Alan Dower Blumlein, the inventor of stereo sound, has won a Grammy

(Image credit: Spudgun67 // CC BY-SA 4.0)

One of the 20th century's most prolific inventors will be posthumously awarded a Grammy by The Recording Academy. Alan Dower Blumlein was not only the inventor of stereo sound, but filed 127 other patents in his life for technologies that revolutionised telecommunications, TV and radar.

Born in 1903 to German-Jewish and Scottish parents, Blumlein spent his childhood in Hampstead, London. At the age of seven, after repairing the family's doorbell, he presented his father with an invoice signed "Alan Blumlein, Electrical Engineer".

Working life

After leaving school he graduated from Imperial College and began working at International Western Electric in 1924. There, he measured how human ears respond to amplitude and frequency, designing the first systems that weighted sound for human consumption.

In 1929, he joined the Columbia Gramophone Company, and invented a new form of disc cutting head that offered greatly improved sound quality, as well as developing a series of microphones that were used by the BBC and in EMI's recording studios. Around the same time, he invented a type of amplifier – the long-tailed pair – that can be found in almost every integrated circuit in the world.

It was in 1931 that he invented stereo sound, initially as a way to let the voice of an actor follow their image across a cinema screen. Two years later he cut the first stereo gramophone discs, and recorded a number of short test films that demonstrated the principle.

In 1933, Blumlein was assigned full-time to TV research, and contributed a number of inventions to the technology. Perhaps the most notable were his contributions to the world's first scheduled 'high-definition' TV service. In modern terms, it would be referred to as 377i – some way short of 1080p, let alone 4K.

Secrecy and recognition

During the Second World War, Blumlein secretly worked on the development of the H2S airborne radar system, which some believe to have substantially shortened the duration of the war. However, during a test of an H2S-equipped aircraft, the plane developed an engine fire and crashed, killing Blumlein and two colleagues aboard. 

The death wasn't announced for three years, purportedly due to the secret nature of his work. Some suspected German sabotage of the plane, but the official report, which was kept secret for many years, pinned the blame on an engineer who failed to properly tighten an engine nut.

Due to the secrecy that surrounded his final years, Blumlein's enormous role in technological history went relatively unnoticed until last year, when a blue plaque was installed at the site of his former home in Ealing. Later this year he'll also receive a Grammy at a special ceremony.

“It is a great honour for my father and the Blumlein family to be recognised with such a prestigious award," said Simon Blumlein, his son. "We’re so immensely proud of him and how his work transformed sound recording." 

"He’s always been held in the highest esteem by recording engineers, and so to now receive this acknowledgement from the wider music industry is simply wonderful.”

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.