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Animating Life

 

I don’t think there are terribly many people that are as fortunate as I am.  Most people I think are tossed by time and tide into following a career path that they either never imagined, or one that was proscribed by family or parent. I, on other hand, can remember distinctly, accurately and exactly the moment mine was laid out for me. It happened at age 3; I was given a small crystal radio kit, mostly preassembled.  It came in the form of the small bright red plastic box with clear pictorial instruction on how to deploy a 100-foot antenna to one connection and attach a shorter length of wire to a good ground return such as radiator.  As if it was just moments ago, I can recall the excitement as I tossed the bundle of wire dangerously out of my small third story window and ran anxiously down to the backyard to retrieve the other end and hastily attach it to the grape vine next to the garage.  I gave no mind to the damage I was doing to the radiator when I filed down through its many layers of lead paint to arrive at the base metal where the unknown significance of a ground wire could be attached.  After plugging in the small earpiece and carefully inspecting the scant few parts within, I was utterly amazed when the device worked and produced news, ballgames, and classical music. I went to sleep that night with the single earpiece wedged firmly and deeply in one ear, completely captivated by the realization that here was a simple device requiring no batteries, running on the invisible energy sent through the air. As long as they pushed the energy out from some unknown place, my remote listening post would function forever.

 

I also was the proud owner of a windup 78, a “portable” one in fact, that had numerous slots in the lid for one’s favorite records.  I spent many joyous hours inspecting and dwelling on Mr. Edison’s marvelous invention.  How simple a thing; how clever a device that required no batteries, no electronics.  I intuitively understood what Mr. Edison had realized 60 years before.  The idea that the simple acoustic fulcrum, an audio teeter-totter, could be built to match the mechanical impedance of the air to the dancing groove in the flat plastic.  The elegant matching of a large force over a small area to a small force over a large area was the simple key to capturing and reproducing sound.

 

The most impressive thing of all was wonderfully obvious and would both dog me and drive me through the years; here was a device made of materials that had been available for ages, just waiting for some insightful person to arrange them in a unique configuration to produce a heretofore-unseen result.  It was this feeling, this understanding, and this possibility, which can occur at any and all moments in a person’s life, that made life truly worth living.  All materials we need for the future are here now.  Can I be one of those persons who can see them arranged in a new and unique way? Years later, the same message came through as I sat in the listening room next to the old abandoned laboratory where I had been recently installed as the new Director of Engineering at the R. T. Bozak Corporation, one of the founding icons of the audio industry. 

 

My fate was sealed through an early love of invention, science and music, all of whose primary purpose is to animate life.  The magic of the means to capture sound; the possibility of an equivalent to the photographic shutter in the acoustic realm - herein lay that means to worship creation - to become in some small fashion a co-creator. Capturing sound engendered in me the same feeling I got from holding lightning bugs in a jar; true science is a worship of the wonder of diversity.

 

My early childhood was a spent in an attempt to build a museum.  Most of my collectibles came from the curb or the garbage dump or neighbor’s basement or attic.  I collected anything that could capture electrons and was intended to circulate them in predictable ways.  I envisioned this flea circus well trained enough to produce the type of pleasing effect that others get from well ordered light bouncing off some creation.  I resurrected and old Hoffman black and white television after rescuing it from the local dump at age 11.  At 13 I did the same with an early color television set that made us a unique household in the remote woods of northwestern Connecticut.  Our old house on the lake sported many unused bedrooms providing unfettered working space for what was to me a priceless collection of radio parts, record players, televisions, spools of wire and any sordid device that might contain useful components.

 

I build a stereo for my mother of which I was extremely proud.  A brand-new BSR turntable and tube type Bell amplifier were housed in a beautifully made wooden structure hand crafted by a close friend, along with two Electro-Voice Wolverine speakers mounted in triangular cabinets and suspended in the upper corners of the living room. It proved a worthy birthday gift for my mother when I was 14. 

 

I remember the day when the sound stopped and a close inspection of the amplifier revealed one of the tubes to be intensely glowing cherry red.  My mother, recognizing my despair and her loss of music, searched through the phone book and found an electronics repair person in Cornwall Bridge Connecticut; a good hour's drive away. I can still remember the gentleman, possessed of a large red handlebar mustache and moderate humor as the tone in my mother’s voice clearly indicated that the true purpose of the visit was for me to be able to watch him affect the diagnosis and repair.  I watched the master craftsman as he carefully inspected and described the fault - a failed main filter capacitor - that was causing the rectifier tube to draw too much current.  Now I immediately knew who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do.  I needed to be that fair minded fellow sitting quietly in the cramped basement of his house giving careful instructions to all the hidden electrons that had lost their way.

