Now hear this: the man who tamed acoustics

Chances are that you have never heard of the man who turned acoustics into a true science although you almost certainly have listened to music that has benefited from his exemplary work.

Aug 1st, 2008
Th Jbairstow

By Jeff Bairstow

Chances are that you have never heard of the man who turned acoustics into a true science although you almost certainly have listened to music that has benefited from his exemplary work. Not only did this engineer revolutionize acoustics but he was one of the three founders of a company that built an academic computer network that was the forerunner of today’s Internet. Born Sept. 15, 1914, in the tiny farm town of Solon, Iowa, his name is Leo Leroy Beranek and he could have been just another midwestern farm boy but for an unexpected automobile accident. Leo Beranek took every learning opportunity that came his way from Iowa to, literally, most of the world’s stages.

Now, Leo Beranek has written a modestly brief autobiographical memoir (230 pages) published by the MIT Press, Riding the Waves, A Life in Sound, Science, and Industry. It is the American Dream personified in the energy and persistence of a farm boy who said, “One central lesson I’ve learned is the value of risk-taking and of moving on when risks turn into busts or odds look better elsewhere.” But this book is much more than the typical Horatio Alger rags-to-riches success story.

Few academics can have passed as easily from academia to industry and back again as Beranek did during the course of his 70-year career. Here is a budding engineer who repaired early vacuum-tube radio sets while still in high school, a musician who played as a drummer in a dance band to pay for his early college years, was a business partner in one of Boston’s first successful TV stations, who cofounded and managed the major consulting firm Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (now BBN Technologies), who was a professor at Harvard and MIT and still found time to author some 12 books and write more than 150 technical papers. He even took courses on writing memoirs at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education before working on Riding the Waves.

Beranek is at his best when he describes the roles he personally undertook in a particular project. For example, he devotes almost an entire chapter to the controversial introduction of potentially noisier jet aircraft at New York’s Idlewild Airport (now JFK International) in 1957. The Port Authority of New York (the airport operator) claimed that the new jets were louder than their propeller-driven counterparts. Summoned to New York by the Port Authority, Beranek and his colleagues tested the operations and did indeed find the jets noisier. Under significant time pressure, the BBN team produced a couple of lengthy reports that became the subsequent noise control policies at Idlewild and many other U.S. airports. All this was done without the help of personal computers or high-speed photocopying machines.

Beranek does not do quite so well with writing about his home life and personal life. We learn very little of his two wives, for example. Beranek does devote a couple of pages to his first marriage to Phyllis, a dental hygienist, but those few paragraphs are about as interesting as the Yellow Pages written in Swahili. We learn in passing that Phyllis died in 1982 and Beranek married his travel agent, Gabriella Sohn, in 1985. There’s a couple of pages devoted to this second marriage but this, too, reads very blandly. I have the distinct impression that Leo Beranek simply does not like to discuss his personal life. That’s a pity since a little more humanity would flesh out the book quite nicely (sorry about the play on words!).

I was also surprised to find very little about Beranek’s role in BBN’s development of the ARPANET—the network that resulted in the Internet of today. Barely a single page is devoted to the network. That may be because others have written extensively on that subject. Indeed, Beranek himself contributed a lengthy paper, “Roots of the Internet: A Personal History,” to the Massachusetts Historical Review, presented online, of course, in association with the History Cooperative. Although the paper is very readable, it, too, is somewhat unemotional and academic in style.

Another minor but annoying beef with the book: there is no index in the book or even a list of persons mentioned in the text. Surely the MIT press could have run an indexing program on the completed text?

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Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor

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