In early 1962 when I returned home, my father could hardly contain himself. We didn’t even stop for the customary dinner at Ming Garden. We went directly to One India Street. He sat me down with a cup of coffee and a donut and gestured at equipment on his production table.
“I spent everything,” he said, his eyes twinkling with pride. “I’m down to my last dime”—one of his favorite expressions.
It took me a minute to realize to see what he spent his money on. Then, there it was! A shiny professional tape recorder. The case was anodized aluminum with machined aluminum controls. The design was clearly for professionals who need perfect recordings in any environment.
“This is the Nagra machine, crafted in Switzerland, used by all the Hollywood movie producers to record sound on set or in the field,” my father said proudly, not daring to mention the price. “It records frequencies above and below the human range and has many features for editing and for synchronizing with other equipment. It has a built-in battery power supply and weighs about fourteen pounds.”
There’s no way my father could have afforded the Nagra recorder on his own. Alan Bemis must have financed it.
And there was more. A slim black cable led from the Nagra to a long black tubular thing that must be a microphone. My father noticed my interest. “That’s a high fidelity microphone which has a sharp focus at a distance. You could record one person talking in a crowd. It’s made in Germany by Sennheiser. I will use it for recording sounds of nature.”
My father was fixated on quality. He was fond of saying that Americans couldn’t make quality cars anymore. This was when Ralph Nader had captured the public’s attention by proclaiming that American cars were “unsafe at any speed.” So he decided to avoid hassles with American electronic equipment and go with quality products from the Old World.
But he wasn’t being anti-American. He was being pro-Peter Kilham. He was investing in a new phase of his record business where all aspects of the product had to be perfect. After all, his program source, nature, was perfect and he wouldn’t be satisfied unless he portrayed nature’s sounds with perfection. In his mind, profits would naturally follow.
The purpose of the equipment began to sink in. “Recording sounds of nature?” I asked tentatively. I didn’t sense the business opportunity.
Nevertheless, I thought this would be a good time to donate my oscilloscope to the project. This monitoring instrument displays an image similar to an EKG. With a TV-like round screen about four inches in diameter, you could see the audio signals as waves. A violin could produce a pure bright green sinusoidal wave on a gray screen. You could determine the violin’s pitch or frequency. A noisy tone or several combined tones could produce a jumble of traces, often “grassy” and jittery, on the scope’s screen.The instrument itself was about eight inches wide, ten inches high, and twelve inches deep.
The scope would be very useful in analyzing bird songs on the tape and adjusting the compensating circuits for the best fidelity. A good new scope would cost more than the Nagra recorder. This one I bought second-hand some years ago for my now inactive ham radio station. It worked perfectly.
When we brought in the scope the next day, my father immediately saw its benefit, even though he also realized that with its ten controls, it would take days to fully understand and master. I was happy that I could finally make an electronic engineering contribution.
Naturally very curious and experimental, my father immediately started adjusting the scope and was excited about this new tool. After a while, he relaxed with a freshly perked cup of coffee and said, “I guess it’s time to show you what I’ve done so far.”
I put on headphones and was transported to the rocky New England shore. I heard the surf washing up and down on the sand and crashing on the rocks. I heard the gulls clamoring over food and I heard whistles and bells in the fog. I was fascinated by the sound of the triple expansion steam engine as a ship headed out to sea. The fidelity was perfect. I was listening to the yet not fully edited tape of what would become Droll Yankees’ first classic record, Sounds of the Sea. With Peter’s quest for perfection, he would edit and re-edit the tape and agonize over the record jacket artwork for months. It was issued late in 1962.
He said to me the next morning, “Come along while I do some recording of nature.” We went in his recently acquired International Harvester Scout. Introduced in 1961, this was the first American SUV and was designed to compete against the popular American army jeep and the Land Rover. It was rugged, uncomfortable (it didn’t seem to have springs or shock absorbers), and an interior as noisy as a tank. On the plus side, it was indestructible, had four-wheel drive and could go anywhere in the great outdoors.
After about ten miles, we took a gravel road to the bay’s shore. We arrived at a beach and turned around. My father lowered the tailgate where we sat while he put the tape recorder in his lap and pointed the microphone towards the gentle waves. All was fairly quiet until a motorboat sped by, turning away from the beach when it was in front of us. A sandpiper and mate scurried by on the wet sand, poking their long bills in the sand to snatch tiny morsels.
My father hadn’t recorded much of interest, and I could now appreciate why he would have to spend hours in the field to get usable material. On the way back, he said, “Let’s stop in the town forest. Maybe there are some good sounds there.” We drove in on a muddy road and stopped in an evergreen grove. “Shhh,” he cautioned, “let’s see if we can hear some birds.” After what seemed forever, some songs burst forth which my father identified as song sparrows and a wood thrush. They recorded well although there was traffic noise on a busy street about a half mile away.