 

The ensuing years were far too fascinating to spend much time studying things I was certain I would never use. In certain respects I wish someone had explained the worth of studying all things, in terms that I would have understood. This lack left me without much interest in schooling and relegated me to feel my way intuitively through a world of discovery.  And yet, there are times that I am extremely grateful for the missing of a standard or formal education because I still as yet don’t know what I cannot do.  Technical intuition has proven a powerful tool for invention and I am grateful that the path I took never corrupted it.

 

After a three semester stint at a strange University, I dropped out to seek my fortune. I opened a small electronics repair shop and began to teach myself electronics in the effort to support myself.  I soon met through good fortune and searching for Thorens parts two very sweet older German gentlemen who had a fine stereo store in Westchester County. When I announced that I had my own repair business, the one who was far more interested followed me out to the parking lot and dragged me back into the store only to the dismay of the other. “Frank” he said, “This guy can fix things! Give him something to fix!” The other owner squinted at me (and my pony tail) and said, “If I give you some equipment, how do I know that you will return?” I reached into my right pocket and withdrew the beautiful 100 year old Waltham Railroad pocket watch, handed it to him and said, “My mother gave me this, and I will be back for it”. I was soon driving home with a Sansui 5000 receiver and two other pieces of “fine” stereo equipment of which I had only shadowy ideas of how to fix.  I raced over to my favorite electronics store minutes before they closed and purchased way too many parts in the hopes that I would have everything I needed to repair these items quickly.  At 9 a.m. when they opened the next day I was waiting in their parking lot.  The more reluctant of the owners approached me and said, “Ha, you are returning these units – so you can’t fix them, ya?”  When I informed him that they were all repaired, his expression changed, and he invited me in to talk turkey.  I retrieved my pocket watch, some semblance of pay for my work, and headed home realizing I had crossed the threshold.

 

Several years later I met Mr. Richard Majestic who had been Director of Engineering for a nearby audio company called CM laboratories.  He was about to embark on the founding of his own audio manufacturing business and needed a right hand man.  I agreed to his terms (although it was a serious cut in pay) and after giving some very hasty instruction to a young man I had met months earlier who displayed an interest in learning electronics, left my repair business for him to run and headed off to be trained in the art of design and manufacture of fine audio products at RAM Audio.

 

I helped build a factory, hire and train production personnel, obtain and maintained inventory, and watched for the first time in my life a talented audio engineer craft superior sounding products.  The sense of self-worth cannot be overstated as I had the opportunity to make significant contributions that had dramatic impact in the performance, reliability, and fabrication of RAM audio products.

 

After three years at RAM audio, I met the Director of Engineering of a world-class audio company called the R. T. Bozak Company. He was very impressed with me, and the audio inventions I had engineered on my own time.  He indicated that if I ever needed a job I should call him immediately.  The opportunity soon arose as RAM audio was foundering, and I went to work as assistant to the Director of Engineering of the R. T. Bozak Company. My second day on the job proved most challenging; the gentleman who had hired me painfully announced he was leaving the company immediately.

 

I can clearly remember sitting on the wooden steps leading down from the raised platform leading to the anechoic chamber, looking over the landscape of the dingy, long abandoned laboratory and pondering my fate. Here was a company that had suffered from the loss of its founder, the purchase by owners who had no interest in audio whatsoever, and had lacked an electrical engineer for well over 8 years. Having by then a fairly strong experience in practical design and manufacturing I was a valuable commodity for a company in so much need, so I was talked into staying even though the primary attraction for my being there had been lost; to yet again mentor under the auspices of a seasoned professional. At the tender age of 26 I became, by default, Director of Engineering of the R. T. Bozak Company.

 

The next three years proved some of the most challenging in my life. The experience of those early weeks and months is difficult to describe in terms of the state of disarray Bozak was in. The long abandoned laboratory, complete lack of electronic engineering direction, improper and lost documentation, no direction in years with respect to guidance of the electronics production facility were silhouetted against the mystery of loudspeaker driver, woodworking and machine shop production. In the laboratory, unfamiliar objects of all sorts piled high and laden with years of dirt and dust filled all practical workspaces. The two nineteen inch racks of tube electronic equipment that adorned the exterior of the anechoic chamber had been long picked over like electronic carcasses.  There was not even so much as a voltmeter or oscilloscope to be found.

