Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Sabines: An Impromptu Tour of the Jefferson Lab, Part 2

Our tour of Harvard's Jefferson Laboratory began in the classroom where Professor Wallace Clement Sabine taught his introductory course, "Physics C." It was not a popular subject before he took it over from another instructor in 1899. He had 69 students that first semester, a typical number. Within three years, he had 236. He was said to be one of America's greatest teachers.

I didn't photograph the room! I never imagined that it still existed — don't 19th-century science buildings on Ivy League campuses get gutted and renovated every so often? This one had been updated, of course, and probably several times. But it had been done with respect; the building is landmarked. 

I was in a mild, pleasant state of shock and not thinking clearly as I stood by the slate-topped lab table and looked up toward the stepped rows of Formica desks rising to the back of the hall. It looked like any other large science amphitheater-style classroom but there was a certain sense of history. I recovered sufficiently to document the plaques on its crimson walls:

Outside in the corridor, my friend led me to a photo of Professor Sabine as a young man on one of the walls. It was covered in Plexiglas so please excuse the reflections:

It was nice to see him and to know he still is remembered in the building where he spent so much of his life. 

Because Sabine needed perfect silence to perform sound experiments, he worked in a sub-basement laboratory, known as the Constant Temperature Room. But even so, he had to do his research late at night, after a full day of teaching. In his biography of Sabine, William Dana Orcutt wrote: 
After his marriage [in 1900], it became his habit to take the 11:45 p.m. car from Boston to Cambridge. He worked in the Constant Temperature Room from twelve to four a.m, in summer, and from twelve to five in winter. Experiments then had to cease because of the rumble of noise from Porter Station in North Cambridge, due to the shifting of freight cars. Often he slept in a hammock at the Laboratory until time to go home for a bath and breakfast. In the earlier period of his experiments, for three solid years he worked every other night, rain or shine, heat or cold. In later years he tried to limit a problem to three weeks, which would necessitate at least twenty-one nights in succession, He was always back at the Laboratory at nine o'clock the next morning.*
Naturally I was dying to see the Constant Temperature Room, if it still existed. My friend had heard of it but had never seen it. We went to the basement and looked around. Behind some storage shelves, I spotted this old-fashioned railing and a trap-door, blocked by a chain:

On the wall there was a helpful plaque:

"Wow, I had no idea. I never saw this before," said my friend. We stood there looking at the door and the chain and then at each other. Back and forth. We were itching to explore but neither of us wanted to break any rules. I knew I was going down there one way or another, but I also wasn't going to risk getting my friend into trouble.

"We should ask someone on the building staff for permission," he said. But he didn't think anyone would be working so late on a Friday. We decided we'd go through the motions. Back upstairs he spotted an administrator he knew, heading out the door. He asked her if we could visit the Constant Temperature Room because I was researching Wallace Sabine. She looked us over, and saw how eager we were.

"Sure. I don't see why not. But if anything goes wrong, I never saw you, and we never talked. Have fun."

Back in the basement, I unhooked the chain and he opened the door, which wasn't locked:

We turned on our iPhone flashlights and gazed down at the steep staircase. It didn't seem to lead anywhere:

He said, "After you!" "No, after you!" "No, I insist!" I went down, feeling a little like Hermione with Harry Potter. I was careful not to think about spiders.

At the bottom, on the left, was an old wooden door. (I live with several of Sabine's old doors and rickety doorknobs, so it was fun to try a new one.) It led to a small brick passageway. 

And then into the Constant Temperature Room:

Voila. Its door had been removed. It had fluorescent lighting and was loaded with an elderly professor's elderly equipment. We went in and squeezed around the crates and shelves as best we could. 

It was much smaller than I'd imagined, with a lower ceiling. Here's another excerpt from Orcutt's 1933 biography:
For his experiments, Sabine made use of a sub-sub basement room in the Jefferson Physical Laboratory. "Down a narrow stairway," writes C.B. Palmer in the recent article on "Caves and Cubicles of Modern Black Magic," "is the shrine of all acoustical engineers — the original acoustic laboratory of Professor Sabine. Thick walled and low ceilinged, it is ranked at one end with organ pipes. At the other end is a contraption looking every bit like a therapeutic steam cabinet. In it the observer sat and tried his organ notes and building materials."
When Sabine first took possession, this was known as the "Constant Temperature Room." It was in he centre of one wing of the building, entirely underground, even below the basement level of the building, with separate foundations and double walls, each wall being very thick and of brick in cement. Without windows, its walls, floor, and ceiling all of solid masonry — were smooth and unbroken. The single door to the room was plain and flush with the wall.
From its location and construction this room would have seemed to ensure absolute quiet, but Sabine found that the delicate instruments which he used in his investigations were affected by the tremors of the ground caused by passage of heavy cars five hundred feet away, in spite of the care taken to support these instruments on piers independent of the walls and floors of the building. To correct this, he had the door sheathed over, leaving the only entrance through a small aperture at the top, over which a heavy slab of stone was placed by an assistant, to be removed from time to time, for the admission of air. Here the investigator worked night after night between the hours of twelve and five a.m., and here, on one occasion, he came near finding an untimely end, through an oversight which left the slab of stone unremoved for what proved almost too long a period. After this, electric signals were installed. So delicate were Sabine's instruments that the buzzing of a stray mosquito in the Constant Temperature Room produced a noise like a dynamo, and forced the work to be suspended.* 
We saw no organ pipes. no transom, no electric signals. All we saw was a storage room. And it was a warm, stuffy one — the professor must have endured a "Constant Temperature" that wasn't all that comfortable, being without fresh air. And yet he always worked in a suit, high-collared shirt, and tie.

It may not have looked impressive but it was still very moving to be in the place where Sabine began the work that led to the science of acoustics. Before he did, building acoustics were an entirely haphazard affair. Architects and builders kept their fingers crossed that speakers and music would be clear and not cacophonous. Sabine changed all that. Here's the situation in a nutshell, from the Orcutt biography:
The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher once asked [architect] Richard Morris Hunt how much he knew about Acoustics. "As much as any one," Hunt answered evasively. "And how much is that?" Beecher persisted. The architect smiled: "Not a damned thing," he acknowledged. Beecher nodded his head thoughtfully as he replied, "I think you are right."*
Sabine's first acoustical challenge was to improve the disastrous sound in Harvard's Fogg Lecture Hall — it was so impossible to hear a speaker clearly that it was deemed unusable. After he succeeded, his next project was the acoustical design for Symphony Hall, the first building designed in accordance with his acoustic formulas. It joined the ranks of the world's top three concert halls the night it opened. In that little basement room, Sabine learned to control sound, and it changed the world forever.

What Morse did for the Telegraph, what Edison did for the Electric Light, what Alexander Bell did for the Telephone, what Marconi did for the Wireless — Sabine did for the Science of Acoustics by solving the mystery of the intricacies of Sound which had baffled investigators from the time of ancient Greece. Each made a direct application of Science to human use.*
*All quotations are from William Dana Orcutt, Wallace Clement Sabine: A Study in Achievement, 1933


  1. your inner geek must have been having a party while you were walking around.. Thank you for sharing with us

  2. Love your Sabine installments!


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