September 11, 1884 - July 23, 1981
Dr. Harvey Fletcher was born in what was then the small town of Provo, Utah on September 11, 1884. He was the son of pioneer parents, and had no early ambitions to become a scientist or scholar. His pursuit of a formal education led him to a distinguished career as a scientist, engineer, and educator, and he is recognized for his contributions to the study of acoustics, speech, medicine, music, and atomic physics.
As a young man, Harvey Fletchers ambition was to follow in his father’s footsteps building houses, and to work with his uncles in their grocery businesses. In stark contrast to the pioneering spirit of his parents, his view of the world could be summed up in the following quote: “As I looked across the Utah Valley, I thought that the tops of the mountains that I could see in any direction marked the end of the world where people live. On the other side of these was the great ocean. There were cracks in the wall that held the ocean back, so that the water from the ocean leaked through and formed the various streams that come down from the mountains.” Though his father had only four months of formal education, it is evident that Harvey himself valued school. By 1901 he had finished eighth grade, and he progressed on to the only institution in the Utah Valley that offered an education beyond this level. He enrolled in Brigham Young Academy, and as part of the curriculum was exposed for the first time to math, physics, and chemistry. Though he had to repeat his first course in physics, achieving the highest grade in the class the second time around, he eventually excelled in his studies, graduating seven years later with a B.S.
Fletcher spent a year teaching physics and mathematics at what had then become Brigham Young University, and he spent his summers running government surveys in the unexplored mountain country of eastern Utah and supervising the building of water mains that would supply the town of Provo. By that point, he had decided that he wanted to pursue a Ph. D. at the University of Chicago so that he could develop a successful career as a scientist. He was a little nervous about going alone to Chicago, so he persuaded Lorena Chipman, whom he had been courting, to marry him and join his adventure. Without prior admission to the university, the couple moved to Chicago and took their chances. Indeed, because much of the curriculum offered at Brigham Young was not accredited by Chicago, and because the degree that he earned only involved three years of college level courses, the university initially deemed it necessary for him to take four years of courses in order to move on to the graduate program.
While this was beyond his means, Robert A. Millikan, then an assistant professor, proposed that Fletcher enroll as a special student, carrying out the first year of classes for the graduate physics program. Successful completion of these courses, plus one year of make-up work in undergraduate courses, earned him entrance into the graduate program, from which he earned the first summa cum laude degree ever granted by the University of Chicago. It was during his tenure as a student at the University of Chicago that Fletcher worked with Robert Millikan to measure the charge of an electron. This research later contributed to the field of electronics and its subsequent use in the television and radio industry.
Having achieved his goals in Chicago, Fletcher returned to B.Y.U. in 1911 to teach, as he had vowed he would, where he became the only faculty member to hold a Ph.D. He was appointed chairman of the Physics department, and he taught at his alma mater for the next five years. It was then that he accepted a position with Western Electric Company in New York, and his record of achievement blossomed to unprecedented levels. He was appointed Director of all Physical Research at Bell Telephone Laboratories, where he published 51 papers and two books, and was awarded 19 patents. Much of his research is considered to be an authoritative source, and his books, Speech and Hearing and Speech and Hearing in Communication are accepted treatises on the subject.
Fletcher directed or was involved in numerous research projects, which led to the development of products and technology that are widely in use in our daily lives. His oversight of a project on hearing aids led to the development of the first such device to employ vacuum tubes. In the 1930’s, he and Wilden Munson formulated a graph that is now referred to as the Fletcher-Munson Loudness Curves, which correlates between sound intensity and loudness. They devised this by getting groups of people to judge when pure tones of two different frequencies were the same loudness, and averaged their results to come up with the resulting graph, shown below.
Another technological advancement that Fletcher pioneered involved clarity in the transmission of sound via telephone. His research involved the perception of sound from the typical talker to the typical listener, and how small imperfections in speech sounds affect the ability of the listener to recognize what is said. It was concluded that more precise instruments that would convert sound waves into electrical form and then back into sound waves with minimal distortion were required in order to make the telephone the remarkable communications device that it is today.
Harvey Fletcher was also instrumental in the promotion of stereophonic recording and transmission. In 1931 Fletcher, along with colleague Arthur C. Keller and conductor Leopold Stokowski, recorded and transmitted, from the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, monaural and binaural (stereo) sound. Fletcher and Stokowski made a presentation at Carnegie Hall in 1940 with recorded stereo music from a three-channel system using sound on film with a frequency range from 30 Hz to 15,000 kHz and a volume range of 120 decibels. A 4th track was used as a loudness playback control track. The New York Times reported. “The loudest sounds ever created crashed and echoed through venerable Carnegie Hall last night as a specially invited audience listened, spellbound, and at times not a little terrified.”
Fletcher’s achievements are not restricted to ones associated with his work for Bell Laboratories. He helped found the American Acoustical Society and became its first president. He was president of the American Society for Hard of Hearing, an honorary member of the American Ontological Society, an honorary member of the Audio Engineering Society and an honorary member of the American Speech and Hearing Society. He was awarded the Louis E. Levy Medal for physical measurements of audition by the Franklin Institute in 1924. He was president of the American Physical Society which in the leading physics society in America. He was elected vice-president of the America Association for the Advancement of Science in 1937. He is a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi, and an honorary member of Sigma Pi Sigma. He is also a member of the National Hearing Division Committee of Medical Sciences. He was given the Progress Medal Award by the American Academy of Motion Pictures in Hollywood. He acted as National Councilor for the Ohio State University Research Foundation eight years. In addition, he has received honorary degrees from Columbia University, Stevens Institute, Kenyon College, Case Institute of Technology, and the University of Utah.
Harvey Fletcher continued to contribute long after his retirement from Bell Laboratories. After his retirement, he founded the Engineering program at Brigham Young University and continued to maintain an active role in a research program having to do with Acoustics well into his 80’s. Fletcher enjoyed fishing because it allowed him to spend time with his sons, all five of whom earned doctorate degrees, and attributed much of his success to his wife. He died on July 23, 1981 in Provo Utah, just weeks from his 97th birthday. Countless individuals make use of and appreciate the technology that he helped to develop during a stellar career that spanned almost seven decades. Truly, this man blossomed from his humble beginnings and aspirations, to become a character of great influence on the everyday lives of much of mankind.