“I’m hungry,” I said, which was my favorite way to get him to move on. We drove to a neighborhood lunch place and settled into a booth.
“Cheeseburger and cabinet?” the waitress asked.
“Yes, chocolate,” I answered. A cabinet is what a milkshake is called in Rhode Island. My father had the same, but a plain hamburger well-done.
After a slice of apple pie and a cup of coffee, my father felt stimulated to share his new vision.
“You know, I grew up summers in the woods and fields of Tamworth, New Hampshire, so I have a natural appreciation of nature. Our whole family loved nature. My brother Lawrence is a bird watcher when he’s not doing his medical research. I guess he qualifies as a professional ornithologist (later he published two scholarly books about birds and two books about bird watching).
“Well, then you combine that with my interest in the fine arts—particularly the Renaissance—and I realized that I can paint the best pictures of nature’s sounds. Like Leonardo, I seek perfection in my portrayal of natural beauty.”
“Won’t that take years?” I asked.
“Perhaps it will,” my father said, lighting his pipe again, “but with this recording equipment, and oceans and forests and meadows all around, and friends like Alan Bemis and John Chafee, shouldn’t I seize this opportunity?”
“Of course,” I felt obliged to say, although I couldn’t help recalling his self-assessment back on the farm as having no aptitude for business.
I returned to the University of Colorado for my senior year. I was doing well in electrical engineering and physics. During the summer I worked at the radio telescope whose giant antennas monitored galaxies for interesting signals. During the school year, I taught electronics lab to physics students.
I was feeling, however, that I should combine business with my engineering studies, perhaps in reaction to my father’s business frustrations. High-tech companies like Xerox and IBM were booming and semiconductors were beginning to revolutionize the electronics industry. The age of computers was beginning. I wanted a top-level part of it.
I took courses in economics, accounting, and marketing in addition to science and engineering. I decided to shoot for the moon and apply to MIT for graduate school. They encourage study in a variety of areas, so I applied to the school of management with the intent of studying advanced engineering as well. My grades weren’t stellar, but I had an excellent letter of recommendation from my Colorado professor of economics.
Early in the spring of 1963, I informed my father that I should go to MIT to interview and hopefully get accepted for the fall semester. He said this was great news and he would drive me to Cambridge, Mass. His friend Alan Bemis, among his many other interests, was director of MIT’s Weather Radar Research Project. This was the beginning of the technology that TV stations use to illustrate their evening weather forecast. Bemis said he would be happy to meet me and see how he could help.
When we arrived at Bemis’ office, he welcomed us but apologized for not being able to give us a tour of his facilities. He called Paul Samuelson, an MIT professor of economics, to arrange an appointment with me. Samuelson later received a Nobel prize and I took his advanced course. As an aside, I should say to those applying to colleges and other institutions, find faculty and researchers there who will recommend you and introduce you to their colleagues. This is at least half the battle won.
As my father and Bemis were talking about the old days, I started looking out of the window to a flat roof below where I noticed a radar dish antenna. Bong! My bell was rung. That would be the perfect audio reflector for my father’s microphone.
Its effect would be to focus only on distant sounds from a very small area and virtually exclude all other sounds. The result is to greatly amplify the desired sound. You could focus on one bird singing in the forest.
This dish was about three feet in diameter, and several old cables dangled from it. As our conversation with Bemis seemed to be ending, and my father nudged me to indicate that it was time to leave, I popped the question: “Mr. Bemis, do you need that antenna out on the lower roof any more?”
He looked at me quizzically. “Why? Do you have a use for it?”
“Yes,” I said, “or I should say my father could use it as a microphone reflector for bird songs.”
“Well, Peter, of course you can have it.” He answered. “We’re not using it anymore and the Air Force will never miss it,” he said with a wink. “I’ll have it boxed up and shipped to you at One India Street.”
Alan Bemis had been a big help to both of us and continued to be my father’s best friend. Over the years I heard a lot more about him, but I never saw him again. I was accepted by MIT and received my master’s in management three years later.
I don’t think my father initially grasped the importance of this radar antenna for his project but he would soon learn. It was made of aluminum and was light and easily portable. He could carry it and his tape recorder in his Scout four-wheel drive and have an outstanding day of recording. He was ready to launch Droll Yankees sounds of nature.
Larry Kilham is an award-winning author who has traveled extensively overseas for over twenty years. He worked in several large international companies and started and sold two high-tech ventures. Larry has written books about creativity and invention, artificial intelligence and digital media, travel overseas, and four novels with an AI theme. He looks forward to hearing from readers at email@example.com.