Leo Beranek: A sound life

In his new memoir, Riding the Waves: A Life in Sound, Science, and Industry (MIT Press, 2008), worldrenowned acoustician Leo Beranek ’36 offers a glimpse of Depression-era Cornell student life and traces a future shaped by humble beginnings.

Beranek—who has consulted on many of the world’s most famous concert halls and assembled the software team that led to the creation of the Internet— attended country school by horse-drawn bus in rural Tipton. After his mother died, the family moved to Mount Vernon, where Beranek worked full-time to put himself through college. One of Beranek’s customers was the college, which hired him to wire Rood House and install a radio antennae system in Merner Hall.

“Running my own business while at Cornell prepared me for a lot of things—it taught me how to work with people, manage money, and keep good books,” Beranek, 93, said from his home near Harvard Square. “I bought radios from wholesalers and ran the radio store. It was complicated for my age. I was never modest—I went ahead and did things.”

He was adept at creating opportunities for himself, such as selling May Music Festival programs outside King Chapel for free admission, befriending the Chicago Symphony’s percussionists after the concert, and getting invited by them to dinner.

Beranek’s book starts with a gutsy prologue about an early failure, the New York Philharmonic Hall. The complex undertaking, complicated by politics and miscommunication, was not one of his best projects. In fact, Beranek outlines several failures all along the way that balance his many successes. In a book jacket quote, Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Emeritus Charles M. Vest captures the essence of Beranek’s life: “Leo Beranek is a hero among American technologists of his generation, and teaches us in this book that the pursuit of lofty goals, such as an aesthetically and acoustically superb concert hall, require perseverance, risk, and learning from failures.”

Beranek put it this way: “In some ways what also shaped my life were opportunities. When opportunities looked good I went in that direction.”

Some of it was sheer luck, such as withdrawing his life savings for Cornell tuition from a bank that closed for good the next day, or helping a motorist on Highway 1 who guided him toward a full scholarship at Harvard. But a good deal of it was hard work. Beranek turned that chance encounter into a Ph.D. from Harvard, then headed two Harvard World War II labs and taught at Harvard and MIT. He ran a Boston television station for 11 years, wrote 12 books, and, with two MIT colleagues, created the acoustical consulting firm Bolt, Beranek & Newman. Beranek’s life merits a Wikipedia entry, which cites his seminal book, Music Acoustics and Architecture. His career capstone came in 2003 when he was awarded the U.S. President’s National Medal of Science in engineering.

Beranek worked well into his 80s as a consultant in the design of concert halls around the world, completing his final project in Tokyo in 2001. Retired at last, he began his memoirs. He was advised to write several sample chapters and get an agent. Not surprisingly, he didn’t follow the advice.

“I wrote the entire thing. And then I had a fellow who is the head of a writing group at MIT take that manuscript and copy edit it,” he said. The writer shared it with MIT Press, which promptly accepted it.

Today, as a generous donor and member of Cornell’s President’s Society, Beranek has brought his life full circle, making Cornell more affordable to students with financial needs like his own so many years ago.

“I think everyone who feels their college benefited them, if they can afford it, ought to give some kind of a gift back to their alma mater,” he said.

Beranek lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife, Gabriella. He has two sons, Thomas and James Beranek ’70.