Leo Beranek, 102, pioneer who unlocked mysteries of acoustics
Leo Beranek’s decision to leave Iowa in 1936 for Cambridge, where he revolutionized the field of acoustics, came down to a simple factor: Harvard University was the only graduate school that offered him a scholarship.
Once there, he planned to go into radio — “that’s what electronics meant in those days,” he once recalled — but he also played timpani in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and that “got me going in acoustics. We were trying to understand how sound behaves in rooms.”
Dr. Beranek, a National Medal of Science recipient who was a founder of the Cambridge-based acoustics consulting firm Bolt Beranek and Newman, died Monday in Westwood at 102. His death was announced by WCVB-TV, which he helped found in 1972.
That venture into TV as a part-owner and executive made him millions of dollars when the station was sold a decade later. Under his leadership, WCVB instituted news programming changes that continue to shape Boston’s broadcasting landscape today. Dr. Beranek also was a leading philanthropist for major arts institutions, particularly the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and he served as president of the Cambridge-based American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Yet, it was his work in acoustics that created a lasting legacy, through improved concert venues in Boston, at Tanglewood, and around the world.
“When I try to explain his importance to people who haven’t heard of him, I always say he is like the Sir Paul McCartney of acoustics,” said Tim Mellow, a British acoustical consultant who worked with Dr. Beranek on a book published in 2012, when Dr. Beranek was 98. “Beranek is the father of modern acoustics, the era of microphones, loudspeakers, and computers.”
During World War II, while still in his 20s, Dr. Beranek helped improve communications between pilots and crew members in bombers. Then in 1948, he was teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he founded Bolt Beranek and Newman with Richard Bolt, a fellow MIT professor, and Robert Newman.
An early project was designing acoustics for the UN General Assembly Hall in New York City, though the firm became known for farther-reaching research, such as helping develop ARPANET, the forerunner of the Internet. Dr. Beranek had little direct involvement in thatachievement , but BBN veteran Robert Kahn, a co-developer of the TCP/IP protocol that drives the Internet, said the firm was a fertile field for all kinds of innovation under Dr. Beranek’s leadership.
“Leo and some of his colleagues had enough foresight to set up an institution that had many of the attributes of an academic institution,” Kahn said. “He created an environment in which people could explore ideas and take them much further than you typically did in an academic environment.”
At the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Dr. Beranek formerly chaired the Trustees and was a founding member and former chairman of the Board of Overseers. He also cochaired the BSO’s centennial fund drive that raised $20 million, and in 1982, Dr. Beranek and his wife, Phyllis, gave the symphony $1 million — at the time equaling the all-time largest donation. He agreed to let the BSO publicize his donation in hopes it would spur other entrepreneurs to donate more lavishly to the arts.
“He was also a true patron of the arts — specifically music, especially here at Boston’s Symphony Hall — and the BSO is forever indebted to Leo for his dedication, wise counsel, and generosity,” Mark Volpe, the BSO’s Eunice and Julian Cohen managing director, said in a statement.
In 2000, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences presented its first Scholar-Patriot Distinguished Service Award to Dr. Beranek, who also formerly was president of the Opera Company of Boston and the Cambridge Society for Early Music.
President George W. Bush in 2003 awarded the National Medal of Science for engineering to Dr. Beranek, who was head of Bolt Beranek and Newman from 1953 to 1969 and its chief scientist from 1969 to 1971. The firm later was known as BBN Technologies and became part of Raytheon in 2009.
Dr. Beranek also was a former chief executive of Boston Broadcasters Inc. and had chaired its board. He helped head the long legal fight by Boston Broadcasters to win control of WCVB, Channel 5.
In 1969, the Federal Communications Commission awarded the station to Boston Broadcasters and ordered the withdrawal of the temporary license of WHDH, owned by the Boston Herald-Traveler Corp. More litigation followed and the case went to the US Supreme Court before the station began broadcasting as WCVB-TV in March 1972.
In 1962, Dr. Beranek endured what was arguably his most significant career setback when critics attacked the acoustic quality of the new BBN-designed Philharmonic Hall in New York. “There’s enough blame to go around, of course, but by now I’ve become a convenient scapegoat,” he wrote in “Riding the Waves,” his 2008 autobiography. “My dream of a great hall and my reputation as an acoustician both appear to be going up in smoke.”
Dr. Beranek did not design another auditorium until 1992, when his work on a pair of halls in Japan was acclaimed by music lovers.
In 1961, he received the Wallace Clement Sabine Medal from the Acoustical Society of America, which presented Dr. Beranek with its Gold Medal in 1975.
His work in acoustics included authorship with others of such books as “Music, Acoustics and Architecture” (1962), “Concert and Opera Halls: How They Sound” (1996), and “Acoustics: Sound Fields and Transducers,” which he and Mellow published in 2012.
Born in Solon, Iowa, on Sept. 15, 1914, Leo Leroy Beranek was the son of Edward Beranek and the former Beatrice Stahle. He graduated from Cornell College in 1936 and received a master’s from Harvard University in 1937 and a doctorate in 1940.
He taught at Harvard from 1943 to 1947. During World War II, he headed Harvard’s electro-acoustical laboratory, where he helped develop thin, lightweight headphones to fit into the helmets of aircraft crews. These headphones shut out much of the aircraft noise, making it easier for flight crews to tolerate long missions and helped crewmembers hear one another.
After the war, he taught at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and served as technical director of its acoustics laboratory, then the only lab of its kind in the country.
Dr. Beranek, who was inducted into the Massachusetts Broadcasters Hall of Fame, had been a trustee of Cornell College and Emerson College and a member of the Board of Overseers of Harvard University.
His first wife, the former Phyllis Knight, whom he married in 1941, died in 1982.
In 1985, he married Gabriella Sohn, and as philanthropists, the couple supported the BSO, the Museum of Fine Arts, and other organizations. Dr. Beranek was 93 when his first grandchild, Antonia Hsu Haynes, was born.
In addition to his wife and granddaughter, Dr. Beranek leaves two sons, James of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Thomas Beranek Haynes of Chicago. At Dr. Beranek’s request, there will be no services.
Active into his late decades, Dr. Beranek skied until he was 88, published a final paper earlier this year, and flew to Chicago just two weeks ago.
“My brother and I were enormously proud of him because of his accomplishments, and also because he was a Rock of Gibraltar as a father,” said Thomas, who chuckled as he recalled that Dr. Beranek was so supremely organized all his life that during a family vacation to the Grand Canyon when he was 80, Dr. Beranek plotted out each day’s activities in 15-minute increments.