Heroines of Acoustics

In March, the Royal Society ran an “edit-a-thon”, to create and improve Wikipedia entries for female scientists and engineers. It got me thinking about who the past heroines of acoustics might be. But as I went through a list of historical figures, Fourier, Helmholtz, Lord Rayleigh, I found it difficult to think of a female example. Do you have any suggestions?
Although there is still an imbalance between the number of male and female acousticians today, at least I can think of some examples of women at the top of their profession, including the current President of the Institute of Acoustics (Prof Bridget Shield) and the President of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Prof Anne Dowling (who works in aeroacoustics).
Feeling embarrassed that I couldn’t think of one famous female acoustician from history, I thought I’d do some research, and found three examples.

Sophie Germain

Bowing Chladni Plate

Germain (1776-1831) was a French mathematician who studied plate vibrations. She won a prize from the French Academy of Sciences for developing a theory to explain the vibration of flat and curved plates. Her biography in the Encyclopaedia Britannica sadly notes, ‘she worked on generalizations of her research but, isolated from the academic community on account of her gender and thus largely unaware of new developments taking place in the theory of elasticity, she made little real progress.’

Delia Derbyshire

At the BBC Radiophonic Workshop Derbyshire (1937-2001) found the ideal job to combine her expertise in maths, music and perception of sound. Within a few months of joining the workshop, she created her rendition of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme. Grainer loved the recording, and asked “Did I really write this?” “Most of it,” replied Derbyshire. [1] BBC rules meant her work was hidden behind a number of pseudonyms, making her an unsung heroine of electronic music.

Hedy Lamarr

Hedy Lamarr. Photo: Trailer screenshot (Lady of the Tropics trailer) via Wikimedia Commons

Lamarr (1914-2000) was a glamorous Austrian film star, often playing a provocative femme fatale. In collaboration with composer George Antheil Lamarr invented a system to make torpedoes go off course. The invention was based on piano rolls used to control pianos. The idea was impractical with the technology available then, but became feasible once transistors were invented in the 1950s. More importantly, the frequency hopping technique used paved the way for wireless communication systems.
Three examples of heroines of acoustics isn’t very many. Can you think of others? Please comment below.


[1] http://www.delia-derbyshire.org/

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0 responses to “Heroines of Acoustics”

  1. Dear Trevor Cox,
    First I want to thank you for running this really inspiring blog and for writing such an amazing book (Sonic Wonderland)
    After reading your latest entry I put together some names and a little bio of some incredible women who helped shape electronic music and movie sound effects. I know they are not considered acousticians, but their contribution to the field of sound has been enormous.
    Daphne Oram – in the 1950’s following a trip to the RTF studios in Paris, she began to campaign for the BBC to provide electronic music facilities for composing sounds, using electronic music and musique concrète techniques, for use in its programming. In 1958 she became the first manager of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. In 1959 she created her Oramics Studios for Electronic Composition. In 1962, she was awarded a grant to support the developments and research of her “Oramics” drawn sound technique. This method of music composition and performance was intended by Oram to allow a composer to be able to draw an “alphabet of symbols” on paper and feed it through a machine that would, in turn, produce the relevant sounds on magnetic tape. A second grant awarded in 1965, enabled the Oramics composition machine to be completed. The first drawn sound composition using the machine was recorded in 1968. Besides being a musical innovator her other significant achievements include being the first woman to direct an electronic music studio, the first woman to set up a personal studio and the first woman to design and construct an electronic musical instrument.
    Bebe Barron – together with her husband Louis Barron wrote the first electronic music for magnetic tape, and the first entirely electronic film score for the MGM movie Forbidden Planet (1956). Their studio in NYC is considered the very first electronic music studio in USA. During 1952-53 the studio was used by John Cage for his very first tape work “Williams Mix”.
    Eliane Radigue – in the 1950’s she studied with Pierre Schaeffer and later on she was Pierre Henry’s assistant. Around 1970, she created her first synthesizer-based music at NYU at a studio she shared with Laurie Spiegel. Until 2000 her work was almost exclusively created on a single synthesizer, the ARP 2500 modular system and tape.
    Suzanne Ciani – in 1974 she started her company Ciani/ Musica. She created numerous sound effects for television commercials using the Buchla modular synthesizer. The sound of a bottle of Coca-Cola being opened and poured was one of Ciani’s most widely recognized works. Her sound effects also appeared in video games and pinball machines. Ciani scored the Lily Tomlin movie “The Incredible Shrinking Woman”, distinguishing her as the first solo female composer of a major Hollywood film.
    Ann Kroeber – first sound effects recordist to start using contact mics for movie sound effects. Worked on Dune, The Elephant Man, Eraserhead, The Black Stallion, Blue Velvet, Dead Poet Society

  2. Delia Derbyshire did that one note at a time, with oscillators and filters, there wasn’t a Moog and a keyboard like we take for granted now.

  3. Though Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil did patent a secure torpedo control system in 1942, I cannot see what that has to do with acoustics. The system was radio based – see my book: Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and the mobile phone.

  4. Trevor, here are a few names from recent history:
    A look at the IOA awards recipients gives some: Dr Judith Bell, Birgitta Berglund, Linda Canty, (and so on…)
    A quick look at the ASA website shows that Katherine S. Harris and Patricia K. Kuhl were awarded their gold medal (and so on…)
    And finally, from a little longer ago, the Wilson Committee report – there is Cecily Statham (noise in hospitals)
    Cheers, Adam

  5. Sent to me via email by Steve Addison
    I was interested in Chladni plates at one time and found a book that was really useful by Mary Waller. I was pointed to your blog by the Acoustical Society of America Linkedin group. I posted this information there:
    I’d suggest taking a look at Mary Desiree Waller who wrote a definitive treatise on Chladni figures that contains much that is not available elsewhere. A basic biography can be found here:
    There is little else available. Waller’s work was published after her death – otherwise I think it would have been better known.

  6. Reblogged this on Feminatronic and commented:
    Not technically within the remit of Feminatronic but an interesting article all the same about sound and acoustics and female pioneers in this field. All relevant to me and as visitors will know, Feminatronic fairly eclectic…

  7. me 🙂
    not in this timespace of course, but im on my way,
    the future awaits, in my hopes more than just i to represent the divine goddess in this time of aquarius through subsonic waves <3 (BASSSS 😉

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