Noise: My 62 Years of It!
by Anita DeWeese
FORT MYERS - Shell Point resident Laymon Miller was recently asked by the Acoustical Society of America to give a Distinguished Lecture speech to commemorate their 75th anniversary. The invitation to give the speech— aptly entitled, "Noise: My 62 Years of It" - was just one of the honors that have been bestowed on Miller, who has been a member of the Society since 1943.
For 62 years, sound has been Laymon Miller's area of expertise. (Photo by Paul Schmidt, courtesy of Charlotte Sun-Herald.)
Born and raised in Texas, Laymon has been challenged by a variety of jobs relating to his beloved profession as an acoustician. An acoustician is a salesman who sells acoustic ceiling tile, right? Wrong! An acoustician is an acoustic engineer. Acoustics is the branch of physics that deals with sound and sound waves, while sound control is control of the sound you want to hear; and noise control is control of the sound you don't want to hear.
In his forty-one years on the job, Laymon has dealt with noise control in relation to torpedoes, heating, ventilating and air conditioning acoustics; noise and vibrations in auditoriums, railroads and subways; and industrial noise in power plants, aircraft and airports.
Laymon was even called on to help damp the sound in President Lyndon Johnson's office aboard Air Force One! Ironically, he solved the noise problem, but didn't have high enough security clearance to actually present his solution in person! That particular 707 was used extensively by President Ronald Reagan during his eight-year term and was recently sent to the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California for display.
Two months before Pearl Harbor, Laymon joined the Navy Lab on Underwater Sound at Harvard and spent the war years learning about underwater sounds and working on transducers for acoustic homing torpedoes. Developed at Bell Labs, these torpedoes were eventually responsible for sinking over 55 enemy submarines.
Bolt, Beranek & Newman, an acoustical consulting firm, hired Laymon in 1954. Dr. Leo Beranek, recently awarded the National Medal of Science by President George W. Bush, was his boss for twenty-seven years. During that time, Laymon estimates he worked and consulted on about 2,000 jobs. He and a colleague co-authored a study on the noise made by cooling towers, which remained as a standard in the industry for many years. Another major job with BBN was working with the New York Port Authority on airport noise problems, in conjunction with the introduction of commercial jet airliners.
Laymon and his wife, Lucy, have been Shell Point residents for five years, where he serves on the Academy at Shell Point Advisory Committee. He also still continues as a contributing editor for Noise Control magazine and Sound and Vibration magazine.
I am an awful braggart, and I admit it. Let me try to explain how it all developed. Mainly, of course, I have been very lucky! I was born in a little town in North-Central Texas 92 years ago, and the first two or three years of my life were spent out on a desolate ranch in West Texas. Things began to look better when we moved to El Paso, where we lived most of the time while I was growing up (about 1924 to 1938). In 1935, when I entered the Texas College of Mines (now UTEP, the University of Texas at El Paso), my Dad sold a cow for $25 to pay the registration fee for my first semester. My physics teacher was Professor Pearl Whitfield Durkee, one of the best and most inspiring teachers that I ever ha. (shown at right with his colleague, E. J. Knapp.) He never told us this, but later we learned that when he was studying physics at McGill University in Montreal, he had four famous Nobel prize-winning teachers: Lawrence, Rutherford, Michelson, and Millikan. For two school years, Professor Durkee had me as his Lab Assistant, for setting up afternoon physics labs for his students. It was an NYA (National Youth Administration) job and paid a much-needed 27 cents per hour. So, for 20 hours of diligent work each week, I was happy to receive a check for $5.40. Oh, yes, incidentally, for the first semester of the second year, my Dad sold a shotgun (a relic from those ranch years) for another $25. During my last two years at the College of Mines, we lived about 15 miles from school, and I had a transportation problem, so I was able to buy an eight-year-old 1928 Ford for $25, which I sold two years later for $25. I graduated in the summer of 1938, and proudly proclaimed that I got the best $25 and 27-cent education possible anywhere. I guess that’s when the bragging got started—but it seemed justified.
