Leo Beranek's Story

15 September 2013

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We are celebrating the ninety-ninth birthday of one of Cornell College's very accomplished alumni at Cornell College's Berry Center for Economics, Business, and Public Policy.

Leo Beranek built a satisfying career and life on a foundation established at Cornell College. His experience has included entrepreneurship and invention, teaching and research, and leadership in business, learned societies, and philanthropy. In his example, we see that the spectrum of opportunities open to a student of the liberal arts is wide. We see as well that work in business can be our means of helping to make a better world.


What can you do with a Bachelor of Arts degree earned at Cornell College?


Direct a laboratory at Harvard, teach at MIT, start a company, play an important role in the introduction of jet travel, interview the world's greatest conductors and use the knowledge gained to design concert halls all over the world, chair the Boston Symphony Orchestra's board of trustees, establish a precedent that leads to the break-up of AT&T's monopoly, create “America's best TV station,” earn an invitation to join the National Academy of Engineering, and receive the National Medal of Science from the hands of the President of the United States.


But what if your grades are not good enough for Phi Beta Kappa?


Build the nucleus of the Internet and invent e-mail!



Leo Beranek grew up near Cornell College and came of age during the Depression. By repairing radios and playing drums in a band, he had earned enough money to pay his tuition. He withdrew the money he needed for college from the bank just in time. The bank where he had deposited his savings shut its doors forever the next day.


One day, the professor who taught the required speech course at Cornell College speculated in class about the advantages that would follow from recording each student's speech at the start and end of the course, if the only the means were available. Leo, ever attentive, spotted an advertisement for a recording machine in one of the radio magazines he enjoyed reading. He offered to invest his own money and charge a modest fee for recording his classmates. The professor gave him the contract.


On Mount Vernon, Iowa's main street, Leo came upon a neatly dressed man looking at a flat tire on his car. Leo volunteered to change the tire for the traveler. They talked. The man learned that Leo hoped to attend graduate school. Leo learned that the man shared his interest in radio. Indeed, Glenn Browning owned a company that made radios, had taught engineering at Harvard University, and had written the article in Radio News that Leo had read in the library that same morning. Glenn Browning's introductions and recommendation got Leo to Harvard, a doctoral degree, and the start of a career. Good deeds are rewarded!


Today's students look for the Internet and cable television in their rooms in the residence halls. Leo decided that his classmates should have the highest quality connections to the dominant medium of their day. Leo had wired several residence halls for the college. That experience helped him persuade the college to construct a radio antenna atop the new Merner Residence Hall and to allow him to route wires from the antenna to outlets in each room.


Before Leo set off for Harvard to study acoustical engineering, Elmer Moots, one of his math professors at Cornell College, had given him the name of a former student whose husband was a professor at Tufts University, another school in the Boston area. Leo stayed with John and Mabel Barnes until he found a place of his own. Thereafter, they continued to invite him to dinners at their home. At one of those dinners, they suggested that Leo, a young man far from his Iowa home, call the younger sister of a colleague. Leo called Phyllis. They made a date to attend a concert at Boston's Symphony Hall. At the concert, Leo pointed to Jascha Haifetz, the world-renown violinist on stage, and explained to his date that he had recorded Haifetz' playing in his laboratory that very morning. In this way he impressed his future wife on their very first date.


The United States had not yet entered the war but had begun preparations in anticipation of war. These preparations included spending on research that might lead to technology that could give American soldiers, sailors, and airmen an advantage in the fight.

The Army wanted to find a way to reduce noise in bombers. A prominent physicist at MIT thought that the contract could be his. He invited Leo to join him. The professor for whom Leo was working at Harvard did not want to give him up. Ultimately, the president of MIT settled the quarrel between the two professors who were bidding for Leo's talents. He took the project away from the senior professors. He gave it to Leo.


Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Leo boarded an airplane in Washington, DC. He was headed for New York City. He got the last seat on the plane. He did not recognize his seatmate until she lowered the newspaper that she was reading.

Leo Beranek found himself sitting next to Eleanor Roosevelt. They spoke about events in the world and also about their families. Upon their arrival in New York, Leo offered to call ahead to the people with whom Mrs. Roosevelt was scheduled to meet. While she made her way as quickly as possible from the airport into the city, he let those who were waiting for her know that she would be a little late.

Good deeds are rewarded! A special invitation arrived in the mail and, a day after Christmas, Leo and Phyllis Beranek had lunch at the White House with the First Lady of the United States.


Jet engines promised to revolutionize aviation. However, testing of a jet engine at one of the government's wind tunnels produced terrific noise and energy that shook things. Neighbors protested. Authorities feared that they would have to shut down the important program.

