. As had been predicted by Blumlein and others, H2S proved to be the instrument that Bomber Command needed.

It allowed navigators to find their intended targets and bomb them with an accuracy never before achievable. Its importance to Britain cannot be underestimated. At a time when the war was undoubtedly being lost, radar provided the opportunity to fight back at an enemy that had seemed invulnerable just months before its introduction. It has often been said that the atomic bomb ended the war, but that radar won it.

Following his death, Alan Blumleins work was shrouded in secrecy. No obituary appeared and no tribute given. For many years, various people promised a biography of this most extraordinary engineer, but none was forthcoming. As time passed those who personally knew him grew old and died; and today but a few remain.

Imagine a world that did not have a record of Faraday, Whittle, Maxwell, Edison or Bell. Given time, Alan Dower Blumlein will receive the credit that he so richly deserves. It was for that reason that I wrote his biography. Alan Blumlein is, without a doubt one of the most brilliant engineers of the twentieth century, and one that the twenty-first century will finally recognise.

© Electronics World/Television, 2000

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