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Jun 22, 2006

The latest issue of the INCE Journal had a review of the book Sound Ideas: Acoustical Consulting at BBN and Acentech by Deborah Malone and Eric W. Wood. The book is a history of BBN from the perspective of past and current (via Acentech) employees.

The book looked interesting, but unfortunately I couldn’t find it via any of the normal sources such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble. I ran into several folks at ASA Providence meeting, including Greg Tocci of Cavanaugh Tocci Associates (I like the new look!) and Jim Barnes at Acentech, and told them that I was interested in reading the book. Jim told me that he would pass the request along. Sure enough, last week I got a package in the mail: my very own copy of said book. Thanks guys!

Anyway, I finished reading the book. In short: if you’re interested at all in the history of modern acoustics and acoustical consulting in the U.S., it’s definitely worth reading. There are lots of anecdotes about the founders as well as prominent BBN’ers like Laymon Miller, Bill Cavanaugh, Bob Hoover, and many more. The book also describes lots of prominent BBN projects, including the United Nations headquarters, and the infamous Avery Fisher Hall (note that I added the section on the Fisher Hall’s acoustics, based on material in the book). The book also describes BBN’s early work with the military and the EPA in developing the USA’s noise policies. The book only briefly touches on BBN’s computer work and ARPANET; as the title suggests, the book is about acoustical consulting.

Certain themes are common throughout the book: MIT, Laymon Miller’s (and later, Bob Hoover’s) acoustical training course, the focus on research and innovation, growing pains, and so on. But of course, BBN blazed the trail for all this, and it was fascinating to see how the firm dealt with its ups and downs.

The book spends a lot of time describing the work environment at BBN and Acentech, and the changes in the work environment over the years. I recognize a lot of the values having worked at HMMH, a BBN spinoff. And speaking of spinoffs: while the book does describe, in detail, the creation of Acentech from the BBN architectural acoustics group, the book also devotes a chapter to three other spinoff companies; namely Cavanaugh Tocci Associates, Hoover & Keith Inc., HMMH, and A. S. Harris Inc. (described as “a spinoff from a spinoff”).

Additionally, the book lists several dozen other spinoff acoustical consulting firms, including some firms (like Lewitz and Associates, Inc and Artec Consultants Inc ) that I didn’t know were spinoffs. BBN opened the door for a lot of the acoustical engineering and consulting that is happening all over the country today.

My one criticism of the book is that the material is presented a bit haphazardly. The stories aren’t necessarily in chronological order. Instead, the book focuses on accounts told by former and current BBN’ers/Acentech employees, so you may see the same story as relayed by different people in different parts of the book. This gave me a feeling of deja vu as I progressed through the book, but didn’t take away from the enjoyment.

So again, if you’re wondering how acoustical consulting got its start, pick up the book (contact Eric Wood at Acentech if you can’t find it at a store). It certainly made me wish I could have been there.

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