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The Father of the Digital Synthesizer


Stashed in: Stanford, History of Tech!, For Conrad, Freakonomics, History of Tech

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Fascinating Stanford connection:

Long before Stanford University was considered a technology powerhouse, its most lucrative patent came from an under-spoken composer in its music department. Over the course of two decades, his discovery, "frequency modulation synthesis," made the school more than $25 million in licensing fees.

But more importantly, FM synthesis revolutionized the music industry, and opened up a world of digital sound possibilities. Yamaha used it to build the world’s first mass-marketed digital synthesizer — a device that defined the sound of 80s music. In later years, the technology found its way into the sound cards of nearly every video game console, cell phone, and personal computer.

Despite the patent’s immense success, its discoverer, Dr. John Chowning, a brilliant composer in his own right, was passed over for tenure by Stanford for being “too out there.” In Stanford’s then-traditional music program, his dabblings in computer music were not seen as a worthy use of time, and he was largely marginalized. Yet by following his desire to explore new frontiers of audio, Chowning eventually recontextualized the roles of music and sound, found his way back into the program, and became the department chair of his own internationally-renowned program.

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