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The Father of Stereophonic Sound, Harvey Fletcher, Receives Grammy 35 Years After His Death

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stokowski_and_fletcher

Leopold Stokowski and Harvey Fletcher

Harvey Fletcher might not be a household name, but his contributions to science and music touch our everyday lives. Known as the “Father of Stereophonic Sound” his work at Bell Labs revolutionized not only the telephone system but changed the way we listen to music forever. For this achievement, he was honored with 2016 Individual Technical Grammy Award.

First awarded in 1994, the Technical Grammy seeks to recognize exemplary contributions by individuals and/or companies in the recording field. It falls under the category of Special Merit Awards, and members of the governing body of The Recording Academy can nominate potential recipients. The award is ratified by vote of the Academy’s National Trustees. Past recipients have included: Sony/Phillips, Ray Dolby, Shure Incorporated, Emile Berliner and Thomas Alva Edison. As Chicago Chapter Governor and WFMT staff engineer, I proposed this year’s recipient.

Harvey Fletcher was a brilliant young physics student at the University of Chicago who worked on the oil drop experiment with his teacher Robert Millikan, which allow for the measurement of the electron charge. For this Fletcher graduated with honors, and Millikan received the Nobel Prize.

After receiving his Ph.D., Dr. Fletcher embarked on a teaching career, but after repeated offers, he joined Bell Labs in 1916 and became its Director of Physical Research. Under his leadership, Fletcher sought to improve audio quality of the telephone system. This was no small task as the fidelity of the current systems was poor at best. Microphones, amplifiers, recording and transmission technology had to be redesigned, and Fletcher oversaw this work.

Fletcher-Muson Curves

This graph depicts the Fletcher-Munson curve, which demonstrates that the ear does not perceive loudness linearly, but that it varies in accordance to frequency.

He felt, that in order to do this properly, an understanding of hearing and perception had to be gained. Through his research, he was able to document and demonstrate the spatial effects of sound, which he called auditory perspective, or stereo (S. Fletcher 182). These findings were demonstrated in various locales including the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, and it astonished audiences.

However, it was his profound interest in music that led Fletcher to partner with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, and this collaboration produced over 100 stereo recordings (Huffman). In his tests, listeners were often unable to distinguish the difference between the live orchestra and the recordings (Knudsen).

Audiences of the day had profound reactions to the auditory experience. Newspapers reported, “Solidified music shakes building, audience frightened – new sound device mystifies engineers,” and “sculptured music made solid by giving it three dimensions…a reality that can almost be seen, touched and felt…(qtd. in Ampel and Uzzle 3).

Prior to Fletcher’s and Bell Labs’ stereo recording innovations, records were made on wax cylinders called Edison cylinders. The field recording below was made in Tahiti on an Edison cylinder in 1923, less than 10 years before Fletcher’s and Bell Labs’ breakthrough with stereo recording. Notice that the recording quality is considerably poorer and in mono.

In contrast with the recording above, this 1932 recording of Scriabin’s PrometheusPoem of Fire, Op. 60 allowed listeners to hear music in stereo. To hear the recording, click here.

 In addition to his innovations in sound recording technology, Dr. Fletcher is credited with the invention the first practical hearing aid, the A2 audiometer, the artificial larynx, and also, supervised the development of the transistor (Treaster). Furthermore, he authored critical texts in speech, hearing perception and communication. His achievements been recognized by the Acoustical Society of America, the Audio Engineering Society, the Franklin Institute, the American Academy of Motion Pictures and now by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science with the 2016 Technical Grammy Award.

Listen below to Chief Engineer of Skywalker Sound Leslie Ann Jones, this year’s winner for “Best Engineered Album, Classical” for Ask Your Mama, explain the Technical Grammy Award; William Fletcher speaking about his grandfather’s accomplishments and a historic clip of Dr. Harvey Fletcher himself speaking on stereo.

Produced by Mary Mazurek

For additional information about Harvey Fletcher, see:

Ampel, Frederick J. and Ted Uzzle. “Multichannel Auditory Perspectives, A Historical View of Harvey Fletcher’s Forgotten Contributions and Their Ramifications.” Acoustical Society of America. 1995.

Fletcher, Harvey. “Auditory Perspective – Basic Requirements” Symposium On Auditory Perspective AES 30 April 1964: 9-11.

Fletcher, Harvey by Vern Knudsen and W.J. King on May 15, 1964. Niels Bohr Library and Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD

Fletcher, Stephen H. Harvey Fletcher 1884-1981: A Biographical Memoir. Washington D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1992.

Huffman, Larry. Bell Laboratories and the Development of Electrical Recording.

Treaster, Joseph B. “Harvey Fletcher, Pioneer In Stereo.” New York Times 25 July1981

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