Harry F. Olson

Harry Ferdinand Olson (December 28, 1901 – April 1, 1982) was a prominent engineer at RCA Victor and a pioneer in the field of 20th century acoustical engineering.[1]


Harry F. Olson was born in Mount Pleasant, Iowa to Swedish immigrant parents. Technically inclined from an early age, he built and flew model airplanes, constructed a steam engine and invented a wood-fired boiler that drove a 100-volt DC generator. Olson designed and built an amateur radio transmitter, gaining enough proficiency to be granted an operator's license. Olson went on to earn a bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Iowa then continued to earn a Master's degree with a thesis on acoustic wave filters in solids and a doctorate in Physics, working with polarization of resonance radiation in mercury. Immediately after completing his course of study in 1928, Olson moved to New Jersey to work for RCA Laboratories. Olson would remain at RCA for almost four decades.

An RCA 44-series ribbon microphone that was used by CBS. In 2005, Mix Foundation honored Harry F. Olson and Les Anderson of RCA with induction to the TECnology Hall of Fame for their development of the Model 44 microphone in 1931.[2]

Olson had a continuing interest in music, acoustics, and sound reproduction, and, by 1934, he was placed in charge of acoustical research at RCA. At RCA, Olson worked on a wide range of projects, which included developing microphones for the broadcasting and motion picture industries, improving loudspeakers, and making significant contributions to magnetic tape recording. Like many engineers of the World War II generation, Olson also made significant contributions to military technology as well, particularly to the fields of underwater sound and anti-submarine warfare. After the war Olson, along with Herbert Belar, developed the first modern electronic synthesizer. Equipped with electron tubes, the Mark II Sound Synthesizer was used to compose music, which was recorded and sold to the public.

A prolific inventor and engineer, Olson was awarded more than 100 patents for the various types of microphones (including the widely used 44- and 77-series), cardioid (directional) microphones, loudspeaker baffles, air-suspension loudspeakers, isobaric loudspeakers, early video recording equipment, audio recording equipment, phonograph pickups, underwater sound equipment, noise reduction, sound technology in motion-pictures, and public-address systems he developed. He also authored 135 articles and ten books including an interdisciplinary text charting the dynamical analogies between electrical, acoustical and mechanical systems. In 1949, Olson was honored by being the first recipient of the Audio Engineering Society's John H. Potts Memorial Award, an award program which was later renamed the Gold Medal. In 1953-4 Olson served as president of the Acoustical Society of America, which awarded him the very first Silver Medal in Engineering Acoustics in 1974 and the Gold Medal in 1981. He won the IEEE Lamme Medal in 1970,[3] was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1959, and was the recipient of many honorary degrees during his lifetime.

Olson retired from RCA in 1967, continuing as a consultant for RCA Laboratories.

High Fidelity Demonstration

Shortly after World War II, Dr. Olson conducted an experiment, now considered a classic, to determine the preferred bandwidth for the reproduction of music. Previous experimenters had found that listeners seemed to prefer a high-frequency cutoff of 5000 Hz for reproduced music. Dr. Olson suspected that this was likely due to imperfections in the sound, especially in the higher frequencies, as reproduced by equipment in common use at the time. These imperfections included clicks and pops (from 78 rpm recordings), added noise (from AM radio broadcast static), hiss and harmonic distortion (from amplifier circuits), and non linear frequency response from primitive loudspeaker designs. If the sound was free of these problems, he reasoned, listeners would prefer full frequency reproduction.

In his experiment, he set up a room which was divided diagonally by a visually opaque but acoustically transparent screen. The screen incorporated a concealed low-pass acoustical filter having an upper frequency cutoff of 5000 Hz. This filter could be opened or closed, allowing either the full range of frequencies to pass or the range only below 5000 Hz. At first, a small orchestra sat and performed on one side of the screen, while a group of test subjects sat on the other and listened. The listeners were asked to select their preference between two conditions: full bandwidth or restricted bandwidth. There was overwhelming preference in favor of the full bandwidth. Next, the orchestra was replaced with a sound-reproduction system with loudspeakers positioned behind the screen instead. When the sound system was free of distortion, the listeners preferred the full bandwidth. But when he introduced small amounts of nonlinear distortion, the subjects preferred a restricted bandwidth, thus demonstrating clearly the importance of high quality in audio systems.[1]

As a result of this experiment and the work of others, such as Avery Fisher and later Edgar Villchur, high fidelity sound recording, transmission, and reproduction equipment saw increased investment, development, and public acceptance in the following decades. The design and manufacture of everything from microphones, to tape recorders, vinyl records, amplifiers, and loudspeakers were impacted.

Personal life

Harry F. Olson was born in Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, on December 18, 1901. He was the first of two children. His parents were Swedish immigrants.[1]

Olson married Lorene Johnson of Morris, Illinois in 1935. Both his mother and his wife were talented amateur artists — Lorene's paintings were displayed in Olson's RCA office for many years. Olson died at Princeton Medical Center in Princeton, New Jersey on April 1, 1982 at the age of 80.

