Can You Hear Me? & Journey to Greatness

Can You Hear Me?: Making the World a Quieter Place—My Life as an Unwitting Entrepreneur
Martin Hirschorn
Acoustical Publications, Bay Village, OH, (2007)
373 pp., hardcover, 25 USD
ISBN: 978-0-9769816-0-2

Journey to Greatness: The Story of Brüel and Kjær
Jackson Mowry and Ghita Borring
Acoustical Publications, Bay Village, OH, (2012)
225 pp., hardcover, 35 USD
ISBN: 978-0-9769816-3-3

Reader, you are in luck. Read this single review and you get “two reviews in one” at no additional cost. I am reviewing both together because they are stories and biographies of some very well-known people in acoustics. Not only are they well known, but the companies they founded are really imbedded in the acoustics vocabulary for many of us readers.

I knew all of the main actors here, Martin Hirschorn, Per Brüel, and Viggo Kjær, because I worked for both of their companies, Industrial Acoustics Co. and Brüel & Kjær, respectively. In both companies, I was a minor character—I had no real friendly working relationships with the bigwigs, but I knew many of the people that are discussed in the books.

Can You Hear Me? is a very interesting book. Hirschorn wrote it after he left Industrial Acoustics Company (IAC) and, in very readable text, traces his early life and the foundation of the company to the time he sold it, and even afterward. It consists of 26 chapters with a table of contents that is so detailed it could almost be an index. The TOC alone is 20 pages. The end sections deal with acknowledgements, appendices, and an index.

The book has two parts. Part 1, with eight chapters and 124 pages, is titled “From Germany to England and America.” Part 2, with 18 chapters and 338 pages, is titled “My 49 Years with Industrial Acoustics Company,” which, for those of us who knew Martin, is the most interesting. Suffice it to say, Part 1 deals with Martin’s childhood, his education, his family’s history and some of his adventures. Part 2 begins with his start in New York and goes all the way to his selling the company. He talks about people I worked with and admired, from John Duda, Nick Kreminic, and Mort Schiff to John Handley, among others. He tells of disputes and differences between him and many people in and out of IAC. In this part, he also talks about his family and the death of his wife. The chapters are as follows:

  • Early Days in New York
  • Start Up
  • Putting IAC on the Map
  • New Products, New Markets
  • The South Bronx
  • Managing Expansion—From Coast to Coast
  • Quieting Jets and Air Conditioners
  • Coping with Crises
  • Across the Atlantic
  • Into Asia
  • In and Out of South Africa
  • Our Sales Force
  • The People Who Almost Unmade IAC
  • IAC Laboratories
  • Coping with Competition
  • Selling the Company
  • A Great and Complementary Marriage, Alena Wels Hirschorn
  • My Life Today

This is a fascinating book—a bit rambling, but sufficiently detailed to show the trials and pleasures Martin Hirschorn experienced in his life, especially his experiences with IAC. To see how one person (with help) created a really large and influential company in noise control and how he dealt with problems and eventual sale is really interesting. Those of us who knew IAC in its heyday will very much appreciate this book. A thorough review of this book by the late Warren Blazier and the late “Red” Wetherill can be found here:

Journey to Greatness is the story of another giant company in the field of noise control and acoustics. We all know Brüel & Kjær and I suspect a lot of readers over the age of 50 or so probably worked for the company. It is hard to believe that a small country like Denmark could have fostered and produced a world leader in the field of acoustical instrumentation.

This book has a preface by Ghita Borring, followed by acknowledgments by the second author, Jackson Mowry. For all of us readers of Sound and Vibration, we know him as the publisher, Jack Mowry. Jack worked for Brüel & Kjær and formed the first foray into the United States by Brüel & Kjær called B&K Instruments in Cleveland, OH. This acknowledgments section reads like a who’s who in Brüel & Kjær. Almost all those names he cited are well known to many of us ex-employees. Appendix B gives names of those Brüel & Kjær employees who made significant contributions.

The 30 chapters, in four rough sections, are relatively brief, maybe 10 pages each, but really trace the history of the two founders and the company. Listing the sections might help give a flavor for the book and the emphasis:

  • In the Beginning—chapters 1–5
  • Road to Riches—chapters 6–22
  • End of an Era—chapters 23–26
  • Recovery and Recollections—chapters 27–30

Following the interesting concluding chapter 30, epilogue, there is a set of appendices worth listing:

  1. The history of Brüel & Kjær from 1942 to 2000 in four sections along with major events in the world during those times
  2. Brüel & Kjær golden anniversary notables
  3. Consolidated financials—referenced earlier in the book
  4. Family disagreement paralyzes Brüel & Kjær
  5. Brüel & Kjær losing 3.5 million per week

In essence, the book is a history describing the lives of the two founders, the formation of the company, the shock on the company of the fall of Russia and China market 1986, the selling of the company to AGIV, what the founders learned from the failure of original organization, and the company’s current status as a very strong and vibrant part of Spectris.

There is much discussion about the history of many of the instruments, analyzers, vibration meters, including the development of the studio mike, gas monitoring, medical ultrasound lines, and the VXI and PULSE instruments, while there is very little discussion about sound level meters, and only a brief mention of the Type 2203 (that long, green, heavy, meter with dials on the face, an analog needle indicator, and maybe a big box on the bottom where you select octave band or 1/3rd octave band frequencies for analysis).

There are discussions on how the literature and the seminar departments were started, something B&K was famous for. Also, there are stories of employees’ experiences while part of B&K, and these stories are filled with personal remembrances.

As an ex-Brüel & Kjær employee, I was familiar with many of the names mentioned and stories discussed. Reading the book, I learned a lot of the details about the operation of the company and instrument development. However, I was surprised to see very little mention of the USA operation in Marlborough, MA—something I feel was a significant part of the company’s history.

Written in an informal manner with sidebars in many of the chapters, this book is an easy and interesting read. I recommend this book to all present and former Brüel & Kjær employees and, to a lesser extent, all of us who used or are using Brüel & Kjær instruments. It is also recommended to those who think that big companies are invincible. Brüel & Kjær and Industrial Acoustics Co., discussed in Can You Hear Me? above, were the giants of instrumentation and industrial noise control, respectively. Then things happened.

Richard J. Peppin
Engineers for Change, Inc.