Leo Beranek had just started a company with partners Dick Bolt and Bob Newman. BBN stepped in to help. They built a scale model of the wind tunnel. They experimented with modifications.

Life magazine called their solution to the problem “the world's largest muffler” and published page-filling photographs of the 220 foot long addition to the wind tunnel.


Leo filled his company with people who possessed expertise in many fields: acoustics, architecture, physics, communications, and electrical engineering. He courted Lick Licklider, a psychologist on the faculty of MIT. Lick had studied physics in addition to psychology and had worked with pioneers of computer science.

After joining BBN, Lick asked Leo for the go-ahead to buy a computer. The cost greatly exceeded the cost of any other instrument or machine that the company had ever purchased. Leo asked Lick to explain how he would use a computer. Lick did not know, but he did know that a company that hoped to lead must invest in the new technology of computing.

As Vice President in Charge of Man-Machine and Information Systems at BBN, Lick created and promoted a vision of a world full of interactive and connected computers. His energetic promotion of big ideas earned a very prominent position in the history of computing.

Leo's success in recruiting people like Lick prompted some people to begin referring to BBN as the third university in Cambridge, Massachusetts (after Harvard and MIT).


Citizens' groups and public agencies did not all welcome the prospect of jet travel. Many feared disruptive noise at airports. Leo's company invented ways of measuring noise from aircraft that matched human perceptions more accurately. His experts worked with regulators, industry, local governments, and the people who lived near airports. Their objective evidence persuaded. Commercial trans-Atlantic jet service began smoothly on October 26, 1958.


Leo's company grew. To meet his expanding responsibilities to the company, he needed to know more. He enrolled in the Advanced Management Program at Harvard's Business School.

Some of his classmates headed companies that were much larger and better known than BBN. Tradition called for each student to do something for the whole class. Some of Leo's peers took their classmates on rides in company-owned airplanes or ships. Leo bussed his classmates a few miles to his company for a tour.

He alone had experience with digital computers. No one else in the class had led a company to a public offering of stock.

The curriculum covered many subjects. Their professors hammered them with hard questions. Leo's breadth of experience enabled him to keep up with the fast pace.


Leo consulted in the design of opera houses and concert halls around the world. In preparation for this role, he interviewed many of the twentieth century's greatest conductors. He wrote an authoritative textbook on the acoustics of concert halls. An early effort for Philharmonic Hall at New York's Lincoln Center produced disappointment. Work on the New National Theater's Opera House in Tokyo drew great praise.

Professional societies and the government of the United States have recognized Leo with awards for his contributions to acoustical design.

What else?

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (the IEEE) presented Leo with its Founders' Medal this summer. In his acceptance speech, Leo urged us all to seek out the company of people who are smarter than ourselves. He credited his own success to a habit of doing the same. If you're the smartest person in the room, you're in the wrong room!

Leo's career has intersected with the careers of other alumni of Cornell College.

To learn what he needed to know to direct a laboratory at Harvard University during the Second World War, Leo Beranek sought the help of Lee DuBridge, class of 1922. DuBridge was at MIT directing the national effort to develop radar. DuBridge later became the first presidential science advisor and the president of CalTech.

In the 1990s, more than 20 years after Leo Beranek's company built the first pieces of the Internet and shortly after the National Science Foundation opened the Internet to commerce, George Strawn, class of 1962, led efforts at the NSF to boost the speed of the Internet.

That's more evidence of the value in the kind of education that we offer at Cornell College!

Read Leo Beranek's autobiography, take notice of his name in many histories of computing, and search on his name in the New York Times Historical database to see how frequently references to his contributions to acoustics appeared over a period of more than fifty years.

At the Berry Center, we introduce students to people who work in many kinds of organizations and in diverse roles. We help students make the connection between work in their classrooms and the work of their lives. And we show students how they can invest their energy and creativity in the solution of important problems, just as Leo Beranek has done.

Cast of Characters

People in the life of Leo Beranek

Physicists and mathematicians, computer scientists and psychologists, musicians, political and religious leaders, an historian and a journalist&emdash;which of these leading figures do you recognize?

George Birkhoff George W. Bush
Walter Chronkite Karl Compton
Al Gore Jasha Heifetz
J.C.R. (“Lick”) Licklider    John McCarthy
Marvin Minsky Dimitri Mitropoulos
Philip Morse Ken Olsen
Eugene Ormandy Eleanor Roosevelt
James Schlesinger Isaac Stern
Leopold Stokowski Desmond Tutu
J.H. Van Vleck Herbert von Karajan
An Wang Yo-Yo Ma