Awards and honors

Year Honor or Award[1]
1940 The Modern Pioneer Award of the National Association of Manufacturers
1952 The John H. Potts Medal of the Audio Engineering Society
1955 The Samuel L. Warner Medal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers
1956 The John Scott Medal of the City of Philadelphia
1956 The Achievement Award of the IRE Professional Group on Audio
1963 The John Ericsson Medal of the American Society of Swedish Engineers
1965 The Emile Berliner Award of the Audio Engineering Society
1967 The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers' Mervin J. Kelly Medal
1969 The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers' Consumer Electronics Award
1970 The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers' Lamme Medal
1974 The Acoustical Society of America's first Silver Medal in engineering acoustics
1981 The Acoustical Society of America's Gold Medal


Year Patent Description Patent
1931 Acoustic Device For Sound Pick-up
(Ellipsoid Microphone)
1,814,357 [4]
1932 Apparatus for Converting Sound Vibrations Into Electrical Variations
(First Practical Ribbon Microphone)
1,885,001 [5]
1932 System Responsive to The Energy Flow of Sound Waves
(Pressure and Velocity Sound Level Meter)
1,892,644 [6]
1932 Sound Pick-Up Device
(Unidirectional Cardioid Microphone)
1,892,645 [7]
1933 System For the Conversion and Transfer Of Energy
(Condenser Microphone Step-Up Transformer With A Remote Preamplifier.)
1,897,732 [8]
1934 Acoustic Device
(Loudspeaker Horn)
1,984,542 [9]
1935 Loud Speaker and Method of Propagating Sound
(Passive Radiator Loud Speaker)
1,988,250 [10]
1935 Acoustic Device
(Double Voice Coil Loudspeaker)
2,007,748 [11]
1936 Electroacoustical Device
(Ribbon Telephone Microphone/Speaker)
2,064,316 [12]
1937 Sound Reproducing Apparatus
(Multi-Cellular Horn)
2,102,212 [13]
1937 Acoustical Device
(Small Portable Closed Back Ribbon Microphone)
2,102,736 [14]
1938 Microphone 2,113,219 [15]
1938 Microphone And Circuit
(Microphone Mixer By Verifying Field Coil Strength)
2,119,345 [16]
1940 Loud-Speaker
(Multiple Flare Horn)
2,203,875 [17]
1940 Loud-Speaker
(Hybrid Bass-Horn/Bass-Reflex Design)
2,224,919 [18]
1941 Electroacoustical Apparatus
(Line Microphone "Shotgun Microphone")
2,228,886 [19]
1941 Acoustical Apparatus
(Woofer Surround)
2,234,007 [20]
1942 Signal Translating Apparatus
(Multiple Co-Axial Loudspeaker Designs)
2,269,284 [21]
1942 Electroacoustical Apparatus
(Design of the RCA 77 Ribbon Microphone)
2,271,988 [22]
1942 Radio Remote Control System
(Using Different Frequencies of Sound)
2,293,166 [23]
1942 Electroacoustical Apparatus
(Line Array Microphone)
2,299,342 [24]
1945 Signal Translating Apparatus
(Sub-Aqueous Submarine Microphone)
2,390,847 [25]
1947 Magnetostrictive Signal Translating Apparatus
(Rugged Sub-Aqueous Submarine Microphone)
2,414,699 [26]
1947 Signal Translating Apparatus
(Sub-Aqueous Submarine Pressure Compensated Speaker)
2,429,104 [27]
1949 Signal Transmission and Receiving Apparatus
(Ultrasonically Power Wireless Earphone)
2,461,344 [28]
1949 Air Suspension Loudspeaker 2,490,466 [29]
1950 Synthetic Reverberation System 2,493,638 [30]
1950 Diffraction Type Sound Absorber
2,502,016 [31]
1950 Diffraction Type Sound Absorber Covered By A Membrane 2,502,018 [32]
1950 Diffraction Type Sound Absorber With Complementary Fitting Portions 2,502,019 [33]
1950 Diffraction Type Sound Absorber With Fiberglass Walls
2,502,019 [33]
1950 Single Element, Unidirectional, Dynamic Microphone
(With Pattern Control)
2,512,467 [34]
1950 Feedback Controller System For Recording Cutters And the Like

(Phonograph Recording Lathe)

2,516,338 [35]
1951 Directional Microphone
(Coincident Pair Of Ribbon Microphones With Horizontal Pattern Control)
2,539,671 [36]
1951 Coaxial Dual-Unit Electrodynamic Loud-Speaker
(Improved Version)
2,539,672 [37]
1951 Transformerless Audio Output System
(Tube Amplifier)
2,548,235 [38]
1951 Means For Improving The Sensitivity And The Response Characteristics
Of Velocity Microphones