The next year, I went to the University of Texas at Austin and met Dr. Malcolm Colby, another wonderful physics teacher. He discouraged my initial thinking that a master's degree in physics could be achieved in one year (I had told him that my parents couldn't afford more than one year of graduate school). Nevertheless, he selected a subject in radioactivity and assigned a basement room for my laboratory. I took a full load of physics and math courses and began to consider and plan the details of the thesis project. Dr. Colby had given me a tiny speck of polonium as my radioactive source, and my project was to measure the range of alpha-particles that are emitted as a product of decay of polonium. It is too complicated to explain all the details here, but our experiment went well, and I completed all the work, including writing the thesis, typing three original copies (this was long before Xerox and computers), getting Dr. Colby's approval, and submitting it for my MA degree just days before I reached age 21 in that summer graduation of July 1939. This brief summary leaves out lots of details! I was both thrilled and amazed when Dr. Colby later told me that my results were comparable to or better than those of Hans Geiger (in 1911) and Madame Irene Curie (in 1925), and I suspect that it was Dr. Colby who got me invited to give a talk at the next meeting of the Texas Academy of Science held in Austin.
During the next two years in graduate school, I passed my two foreign language requirements (French and German), passed the qualifying exam that was then required for entrance into the PhD program (a copy of the Physics Department announcement of the exam by Dr. S. Leroy Brown is included in another attachment), and continued taking full loads of physics and math and a few other extracurricular courses (which is when Chester McKinney and I met each other, in a zoology class). In 1940, I was accepted into the Texas Chapter of Sigma Xi. Dr. Colby had said that, with a few refinements, my work on polonium would provide the thesis for a PhD degree, which would have taken place at the end of the 1941–1942 school year. In my last full year at the University (1940–1941), I had taken a course from Dr. Alvin C. Graves, and had enrolled for his course in Quantum Mechanics to begin in September 1941. However, in October 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor, Dr. Frederick V. "Ted" Hunt, noted acoustician at Harvard, came to Texas to try to obtain personnel for his new Navy project in underwater sound to help meet the German submarine menace to our shipping. Ted Hunt interviewed almost all the graduate students, and the Physics Department faculty voted to send three of us to join his group. On October 10, 1941, Charles Rutherford, Frank Seay, and I became Harvard employees. At that time, my acoustics was limited to a sophomore course in physics at the College of Mines and a course in amplifiers given by Dr. Paul Boner at the University of Texas.
When we were all assembled at Harvard, very few of us knew anything about underwater sound, but we began learning rapidly. Ted Hunt continued to make trips to Austin to pick up additional physicists, and finally, he got Paul Boner to join the Harvard Underwater Sound Lab (HUSL) as his Associate Director in the half of the lab that was concentrating on SONAR. Just two weeks after Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), on Christmas Eve 1941, the U.S. Navy Bureau of Ordnance assigned a joint project to Bell Labs and HUSL; it was to begin work on a possible acoustic homing torpedo and to work cooperatively but competitively with each other. I was placed in the torpedo half of the Harvard lab and was soon put in charge of our Transducer Group (to design and develop underwater listening hydrophones for a "passive" listening torpedo; this was later advanced to echo-ranging systems for an "active" homing torpedo). Approximately every two months, we had meetings in Washington at the Bureau of Ordnance, and I came to know Dr. Warren P. Mason, who was in charge of the transducer work at Bell Labs. He was a wonderful gentleman and in his lifetime at Bell Labs became a well-known scientist. I was age 23 but he treated me as an equal; yes, he was a gentleman!. For this discussion, I will leave out the year of frequent problems and occasional successes of our torpedo work at Harvard, but it all came to a grand finale on December 7, 1942, exactly one year after Pearl Harbor, when our test torpedo ("FX-4") was dropped from a Navy plane out beyond Boston harbor, went into its search pattern, and attacked a submerged artificial noise target that simulated submarine noise. Western Electric (the manufacturing branch of the AT&T system) was prepared for production of the torpedo that was a mixture of the best of the Bell Labs and HUSL components; and three months after the successful Boston test, two German submarines were sunk by two British Navy pilots using this torpedo. Two months later, a U.S. Navy pilot sank his first German submarine. Our small-size torpedo had been given the code name "Fido", and partially for security purposes was actually called the Mark 24 Mine. It was unusually small for a torpedo in order to fit into the bomb bay of the Navy planes that would be using it.
