Tuesday, February 28, 2017



You have a big project coming up, so you’ve decided to spend the entire day locked away in the library. You bring all your books, pack snacks, and find that perfect seat in a seemingly secluded area. You get through half an hour of productivity, and that’s all you get before your silent paradise is invaded by a group of strangers that just reunited in the library and have to catch up right then and there. You try to block them out, but eventually you just want to yell “STOP TALKING ALREADY” (maybe is not so subtle language).

So what are you supposed to do? Listen to music on blast to block it out? How are you supposed to concentrate?

That’s exactly what Dr. Amar Bose figured out. Why struggle with the noise around us when we can reduce or cancel it without frustration?

Pictured above: Dr. Amar Bose

In 1978, Dr. Bose was given a pair of headphones by airplane staff to use to listen to music on his flight from the USA to Switzerland. But, as many of us travelers know, the drone of the airplane engines (much like those chatting strangers) made it near impossible to enjoy the music. Fueled by irritation, Dr. Bose was struck with a moment of realization (also referred to as the “aha” moment). He swiftly began writing down calculations and concepts trying to design noise-cancelling headphones. These early scribbles would change the game in headphone technology.

As Dr. Bose himself put it, "the future isn't in solving the problems to which we already know the answers. It's in learning how to work through the problems you'll experience in life." So, in pursuit of solving the problem of noise interference, upon his return, he formed The Noise Reduction Technology Group (NRTG) as a research program at Bose Corporation (founded by him in 1964) to work on his new idea.

That in-flight moment of insight, described by Van Steenburgh as the moment when, “a new interpretation of a situation or the solution to a problem suddenly springs into conscious awareness, seems obviously correct, and is accompanied by a surprising and emotional experience known as the ‘Aha’ phenomenon” is what brought about sound revolution (Kaplan & Simon, 1990).

In fact, Bose himself said that his best ideas came to him at an instant moment, suddenly and rather unexpectedly. Bose declared that, “these innovations are not the result of rational thought; it's an intuitive idea. But if it's a sophisticated idea, then you need to apply all the rational tools to determine whether, and how, it can be done." So in 1986, after 8 years of research and development, the first noise cancelling headphones were tested. In December of that year, two pilots, wearing Bose’s prototype noise-cancellation headphones (meant to strengthen endurance), set a record by piloting the world’s first airplane to fly across the whole world without stopping or refueling even once. Just 3 years later, the noise-cancelling headphones became commercially available. In 1995, Bose’s Acoustic Noise Cancelling headset Series II was named “Product of the Year” and was praised for reducing fatigue and improving concentration. They were designed to fit a wide variety of application from the aviation industry, as military equipment, and for commercial use

How do they work?

As explained in an illustration by Tom Connell, noise cancellation basically implements a microphone in the outside of the ear cuffs that “listens” for outside noise. The microphones send signals and patterns to a chip, which, within a fraction of a millisecond, calculates and produces an anti-noise signal opposite to the ones incoming. Users can choose to turn the noise cancellation on and off, which is currently powered by a single battery. Of course, the feature may be used alone or simultaneously while playing music. By integrating the anti-block wave into the speaker, the quality of the music heard through the inner speaker is also improved and allows the user to listen to music at lower volumes (which is less damaging to your long-term hearing).

Bose continued to release models in 1998 (the Bose Aviation Headset X), 2000 (the QuietComfort Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones – commercial use), 2003 (the Bose QC 2), and 2006 (QC 3). The best improvement up to that point came in 2009 with the QC 15, which featured microphones both inside and outside the earcups. In 2013, QC 20 Acoustic Noise Cancellation headphones were introduced, and they featured more U.S. patents then any Bose headphones before them. Today, the consumer is offered the latest adjustment with the QC35, which is Bose’s first Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones. Focusing on noise cancellation, audio performance, and comfort, Bose continues to excel in the technology and has become the “gold standard” on the market.

Pictured above: Bose QC 3

As an owner of one of these headphones, I can attest to the amazing noise reduction quality. Additionally, as a frequent traveler, the headphones allow me to block out airplane noise and concentrate on work, watching movies or reading a book on the plane (or simply listening to music in peace). Of course, they are also indispensable when I am trying to block everything out and concentrate on studying.

Noise reduction technology, thought up 40,000 feet above the ground by Dr. Boise, revolutionized the headphone industry, and showed to be invaluable in aviation and military use, in addition to commercial. Not only is this a creative product, but it clearly demonstrates how much effort goes into the realization of certain ideas. While the creative thought seemed to come at an instant, and the preliminary calculations were worked out by Dr. Bose on an airplane napkin, it took over 8 year to bring this technology into commercial use and over 30 years of improvements to achieve the upgrades we see today.

His success and his proof of concept marks him, to me, to be a “big C creative”. In Chapter 2 of Creating Minds, Gardner claims that creative individuals “regularly exhibit their creativity”, and Dr. Bose certainly released more revolutionary inventions and technology in his life. He not only built his company from scratch, but continuously brought around breakthroughs in disciplines that range from acoustics, aviation to defense and nuclear physics.

In 2008, Dr. Bose was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and, among other awards, received the Wolfson James Clerk Maxwell Award in 2010 for, “outstanding contributions to consumer electronics in sound reproduction, industrial leadership, and engineering education”. He continued improvements and inventions in his field until his death in 2013.

To read more and checkout some more research done for this post, a few useful links are posted below. I highly recommend the first, to Popular Science, which describes in detail not only products, but the creative genius of Dr. Amar Bose.

  •  Popular Science 
  • The Guardian 
  • Android Central 


  1. As someone who is heavily invested in music and listens to it pretty much always, the day I received my first pair of noise cancelling headphones my life was changed. Mine were not Bose, but they are now (always buy brand, it's always better) and it makes living in Chicago so much easier. I can walk to class and not hear the cars or the wind or the group of girls yelling about last night's episode of the Bachelor. Also as a DJ, I use multiple different headphones to hear the different tones and bases of songs and noise-cancelling headphones are god-sent when it comes to that. An interesting back story to how he came up with the idea, I appreciate this!

  2. I think that this is interesting because of the way it integrates science into creativity. The noise cancellation is due to interference caused by waves. This interference is destructive, which leads to the sound way being essentially cancelled. What strikes me as the greatest part of this product is that sound waves are invisible. Sure, there are experiments that we can used to show how sound acts as a wave, but we cannot see these waves with our naked eye. Being able to take something invisible and manipulate it takes a huge amount of abstract creativity. I also find it interesting how this microphone works, since there are thousands of different waves and they can travel in different phases depending on location and medium and other variables.


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