1951 Line Type Pressure Responsive Microphone 2566,094


1951 Velocity Type Microphone
(Acoustic High Frequency Equalizer
2,572,376 [41]
1953 Suspension System For Dynamic Microphones 2,628,289 [42]
1953 Distortion Analyzing Apparatus
2,629,000 [43]
1953 Second Order Gradient Directional Microphone 2,640,110 [44]
1953 Portable Radio With A Bass-Reflex Cabinet 2,642,948 [45]
1953 Noise Discrimination System 2,645,648 [46]
1953 Cabinet For Sound Translating Apparatus 2,649,164 [47]
1953 Multisection Acoustic Filter
(Filtering Out Frequencies above 5,000 Hz)
2,656,004 [48]
1954 Uniaxial Microphone 2,680,787 [49]
1954 Noise Reduction System 2,686,296 [50]
1954 Sound Translating Apparatus
(Second Speaker Inside The Cabinet)
2,688,373 [51]
1954 Coaxial, Dual Unit, Electrodynamic Loud-Speaker
(Improved Magnetic Structure)
2,699,472 [52]
1955 Velocity Microphone
(Improved Magnetic Structure)
2,699,474 [53]
1955 Dynamic Microphone
(Compact Design)
2,718,272 [54]
1956 Unidirectional Microphone
(Low Cost Ribbon Design)
2,751,441 [55]
1956 Acoustical Resistance For Pressure Type Microphones 2,773,130 [56]
1957 Methods Of Restoring Phonograph Records
(Re-synthesizing The Recording)
2,808,466 [57]
1957 Transducer With Fluid Filled Diaphragm Suspension 2,814,353 [58]
1957 Loudspeaker Structure
(Sculpted Cone For High Frequency Pattern Control)
2,825,823 [59]
1958 Combination Chassis And Loudspeaker 2,838,607 [60]
1958 Directional Microphone
(Using Two Microphones To Increase Directivity)
2,854,511 [61]
1958 Noise Discriminator, Threshold Type 2,645,684 [62]
1958 Music Synthesizer
2,855,816 [63]
1958 Wide Range Dynamic Phonograph Pickup 2,858,375 [64]
1959 Acoustic Apparatus
(Improved Acoustic Labyrinth)
2,870,856 [65]
1959 Signal Frequency Change Detector 2,918,667 [66]
1960 Vibration Control Apparatus 2,964,272 [67]
1961 Apparatus For Speech Analysis and Printer Control Mechanisms 2,971,057 [68]
1961 Electronic Sound Absorber 2,983,790 [69]
1961 Directional Electrostatic Microphone 3,007,012 [70]
1961 Music Composing Machine 3,007,362 [71]
1963 Stereophonic Loudspeaker 3,104,729 [72]
1968 Voiced Sound Fundamental Frequency Detector 3,400,215 [73]


  1. 1 2 3 4 Harry F. Olson A Biographical Memoir by Cyril M. Harris
  2. Mix Foundation. TEC Awards. TECnology Hall of Fame, 2005. INNOVATIONS THAT CHANGED THE PRO AUDIO WORLD
  3. "IEEE Lamme Medal Recipients". IEEE. Retrieved December 12, 2010.
  4. US Patent 1814357
  5. US Patent 1885001
  6. US Patent 1892644
  7. US Patent 1892645
  8. US Patent 1897732
  9. US Patent 1984542
  10. US Patent 1988250
  11. US Patent 2007748
  12. US Patent 2064316
  13. US Patent 2102212
  14. US Patent 2102736
  15. US Patent 2113219
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  29. US Patent 2490466
  30. US Patent 2493638
  31. US Patent 2502016
  32. US Patent 2502018
  33. 1 2 US Patent 2502019
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  35. US Patent 2516338
  36. US Patent 2539671
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  38. US Patent 2548235
  39. US Patent 2.566039
  40. US Patent 2566094
  41. US Patent 2572376
  42. US Patent 2628289
  43. US Patent 2629000
  44. US Patent 2640110
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  46. US Patent 2645648
  47. US Patent 2649164
  48. US Patent 2656004
  49. US Patent 2680787
  50. US Patent 2686296
  51. US Patent 2688373
  52. US Patent 2699472
  53. US Patent 2699474
  54. US Patent 2718272
  55. US Patent 2751441
  56. US Patent 2773130
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  59. US Patent 2825823
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  61. US Patent 2854511
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  63. US Patent 2855816
  64. US Patent 2858375
  65. US Patent 2870856
  66. US Patent 2918667
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  68. US Patent 2971057
  69. US Patent 2983790
  70. US Patent 3007012
  71. US Patent 3007362
  72. US Patent 3104729
  73. US Patent 3400215

External links

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