 

My first duty was to re-engineer and put into production a “bucket brigade” based device that served as analog rear channel delay unit; it was supposed to have been released 10 months prior. I did so,  and over the next few months, I carefully and slowly resurrected original engineering documentation for all the electronic products and restored the means to produce and repair them.  I lovingly and carefully rebuilt the beautiful tube electronics equipment outside the anechoic chamber, allowing once again measurement of frequency response, spectrum analysis, chart recorder printouts and polar plots. I took every opportunity to study the unique methodologies of loudspeaker fabrication and design practiced by the Bozak Corporation.  The founder, Rudy Bozak, was more than a ghost about the varied buildings that were his legacy, and I stopped him on a regular basis to ask a bucketful of questions. He almost always eventually smiled at me from under his small felt cap of a hat, and   answered succinctly in a teacher’s tone that reflected an obvious lifetime of investigation. Had I run the company, I would have insisted that he take the front office at the top of the stairs and make sure that his name had been carefully stenciled in gold letters on the glass door for all visitors to see as they mounted the top stair of the offices of the front building. Yes, Rudy was still alive and well thank you, and had they positioned him fairly, you might have glimpsed him through the partially opened door of his office, sitting at his desk strewn with papers and pencils trying to illuminate the future through his seasoned vision.

 

Instead, the new owners of the company relegated him to a dark, unlit corner of the upper floor of the production building near the bundles of stocked cotton wool acoustic stuffing. At the right time of afternoon, when the light streamed in from one of the few windows, you could see the air filled with particulate matter and through it, if you knew where to look, a small, round faced man with felt cap could be usually found sitting in the dark at his old desk with the one small lamp illuminating his face.  That is mostly how I remember Rudy Bozak.

 

Rudy was a genius and built the company from scratch. In the 30’s he had worked for an audio company called Cinaudograph, and helped design an extraordinary 27” full range loudspeaker driver that was loaded into a horn that had a 14 foot mouth! Eight of these monsters were distributed high up in the trees for the World’s Fair, each cathode (directly) driven by 500 watt tube amplifiers!  Mind you, this was for the 1938 World’s Fair! All the years I worked at Bozak, I had a pristine model of this 27” beauty resting on a four wheel castored stand 10 feet behind my desk in the Laboratory.  Paul Klipsch would often call and ask for me, to inquire about its disposition, stating that he would love to acquire it for his museum. An initial and constant reminder of the genius of Rudy, and continuing proof that the future always casts its shadow into the present, this full range 27” driver was in full co-operation with the apparent fact that time is by no means a linear thing. What a shame that this driver went into the trash after I was no longer with the company, along with a legacy of rare prototypes and custom parts.

 

Rudy had been there with Emory Cook to make one of the first binaural (stereo) recordings at the Larchmont train station of the Express going by. He worked closely with other icons of the industry including Gordon Gow of McIntosh and Saul Marantz. He developed the “impossible”; loudspeakers that produced 16Hz. fundamental organ notes.  He tamed metal cone loudspeakers into producing wide bandwidth relatively phase coherent drivers.  He invented the variable density woofer, reducing bass distortions by an order of magnitude, comprised of a careful blend of lambs’ wool and shredded paper.  I can still see him stopping on his daily tour to pause by the motorized grinding moat he crafted, dipping his hand in the slurry and withdrawing a fist full of the mysterious mixture only to squeeze it and inspect the result, and with a careful look of approval, complement the worker whose job it was to stop the grinding process at the precise moment.

 

I had many discussions with Rudy concerning the philosophy and thinking behind his exquisitely musical designs.  He openly acknowledged that he had little or no engineering talent in the field of electronics, but what he obviously lacked in that area he more than made up for in others.  He respected my abilities, and took the trouble to tell me so directly.  When strongly coaxed, he would endeavor to sum up the wealth of his knowledge in loudspeaker design into short phrases that I will never forget, the best of which I think is  “there are ten things you’d like to do when you design a loudspeaker.  You’re only going to get to do three of them, so you’d better pick the right ones”.

 

In the real world the laws of physics usually rule.  Many aspects of design are mutually exclusive.  Most things in life require careful consideration, selection and sacrifice. Of all the people I have known in the audio industry, Rudy Bozak was the toughest and the most properly judicious.

