The Sabines at Riverbank

John W. Kopec

Originally published in 1997







Replacing a Scientific Legend

The Colonel's Estate - A Community of Thinkers

Riverbank is Fabyan, or Is It the Other Way Around?

The Right Scientist for the Job

The 1920s The Paul Sabines Get Involved

The 1930s Standardizing Acoustical Laboratory Testing

Acoustics - Some of This, Some of That

Laboratory Versus Field The Dilemmas and Hazards of Acoustical Consulting

The 1940s National Noise Abatement Council, War Research, and a Sabine Retires

Enter Sabine Acoustician Number Three

End Notes



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Wallace Clement Sabine (1868-1919) is the father of the science of architecturalacoustics. During his investigations of the acoustical conditions in several Harvard University buildings, Wallace Sabine gained the confidence he needed to consult on the acoustics of the new BostonSymphony Hall being designed by the legendary New York City architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White. This firm was formed in 1878 when Charles Follen McKim formed a partnership with William Rutherford Mead and William B. Bigelow. Bigelow retired the following year when Sanford White joined the firm and the firm's name was established. Largely on the basis of his success at Boston Symphony Hall, Sabine's counsel was sought on a wide range of buildings the New England Conservatory of Music's new building in Boston; the Pulitzer House andCentury Theater in New York City; churches and cathedrals in Los Angeles, Detroit & Boston; and the Rhode Island State capitol building. By 1916, Sabine's list of consulting projects had grownto include the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.; the U.S. Military Academy chapel at West Point; the Halifax Cathedral in Nova Scotia; the Remington Typewriter Company, where he advised on quieting typing clatter; and the Gustavino Company, for whichhe developed and patented a ceramic acoustical tile that found wide application in churches. His consulting files reveal that many of his projects after 1913 also involved noise and noisetelescoping of heating and ventilating equipment sound and vibration. Clearly, Sabine was the foremostauthority on architectural acoustics through most of the first quarter of the twentieth century.

One of Wallace Sabine's consultations around 1913 was with the wealthyindustrialist, financier Colonel George Fabyan. Sabine met him at his estate in Geneva, Illinois, where the Coloneldabbled in various scientific enterprises. Fabyan had heard of Sabine's reputation in physics andacoustics through his brother Marshall, who served as a visiting adviser for the Fabyan Chair at Harvard Medical School. Marshall had retained Sabine to advise him on an acoustic levitation machinethat was not working. During this consultation, Fabyan learned of Sabine's frustration with his inadequate acoustic isolation laboratory at Harvard and offered to build him a suitable one in the quiet prairie country of Illinois at Riverbank estate. Sabine accepted the offer and designed whatwas to become the internationally recognized Riverbank Acoustical Laboratory. He supervised its construction, which was competed just a few months before his untimely death in 1919 at the age of fifty.

Sabine's death left a great void at Riverbank, a void that was to be filled by two otherHarvard physicists named Sabine: Paul Earls Sabine (1879-1958) and Hale Johnson Sabine (1909-1981).In 1919, Colonel Fabyan again turned to Harvard University to find someone to direct the new Riverbank Laboratory and was referred to Paul Sabine, a distant cousin of Wallace. Paul Sabinewas working on a World War I research project in spectroscopy at the time and had had little contact with, or knowledge of, Wallace Sabine's work. Fabyan apparently charmed Paul Sabine intocoming to Riverbank to direct what was then the only laboratory devoted to acoustical research andtesting of acoustical materials and systems. Paul directed Riverbank during the critical formative yearsand for nearly three decades thereafter until his death in 1958. During this period Paul Sabine wasalso involved in founding the Acoustical Society of America and establishing acoustics as a respected and essential subdiscipline of physics Paul's son, Hale, whose physics training at Harvardultimately led him to the profession of acoustics, also became involved in Riverbank during the 1950s and 1960s to round out the leadership of the Sabines at Riverbank.

No one other than John Kopec with the historic perspective, patience, persistence, andinside knowledge of the Riverbank Acoustical Laboratory could have documented this extraordinary history. John's undamped fascination and enthusiasm for the Riverbank history began with his employment as a laboratory assistant there in 1974 and continues today in his current position as manager of the laboratory. He also serves as curator of the Riverbank Museum and of the Architectural Acoustics Archives of the Acoustical Society of America, located at Riverbanksince 1984. About two years after the 1976 discovery of the Wallace Sabine research notebooks, John found Sabine's missing consulting files in a little-used storage room at Riverbank. Hecoauthored with Leo Beranek the article entitled "Wallace C. Sabine, Acoustical Consultant" (Journalof the Acoustical Society of America 69: 1-16, 1981). Without doubt, John Kopec has become theleading scholar on the Sabines at Riverbank.

In this volume, John Kopec masterfully weaves a fascinating story with many intricatedetails. It includes the involvement of an often controversial philanthropist and lover of science andscientific things Colonel George Fabyan; the germination and execution of an idea for a state-of-the-art laboratory specializing in acoustical research and measurements; and the successive leadershipsof three Harvard University-trained physics graduates named Sabine and their contributionsspanning nearly three quarters of the twentieth century, toward the advancement of the profession and discipline of acoustics. Wallace Sabine's life and work has already been documentedthoroughly in William Dana Orcutt's affectionate biography, Wallace Clement Sabine: A Study inAchievement (Plimpton Press, Norwood, Massachusetts, 1933) and in Sabine's Collected Papers onAcoustics (Peninsula Publishing, Los Altos, California, 1994). However, the substantial contributions ofthe two other Sabines to acoustics have, until now, been less well documented.

It is clear from Kopec's history of the Sabines at Riverbank that architecturalacoustics and indeed, the wider field of applied acoustics itself involve a great deal more than merely the acoustics of auditoriums and churches. Even on his first important consulting project, Boston SymphonyHall, Wallace Sabine insisted on more than just the application of his new reverberation equation. He required adequate isolation of the hall's listening chamber from exterior sounds, hence thehall's interior surrounding buffer corridors and other features that protected the hall from exteriortraffic and streetcar noise of the early 1900s and still do today. He also ensured shallow balcony and concert-stage depth to guarantee evenly distributed sound over all the seats and wall niches anddeep ceiling coffers to enhance diffusion of the sound field throughout the concert hall. WallaceSabine's later research focused more and more on unanswered questions of sound distribution and transmission and other unquantified problems in acoustics and noise control, and Paul and Hale Sabine continued his pioneering work. They, too, were deeply involved in the growing public awareness about noise pollution. Indeed, the need for methods and materials for environmentalnoise control became even greater after World War II, especially with the introduction of new andnoisy transportation modes such as jet aircraft. The Sabines' and Riverbank's technical andresearch staff members were all part and parcel of this expanding acoustical activity. We are in JohnKopec's debt for his dedication in telling the story of solid achievement of the Sabines at Riverbank.

William J. Cavanaugh
Fellow, Acoustical Society of America
Sudbury, Massachusetts
June 1994

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