Acoustical Society of America
Gold Medal Award - 1967

Vern Oliver Knudsen

VERN OLIVER KNUDSEN needs no formal introduction to this Society. He was there at its inception, saw it through adolescence, and is participating vigorously in its maturity. Vern Knudsen may or may not have started his research in acoustics at birth, as Dr. E. C. Wente insists Harvey Fletcher did, by early discovery that the vowels attracted much more attention than most consonants, but his interest in music began early for he recently revealed that he attended his first concert in the Mormon Tabernacle at the tender age of six.

Vern Oliver Knudsen was born in Provo, Utah, during the "gay nineties," and this may have had a profound effect, for Harvey Fletcher, during the dedication ceremonies of Knudsen Hall at UCLA in 1964, gave his first impression of him as "a romping little boy—always so jovial and smiling." Although his romping has subsided some, he has remained gay and jovial and smiling.

Harvey Fletcher was Vern's teacher in physics and mathematics at Brigham Young University where he received his AB degree in 1915. During his senior year, he was permitted to assist Dr. Fletcher with his research on Brownian movement. Upon graduation, he followed his professor to the Bell Telephone Laboratories where he was engaged on some of the early work on oscillators, and during World War I investigated earth currents with such early equipment on a 1700-mile segment of a transatlantic cable.

By 1919, armed with the latest information about the new vacuum tubes and electronic circuits, he started his graduate work at the University of Chicago. Here he studied physics under Michelson, Millikan, and Gale. Millikan wanted him to work on the contribution of electrons to the specific heat of metals for his dissertation. Knudsen wanted to work on some problem in acoustics on which he could utilize his knowledge of vacuum tube circuits. This impasse was resolved, however, for Millikan went to Europe. With Gale's assistance, Knudsen had his work on sensibility of the ear to small differences of loudness and frequency so well along by the time Millikan returned that he too endorsed the thesis. Millikan introduced Knudsen to Dr. George E. Shambaugh, the dean of otologists of that day. This contact resulted shortly in two significant papers on which Knudsen and Shambaugh collaborated: "Sensibility of Pathological Ears to Small Difference of Loudness and Pitch," and "Report on an Investigation of Ten Cases of Diplacusis."

Vern Knudsen received the Ph.D. degree in Physics from the University of Chicago magna cum laude in 1922 and joined the Department of Physics at UCLA (then known as University of California Southern Branch) the same year. In 1922, UCLA was without almost everything we now consider essential for a modern Department of Physics. Andrew Knudsen, Vern's father, made the trek across the plains a generation before to settle in the desert of Utah. Vern confronted the lack of research space and equipment with the same drive and spirit that his father displayed. He found in the Los Angeles area many auditoriums and classrooms, most acoustically bad. In these, with organ pipe and stop watch in hand, he began the research on architectural acoustics.

With Dr. Shambaugh's advice, he joined forces with Dr. Isaac H. Jones, a distinguished otologist of Los Angeles. Shortly, definitive papers were rolling out under these two names on normal and impaired hearing. Some 26 audiometers were built in the Knudsen's back yard and made available only to doctors who agreed to use them for research. This Knudsen–Jones audiometer was the first instrument which enabled the otologist to make a differential diagnosis between conductive (middle ear) and perceptive (cochlear) impairments of hearing, and to test the cochlea directly.

When the "talkies" hit the motion-picture industry in 1929, Vern Knudsen was called to help design stages of sound recording. For this and other acoustical work, adequate facilities for the determination of the absorption of sound in acoustical materials was not required. In the move of the University to the Westwood site such facilities were included. A double-walled reverberation chamber and measuring rooms were built as part of the Physics Building. With newer equipment it was now possible to make more precise measurements using reverberation techniques.

Knudsen quickly observed, however, that these measurements could not be duplicated with anything like the accuracy the new equipment justified. The results were quite repeatable on any one day but there were large deviations from day to day. This discrepancy was observed in the reverberation time of even the empty room. After exhaustive tests to make certain the walls of the enclosure were not changing, the now well-known dependence of the absorption of sound in air on the humidity was discovered.

At this point, Dr Knudsen joined forces with Dr. Hans Kneser, a visiting professor from Marburg, Germany. Together they found that the experimental results could be well explained by interactions between the oxygen molecule and water vapor. For his contribution to this important finding, Dr. Knudsen was awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science prize of $1000 in 1935.

During World War II, Dr. Knudsen gave his attention to the study of sound under the sea. He was the first Director of Research at what is now the Navy Electronics Laboratory at San Diego, California. In record time, distinguished scientists and an excellent supporting staff were recruited for this "crash" program. Vern guided much of the early investigation of the propagation of sonar signals and the influence of the ambient sound encountered in the sea. During this period, he served as a member of the National Research Council.

Vern Knudsen's publications include two definitive books, "Architectural Acoustics," published in 1932, and "Acoustical Designing in Architecture" with Cyril M. Harris, 1950. Over 100 articles are to be found in scientific and technical journals. On looking through the bound volumes, I find it easier to locate Vern's papers among the well-used pages than I do to use the index.

Vern Knudsen is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, and the Acoustical Society of America, (president during 1933–1935). He has been a member of the Los Angeles Building and Safety Commission. He is a past president of the California Institute for Cancer Research and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Hollywood Bowl Association (president during 1960–1961 and chairman 1961–1963). The Vern Knudsen Graduate Fellowship in Physics is supported by the Hope for Hearing Research Foundation. He has received honorary degrees from Brigham Young University, where he started his professional career, and at UCLA upon his retirement. He was the first recipient of the Wallace C. Sabine Medal from The Acoustical Society of America in 1957. He was the recipient of the John H. Potts Medal from the Audio Engineering Society in 1964.

In 1934, Vern Knudsen was made Dean of the Graduate Division of the Southern Section of the University of California, a post which he held with distinction for 24 years and during which time the UCLA Graduate Division increased from 287 to 5160. In 1956, he was appointed Vice Chancellor. He became Chancellor in 1959 and, as the Spanish neatly put it, reached the age of "jubilation" in 1960. As many of you know, retirement for Vern has meant an opportunity to again put his major effort to problems of acoustics.

Dr. Simon Ramo, speaking at the dedication of Knudsen Hall at UCLA in 1964, said of Vern Knudsen that he had the "quality of combining depth of perception in science of the physical world and understanding of human beings and had his confidence in them.

The Acoustical Society of America again pauses to do honor to Vern Oliver Knudsen by presenting him the Gold Medal 1967.

Leo P. Delsasso