What happens when history falters? When brilliance is forgotten? When a brilliant mind dies tragically in obscurity and secrecy? This is essentially what happened to Alan Dower Blumlein, a British electrical engineer who developed many circuits and concepts we take for granted today, yet is barely known. This obscurity was compounded by a confluence of bad luck and unfortunate behavior which delayed the first biography of Blumlein until 57 years after his death. I’ve just finished reading one of the two biographies that appeared in 1999: The Inventor of Stereo: The Life and Works of Alan Dower Blumlein by Robert Charles Alexander.
Blumlein was truly an electronic genius, at least at the same level as Edwin Armstrong, yet had the bad luck of working in a company (EMI) that didn’t encourage publication (Blumlein only published two papers in his career) and discouraged publicity (only four photographs of Blumlein are known to exist), and died while working on an extremely top-secret project (centimeter radar) during World War II, resulting in his war work being buried in secrecy. His only tangible legacy (other than his designs and inventions, which were widely used) were his patents - over 120 of them - which trace the path of his short career.
Here is a thumbnail summary of Blumlein’s life and accomplishments: He was born in London in 1903 of an Alsatian father and South African mother (of Scottish background). He was an intelligent child, but only learned to read at age 12 when he realized this was important. He picked up an interest in electricity as a child, which lead him on a path to a degree from City and Guilds College in London, a respected technical branch of Imperial College. In 1924 he got a job at International Western Electric (later to become S.T. & C.) analyzing telephone line cross-talk. As part of this work, he invented a balanced bridge that allowed sub-picofarad capacitance measurements on phone lines, which greatly facilitated efforts of cross-talk reduction. He also developed very sophisticated compensation networks for buried and undersea cables.