All of this information was a well-kept military secret until it was released in 1996 when a Penn State author, Robert Gannon, was given permission to publish the book, Hellions of the Deep -- The Development of American Torpedoes in World War II. I received the surprise of my life when I saw the book and my name as its first two words on page 1, "Laymon Miller". Bragging? You bet! I had never even met the author. Gannon's book goes on to describe that Harvard did not wish to continue war-time work in peace-time, so our torpedo work was transferred to Penn State at the end of the war, and we became the Ordnance Research Lab. A somewhat similar situation developed with the SONAR half of the Harvard lab. At the end of the war, Paul Boner took most of the SONAR half of the lab back to the University of Texas and set up the Defense Research Lab. After a few years, each of the two labs was beginning to take on non-military research work for industry, and both labs came up with the same new name, Applied Research Lab. I was head of the Acoustics Section at the Ordnance Research Lab at Penn State for ten years and was then (1954) invited to join the prestigious acoustical consulting firm, Bolt Beranek & Newman Inc. (BBN), in Cambridge Massachusetts, where I remained for 27 years in the most challenging time of my life—working on about 2,000 consulting jobs in noise and vibration control, including several of major importance and several working closely with Dr. Leo L. Beranek, president of BBN and recognized as one of the world's leading acousticians. I retired from BBN at the end of 1981, and we have lived in Florida since that time.
Retirement has not been an entirely static existence. I am still waiting for the day when I can sit on the front porch in a rocking chair and watch the world go by. I believe that is a wasted dream. In my earlier busy world, I became a member of the Acoustical Society of America in 1943 and was elected Fellow in 1956. In May 2004, I was invited to give a "Distinguished Lecture" at the 75th Anniversary Meeting of the Acoustical Society in New York City; the title of my talk (not a lecture) was "Noise: My 62 Years of It!". In 1977, I became a member of the Institute of Noise Control Engineering (INCE) and became "board certified" in 1993. In 1994, I was named an Honorary Member of the National Council of Acoustical Consultants (NCAC) and was asked to write articles for the NCAC Quarterly Newsletter. Since that time, I have written about 40 articles on noise and noise control; and at its New Orleans meeting in 2007, I was given its C. Paul Boner Award. (An interesting sidelight is that the chairman of the NCAC Awards Committee did not realize that I had once been a student and a good friend of Paul Boner years ago. In Cambridge, during the war, it was Mrs. Boner who introduced my wife, Lucy, to the Harvard Women's Faculty Club.) In 2006, I was asked by Jack Mowry, editor and publisher of Sound and Vibration Magazine, to write about my life in acoustics for the 40th Anniversary issue of his magazine. The title of the paper is "The Squeaky Wheel . . . and Other Serious Things", Sound and Vibration, January 2007. If it is still available, it can be found on the Internet at < http://www.sandvmag.com/downloads/0701mill.pdf >. Also, I was recently asked by an editor of the Journal of the Acoustical Society to write a book review of Leo Beranek's autobiography, Riding the Waves -- A Life in Sound, Science, and Industry (2008, the MIT Press). The book review appears in JASA, Vol.123, No. 4, April 2008, pages 1817-1818. Finally, in this list of post-retirement acoustic involvements, my wife Lucy and I were designated by the INCE as its "2008 Outstanding Educator" at its August 2009 meeting in Ottawa, Canada. We believe this is in recognition of the numerous NCAC articles and other publications as well as the fact that Lucy and I have been conducting short courses in the Control of Noise and Vibration for about 5,000 engineers and several companies in many cities in the US and Canada for 24 years beginning in 1969, and the courses (now in their 41st year) are still being given by my good friend and past BBN associate, Reggie Keith of Hoover & Keith, consultants in Houston. During various time intervals, I have also been an editorial assistant for two magazines in acoustics and noise control.
It has been a very rewarding career and I am most grateful for the wonderful education that I received at the Texas College of Mines and the University of Texas in Austin and the warm friendships with such outstanding teachers as P. W. Durkee at the College of Mines, Malcolm Colby, Alvin C. Graves, and Paul Boner at the University of Texas, Ted Hunt and Paul Boner at the Harvard Underwater Sound Lab, and Leo Beranek of Bolt Beranek & Newman. I have indeed been very fortunate in all these relationships and with another two hundred or more friends and associates in acoustics at these and other organizations.
You might wonder: How did "Engineering" get into the title at the head of this paper? Well, I did have a course in engineering both at the College of Mines and at Penn State. But you really learn practical engineering when you face about 2,000 consulting problems in noise and vibration!
All of this coming from a little kid starting out on a desolate ranch in West Texas. What a lucky kid I've been!
Laymon N. Miller Photo and Document Album