Leo Beranek, Engineer Involved in Internet Precursor, Dies at 102
By GLENN RIFKIN
October 17, 2016
Leo L. Beranek, an engineer whose company designed the acoustics for the United
Nations and concert halls at Lincoln Center and Tanglewood, then built the
direct precursor to the internet under contract to the Defense Department, died
on Oct. 10 at his home in Westwood, Mass. He was 102.
His death was confirmed by his son James.
Dr. Beranek taught acoustic engineering at Harvard and M.I.T. for more than
three decades after World War II, conducting research there that laid the
groundwork for acoustic advances with wide social impact, including noise
standards for public buildings and airports. But one of his most notable
achievements was well outside the field of acoustics.
In 1969, the company he helped found, Bolt, Beranek & Newman, won a contract
from the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency to build the
first computer-based network, which came to be called Arpanet.
By demonstrating the ability to share data and messages through vast computer
networks, Arpanet, a product of government-sponsored research, paved the way
for the creation of the internet. Among its many breakthrough achievements, his
company sent the first email message that used the @ symbol, in 1972.
Dr. Beranek was a sought-after acoustics genius, and Bolt, Beranek & Newman’s
first contract was to design the acoustics of the United Nations General
Assembly Hall in New York. He also improved the acoustic environment in such
landmark concert venues as the Koussevitzky Music Shed at the Tanglewood Music
Center in Lenox, Mass., and Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall) at
Lincoln Center in New York.
Dr. Beranek’s most successful book, “Acoustics,” published in 1954, remains a
textbook for acoustic engineering students around the world. From 1948 to 1958
he did work on noise control, creating standards that are used internationally
“I looked into how quiet do spaces have to be to be pleasant for people,” he
told an interviewer in 2009. “In other words, can you write a specification
saying that if you’re going to have an office, the noise should not be any
greater than so much? What are acceptable noise standards in a home, in a
factory, in a concert hall? I wrote those.”
At the advent of the jet age, Dr. Beranek’s work on noise control became a
factor in the controversy over noise levels near the world’s airports when the
Boeing 707 jet began flights to Europe from Idlewild (now Kennedy
International) Airport in 1958.
Despite claims by the airlines and Boeing that jets were no louder than
propeller aircraft, Dr. Beranek’s tests showed otherwise, and the airlines were
compelled to install mufflers on their jets and make steep climbs during
takeoffs to control the noise levels. These standards were adopted around the
Dr. Beranek was also a founder of a Boston television station, WCVB, and a
major donor to arts institutions, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Leo Leroy Beranek was born on Sept 14, 1914, in Solon, Iowa. His mother died
when he was 11. His father was a farmer and later an owner of a hardware and
farm machinery store in Mount Vernon, Iowa.
When he was a junior in high school, Dr. Beranek took a correspondence course
on radio that sparked a love affair with the medium that lasted for the rest of
his life. He opened a radio repair business as a high school senior and became
known in Mount Vernon as “the radio man.”
His business paid his tuition and living expenses at Cornell College in Mount
Vernon, where he enrolled in fall 1931. He graduated with a degree in physics
and mathematics in 1936.
During his senior year, a chance encounter outside the Mount Vernon town
library changed his life. One afternoon, Dr. Beranek noticed a Cadillac with a
flat tire stopped on the street. A middle-aged man emerged from the car, and
Dr. Beranek offered to help him change the tire.
He chatted with the grateful driver, Glenn Browning, a businessman from
Massachusetts, who suggested he apply to Harvard for graduate studies in
engineering. Mr. Browning had once taught at Harvard and offered himself as a
Dr. Beranek applied and was offered a full scholarship.
With a master’s degree in physics and communication engineering from Harvard,
he worked with a professor of acoustics, Frederick Hunt, and earned a doctorate
in 1940. He became an assistant professor at Harvard that year and held that
position until 1946.
In 1943 Dr. Bernanek married Phyllis Knight. She died in 1982. He later married
Gabriella Sohn, who survives him. Beside his son James, other survivors include
another son, Thomas Beranek Haynes; two stepsons, and a granddaughter.
During World War II, Dr. Beranek became director of Harvard’s Electroacoustic
Lab, where he worked to improve voice communication with airplanes at the
request of the military. Until then, voice communication from the ground to
airplanes at high altitude was impossible.
After the war, Dr. Beranek was recruited to teach at M.I.T., where he was named
technical director of the engineering department’s acoustics laboratory. The
administrative director of that lab was Richard Bolt, who later founded Bolt,
Beranek & Newman with Dr. Beranek and Robert Newman, a former student of Dr.
The company was conceived as a center for leading-edge acoustic research. But
Dr. Beranek changed its direction in the 1950s to include a focus on the
nascent computer age.
“As president, I decided to take B.B.N. into the field of man-machine systems
because I felt acoustics was a limited field and no one seemed to be offering
consulting services in that area,” Dr. Beranek said in a 2012 interview for
He hired J.C.R. Licklider, a pioneering computer scientist from M.I.T., to lead
the effort, and it was Dr. Licklider who persuaded him that the company needed
to get involved in computers.
Under Dr. Licklider, the company developed one of the best software research
groups in the country and won many critical projects with the Department of
Defense, NASA, the National Institutes of Health and other government agencies.
Though Dr. Licklider left in 1962, the company became a favored destination for
a new generation of software developers and was often referred to as the third
university in Cambridge.
“We bought our first digital computer from Digital Equipment Corporation, and
with it we were able to attract some of the best minds from M.I.T. and Harvard,
and this led to the ARPA contract to build the Arpanet,” Dr. Beranek said.
“I never dreamed the internet would come into such widespread use, because the
first users of the Arpanet were large mainframe computer owners,” he said.
“This all changed when the personal computer became available. With the PC, I
could see that computers were fun, and that is the real reason why all
innovations come into widespread use.”
Daniel E. Slotnik contributed reporting.
It's better to burn out than fade away.
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