Richard Henry Bolt
The death of Richard Henry Bolt, January 13, 2002, in his 90th year has struck all of his friends and colleagues alike with a mixture of deep sadness and pleasant memories. We will miss his delightful companionship and the stimulation we received from sharing his incisive intellect. Dick was a many faceted “diamond,” with a broad range of interests and the ability to communicate with all and to help his colleagues and students in every way. We will remember and marvel at his contributions to the field of acoustics, to the government, and, in particular, to the Acoustical Society of America.
Richard Bolt’s life was not a straight path to the field of his greatest contribution, acoustics. A rigid academic program directed at a final pursuit was not his way. Acoustics was neither the first nor the last of his pursuits. As Ray Nickerson, formerly at BBN, wrote me, “What I remember best about him was his genuineness—no airs or pretense—his knack for making one feel at ease in his presence, and his unbounded enthusiasm for whatever he happened to be focusing on at the moment.”
Richard Bolt was born on 22 April,1911 in Peking, China to medical missionary parents, Richard Arthur Bolt and Beatrice French Bolt. The family returned to the United States in 1916 and Richard completed his schooling at Berkeley High School. Bolt entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1928 expecting that he would major in one or the other of his considerable talents in music and graphic design. He majored in Architecture and received a B A degree in 1933. Amazingly, his only contact with physics up to that time was a dumbed down course for architects and pre-med students. Apparently, he developed an interest in acoustics through articles that appeared in architectural journals—a subject that has obvious ties to both music and the design professions.
He married his beloved wife, Katherine Mary Smith, right after graduation and they honeymooned in Europe. Somehow, he was introduced to Professors Erwin Meyer and Hermann Biehle, both of whom were teaching acoustics in Berlin. Dick decided that he wanted to learn acoustics from those masters, except that he knew no German. Then, he drew on one of his most amazing talents, the ability to master complex subjects by intensely applying himself to study. In six weeks’ time, he mastered enough German to enroll in that fall’s classes, Meyer’s at the Heinrich Hertz Institute and Biehle in his own institute. Kay made it financially possible. She wrote a play for Berlin shortwave radio, acted in it, and earned enough to continue the honeymoon and finance Dick’s education during the next 10 months.
Braver still, after returning to Berkeley in 1934, Dick disregarded the doubts of the physicists in the university and enrolled in Physics A and D in summer school and qualified himself for entry into the graduate physics program. But there were financial constraints. The 1933-36 period was in the depth of our country’s greatest depression, and his parents could not help. Kay returned to her teaching career and taught English and dramatics in a junior high school for the next three years. For one term, Dick worked from 4 pm to midnight at a pharmaceutical company. Scholarships filled out the difference. He passed the qualifying examinations for entry into the school’s Ph.D. program in 1937. From then to 1939, because of his outstanding grade record, the Bolts’ future was covered by financial assistance from academic fellowships.
Berkeley had no research facilities or faculty in acoustics, so Bolt arranged to do his doctoral research under Professor Vern O. Knudsen, the Acoustical Society’s third president, at the University of California’s Los Angeles campus. In June 1939, he received the Ph.D. from the University of Californian in Berkeley, his thesis delivery coinciding with the day that their first child was born. His next academic year was spent at MIT doing research and publishing papers jointly with Philip M. Morse, Albert Clogston and Herman Feshbach, on several aspects of sound in various-shaped rooms, financed by a National Research Council post-doctoral fellowship in Physics.
In 1940, after a few months on the faculty at the University of Illinois, the impending war beckoned and he returned to MIT where, for two years, he directed MIT’s Underwater Sound Laboratory. In 1943, Bolt was named Scientific Liaison Officer in Subsurface Warfare to the Office of Scientific Research and Development in London.
In 1945, at the close of World War II, he was appointed Director of a newly conceived Acoustics Laboratory at MIT, with faculty supervisors from the fields of physics, electrical engineering, architecture, mechanical and aeronautical engineering, psychology, and the arts. In February 1947 he and Philip Morse enticed me from my faculty position at Harvard to serve as Associate Professor in Communication Engineering at MIT and Technical Director of the Acoustics Laboratory. With our offices located across the corridor from each other, Dick and I built the USA’s largest acoustics laboratory. At its peak we employed more than 80 persons and in the next 12 years 108 graduate theses were completed.
During the period immediately following WWII , Bill Cavanaugh, then an undergraduate in the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, recalls taking his first course in architectural acoustics taught by Bolt with the assistance of Robert Newman, This course was no “watered down” version for architects but rather was largely grounded in physical principles. Bill Cavanaugh further recalls taking Bolt’s “Advanced Seminar in Architectural Acoustics’ taught at the Acoustics Laboratory.