 

I engineered and re-engineered many products at Bozak, but by far, my favorite was a miniature speaker system called the MB80.  I had taken the Bozak six-inch aluminum cone mid range driver Rudy engineered and converted it to an ultra wide bandwidth performer.  To this I matched an unusually wide bandwidth tweeter and in keeping with the philosophy I had been taught by Rudy, crafted a modified first - order crossover in the effort to produce an amplitude and phase coherent dynamic loudspeaker.  I had also discovered, quite by accident, an unusual method of measurement and tuning that has a direct correlation with the listening experience.  Upon showing this technique to Rudy, he commented that no one had ever done this before to his knowledge.  He became very animated, and suggested I write a paper on the principle, to which I suggested a joint effort between us.  But it never happened. Life at Bozak was not easy. I worked 12-14 hours a day, and there was little time for such endeavors at a company that was beleaguered by cash flow problems and production difficulties in part stemming from the extended abandonment of direction in the preceding years due to Rudy’s failing health and loss of control of the company.

 

I received many complementary letters on the design of the MB80’s over the years.  One of my great joys occurred when I first demonstrated these miniatures at a CES show. I had positioned them on some unique adjustable wooden speaker stands I engineered, in front of Rudy’s classic Concert Grand loudspeakers which if you have never seen them, were each the size of an industrial refrigerator.  The imaging in three dimensions from these miniatures was so astounding that all those who walked into our suite at first were convinced they were listening to the old huge loudspeaker classics, each comprised of 8 slot loaded aluminum cone tweeters, two 6 inch aluminum cone midranges and four 12 inch variable density woofers. When the crescendo inevitably arrived, and the protection lights I had engineered flashed in the tiny speakers, I took my cue to casually turn and observe the amazed faces of those who had been convinced they were listening to the flagship behemoths of the product line.  I still to this day take great joy when visitors to The Soundsmith facility are selectively invited into my office and I play these 30 year old speakers and watch the smiles they are still capable of soliciting.

 

I left Bozak wondering where I would go next, never to imagine a sequence of events that would result in a life changing experience. As a result of helping a baby robin that had fallen out of its nest, I found myself offered a job in a facility that even with the best education, I could not have hoped to enter.  I was offered a position at the IBM T. J. Watson research “Think Tank” facility in Yorktown Heights, New York.  I spent the first 2&1/2 years working to support several scientists in the field of surface science.  I learned ultra high vacuum technology and various other instrumentation techniques used in the effort to study atomic arrangements on the surface of crystalline metals.  IBM took the Nobel prize two years running, and it was a fascinating period to say the least.  IBM research was populated with the best and brightest, many of whom I had the good fortune to know.  I spent the next nine years in VLSI Low End Packaging (very large scale integrated circuit low end packaging, a part of the Advanced Technology Packaging Laboratories), a fascinating area begging for development.  The "New World" was emerging, and the technological requirements included ways of driving the cost down, reliability up, interconnecting more wires, get the power in and the heat out. These demands outlined some of the boundaries of the new electronic frontier.

 

Even though it appeared as if I had abandoned my first love, this was surely not the case, for while I spent my days at the cutting-edge of technology in a think tank environment, I spend my evenings and weekends maintaining an endeavor I had started years before: a school I funded for the preservation of audio and engineering skills in which many young people participated.  I gleaned no small amount of satisfaction attracting, teaching and "graduating" many would be technicians and engineers who were otherwise unable to discover a bridge between their desires and the realities of the requirements for technical positions of which they dreamed.

 

At the outset of this essay, I indicated that I felt that I was more fortuante than most, becasue I always knew what I wanted to do. I have always been fascinated with materials and their arrangements into an endless variety of objects and substance, both useful and necessary to allow us to progress in our development as beings. Of the many of the things that I seemingly understand, it would appear as if I had not paid for them, at least not in any way that I can remember in the memories of this lifetime. However, James Allen once said "Not what he wishes and prays for does a man get, but what he justly earns. His wishes and prayers are only gratified and answered when they harmonize with his thoughts and actions". In that sense alone I have paid through working constantly to see all things as new, in varied arrangement, and never to harbor the feeling that most of the important or simple, yet elegantlyl useful, inventions have already been done; nor have I harbored the dark feeling that I cannot do some of them.  

It is to this endeavor and more that has created inventions numbering over 100, and to which I have devoted all of my attention over the past 16 years through the expansion of the Soundsmith Corporation; a company who’s founding principles have been carved out of a lifetime of wonder, mystery, gratitude, joy and unplanned challenges. And the work goes on.

 

Occasionally a visitor who has read the website before a vist to our facility will ask: "Have you been inventing all your life?” my answer is simple.

 

Not yet.

 

Peter Ledermann

President/Chief Engineer

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