Riding the Waves: A Life in Sound, Science and Industry

June 12, 2008

The defining moment in the life of Leo Beranek came in 1935, when at the age of 21, on Main Street, Mount Vernon, a small town in Iowa, he offered to help the owner of a Cadillac with a flat tyre.

Beranek had grown up on a local farm in a family that had endured considerable hardship during the difficult years of the 1920s. Blessed with innate intelligence and no small amount of determination, young Leo was approaching his final year of schooling at the local college, having financed his own education by working as a farm-hand and radio repair man. The owner of the Cadillac was Glenn Browning, a prominent radio engineer and Harvard instructor. As Leo worked with the jack and wheel nuts, they started to talk and exchanged names. "You are Glenn Browning?" Leo blurted out. "I just read one of your papers on the Browning tuner in Radio News this morning in the library."

This incredible coincidence set Beranek on his legendary career trajectory. He was to become a professor at Harvard University and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, write 12 books on acoustics, architecture and noise control, found the internationally famous acoustical consulting firm of Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN), and risk his life savings to secure the licence to operate a Boston television station that he later sold in 1982 for the highest price ever paid at that time for such an enterprise.

During the course of the automobile repairs, Browning had convinced Beranek to apply for a scholarship to go to Harvard, persuading him that it was not just a "rich man's school" as Beranek had believed. Browning had pointed out that Harvard had much more scholarship money than other universities. Sure enough, Beranek made an application to Harvard, as well as to three other state universities. The three state universities all turned him down due to lack of funds. But Harvard offered him a $400 scholarship to cover his tuition for study at the Graduate School of Engineering.

Beranek's account of his truly remarkable life is a superbly written and concise autobiography that tells a great story. His early years in Iowa were clearly very difficult (his mother died when he was 11 years old) and yet this hardship is not laboured in the book; quite the reverse. It is clear, however, that Beranek had to learn how to fend for himself at a very young age, and one suspects that this early sense of independence provided an important career foundation. His first year at Harvard was also no pushover. Without any hint of bitterness, Beranek describes how stringent budgeting meant that he could afford only two carefully chosen meals a day, even with his scholarship, but his determination earned him a masters degree with excellent grades.

F.V. Hunt, the well-known Harvard professor of acoustics, offered Beranek a research assistantship. At last things became a little easier financially. Academically, Beranek never looked back. His doctorate was awarded in 1940 for work on the measurement of the acoustical properties of materials. The war years saw him take on major responsibility for solving acoustical problems for both the US Air Force and Navy, supervising research grants worth $40 million at current prices. Immediately after the war, he became technical director of MIT's newly founded acoustics laboratory, where he met Dick Bolt and Bob Newman. BBN was founded in 1948 as a vehicle for undertaking the acoustical consulting work that kept coming the way of the academics at MIT. The firm soon moved into computer technologies and made crucial contributions to the development of the internet. BBN Technologies, still headquartered in Boston, now provides consulting and technology development services in a vast range of high-technology areas.

Acoustical engineers the world over will find this book fascinating. Beranek's huge contributions to the field, especially to architectural acoustics, are undeniable. Equally fascinating are his accounts of his business ventures, his work as a philanthropist and his activities as a public servant. Beranek is now 93 years old and still going strong, although he had to stop skiing on the most advanced downhill black runs at the age of 88, so his tips on good health and longevity are clearly worth reading too.

Riding the Waves: A Life in Sound, Science and Industry

By Leo Beranek
The MIT Press
256pp
£16.95
ISBN 9780262026291
Published 11 March 2008

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