WALLACE CLEMENT SABINE

Born in 1868, in Richwood Ohio, Sabine was one of the first physicists to begin to tackle quantitatively the issue of architectural acoustics. While lecturing at one of his alma mater, Harvard University, Sabine was given an assignment to improve the acoustics of Fogg Lecture Hall on the university campus. The Hall suffered from excessive ‘echo’, which lead to students struggling to hear lecturers. With no previous experience in building acoustics, and a problem some senior staff in the physics department had considered impossible, Sabine set about attempting to identify and quantify the exact cause of the hall’s poor acoustics. For several years, he and his assistants spent evenings testing different arrangements for furniture, occupants and sound sources. They moved chairs and their seat cushions, oriental rugs and other furniture from the nearby Sanders Theatre (which was considered acoustically optimal), to Fogg Lecture Hall in order to determine how they might affect the acoustics.

After having performed thousands of measurements, using only the relatively crude tools of an organ pipe and a stopwatch, Sabine deduced the relationship between a room’s ‘echo’, volume and the surface area of acoustic absorption present. The unit for effective absorption area would later be named after Sabine himself.

Using what he had learned, Sabine installed around Fogg Lecture Hall what, he had discovered, were good sound-absorbing materials. His solutions were a great success and subsequently, he was hired as the acoustics consultant for the design and construction of Boston’s Symphony Hall- to this day considered among the best symphony halls. Sabine’s formula for reverberation time remains a staple in building acoustics design and consultancy, particularly in the 21st Century where, for example, workplace health and wellbeing is now a key consideration taken when designing and constructing places of work.