Before my arrival at MIT, the university had received a request for a proposal that would cover consultation on the acoustics of the United Nations Permanent Headquarters buildings in New York. Dick was asked by the President to respond personally, and in the fall of 1948 he received a contract to act as consultant to the renowned New York architectural firm, Harrison and Abramovitz, coordinating architects for a consortium of internationally acclaimed architects designing this prestigious project. My own independent consulting practice was already well developed when the drawings for the UN Complex, 16 feet long and piled 8 inches high, arrived in Dick’s office across from mine. In awe at the extent, complexity and tight time schedule for the project, Dick asked me to join him in forming a consulting partnership, with MIT ’s permission, to handle our combined projects. Thus, in November 1948, the partnership of Bolt and Beranek was formed, with two part-time graduate students hired to help us. We began by renting two rooms from MIT. A year later, Robert B. Newman, now on the faculty of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, joined as a partner and, in 1951, Bolt Beranek and Newman was incorporated with Bolt as Chairman of the Board, me as President and Chief Executive Officer, Newman and Samuel Labate as Vice Presidents and Jordan Baruch as Treasurer.
By 1950 we had located our offices in Harvard Square first sharing space in a building housing the architectural offices of MIT Prof. Carl Koch and, as BBN grew, we moved to 16 Eliot Street. In 1956 we moved to 50 Moulton Street which, when augmented by a two-story building designed largely by Bolt, served the needs of BBN ’s Cambridge headquarters offices and laboratories for the next several decades. Bill Cavanaugh, who joined the BBN consulting staff in 1954 after service in the Korean War, says, “ I resumed my training in acoustics amidst the remarkable group of individuals assembled at BBN to work on acoustical problems of all types. I will never forget the enormous influence Dick Bolt had on me personally during my professional career. His charisma and enthusiasm were infectious. He was involved in countless architectural acoustics projects. On behalf of countless colleagues who benefited from your teaching, thank you Dick Bolt“
In 1957, The National Institutes of Health appointed Bolt as principal consultant in Biophysics and to work with a new study section in that field. Dick was now at his best, building a scientific approach to a new field and answering questions amenable to group assault. By the summer of 1958 he had organized a resoundingly successful international conference that took place in Boulder, Colorado, to explore further directions for biophysical science. Attended by 117 people, the conference stimulated a step-function of activity in the biological sciences. Ninety of those present received collaborative research contracts and no fewer than six of the participants later reaped a Nobel Prize.
This conference brought Richard Bolt into national visibility. In 1960 he was named Associate Director of the National Science Foundation where he served in Washington DC for three years. Next, he spent a year as a Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. On his return to MIT, he served for several years as a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science. In the next years, Dick aided agency after agency and committee on committee in organizing their deliberations and overseeing their published proceedings.
In 1973, Bolt was made chairman of a committee of six experts to investigate the 18-minute gap on a tape made in President Nixon’s office three days after the Watergate break-in. It was purported that this gap contained a mention of the Watergate affair in a conversation between the President and H. R. Haldeman. The committee was unable to discover who may have erased the tape, but Bolt stated that the erasure was no accident because the erasure was started over during the gap at least five times, maybe nine. This project made him a household name in this nation.
The Acoustical Society awarded Bolt the first “R. Bruce Lindsay Award, formerly called the Biennial Award, that is granted to a member of the Society who is under 35 years of age…and who, during a period of two or more years immediately preceding the award, has been active in the affairs of the Society and has contributed substantially, through published papers, to the advancement of acoustics.” In all, he published over 50 papers in acoustics and co-authored, with Theodore F. Hueter, a book titled “Sonics: Techniques for the use of sound and ultrasound in engineering and science (Wiley, 1955).” During his service as a member of the Executive Council from 1944-1947, he undertook with Cyril Harris and John Steinberg to rewrite the Society’s Constitution. The following year he became the first person to serve as President-Elect of the Society under one of its newly written by-laws. In 1949, he succeeded to a term as the Society’s President. He also was an active founding member of the Institute of Noise Control Engineering, and an active fellow of several other prestigious professional societies including the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
When the International Commission on Acoustics ICA was founded in 1951, he was chosen to be its first President. When the Gold Medal Award of the Acoustical Society was established in 1954, he worked as consultant on graphic design to the sculptor of the medal. He received the Gold Medal Award in 1979 at the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Societies founding at MIT in Cambridge, an historic meeting for which he served as meeting organizer and General Chair. His Gold Medal citation read: “For outstanding contributions to acoustics through research, teaching, and professional leadership, and for distinguished administrative and advisory service to science, engineering, and government.”
When Robert Newman died in 1983, Dick enthusiastically joined a group of Bob’s friends and colleagues to form the Robert Bradford Newman Student Award Fund to promote the teaching of architectural acoustics in schools of architecture. Dick designed the Newman Medal which has been awarded to many outstanding graduating students in the field. Dick wrote about the medal’s design, in 1988 , “….The tuning fork is used extensively for tuning musical instruments and for ascertaining standard pitch of musical sounds…[the design] could symbolize the achievement of quality in acoustical endeavors, and, further, the continuous flow of sound from the fork could symbolize the expanding knowledge in architectural acoustics…. “
Dick served as Chairman of the BBN Board of Directors from 1953 to 1976 and continued to serve on the Board until 1981. He maintained an office at BBN until well into the 1990’s and acted as consultant on a number of projects.
His spouse, Katherine, died in 1991 after an extended illness. The entire Acoustical Society offers its condolences to his son Dick Bolt, daughters Bea Scribner and Deborah Bolt-Zieses and to seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Leo L. Beranek