Thursday, October 01, 2015

Ed Villchur, the art major who revolutionized sound

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics are important. But face it, most college students are treading water without a clue as to what they want to do in life, which is why they are in college. They study what they already know. In the Depression years, Ed Villchur was one such person. He attended City College of New York with the vague idea of working in the theater building sets. He got a degree in art history. Then he got a master's in art history. And then he was drafted into the war, where he grew up. He became an electronics technician in the Army Air Corps stationed mainly in New Guinea.

The assignment was music to our ears. Literally.

Electronics was his calling. He was a genius. After the war, Ed opened a radio repair shop in Greenwich Village, where he built custom home high-fidelity sets. He worked for the American Foundation for the Blind in Manhattan and greatly improved their turntable tone arm, reducing both the distortion and the damage from dropping the needle. He wrote for Audio Engineering and similar publications and in 1952, he convinced New York University to teach Reproduction of Sound.

One of his students was Henry Kloss, who was in the army, and stationed in New Jersey. Kloss also had a loft in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he made custom boxes for speakers. In those days, speakers were terrible. Ed had an idea of how to change that with a new woofter.

"I had hinted to my class what I was doing, and Henry started acting like a terrier. He wanted to know about it," Ed said 40 years later. "At first I said, 'Look, this has got to be done by a major speaker manufacturer,' but when I saw what the manufacturers' attitude was, I said, 'Well, OK, let's talk about it.' So one night in the spring of 1954, after class, we got into my 1938 Buick and went to Woodstock. I explained it to him in the car on the way, which was no problem because Henry worked from fundamental principles of physics. We must have got in sometime after 11. He heard it, and right then and there suggested we use his loft in Cambridge, where he was building cabinets for Baruch-Lang speakers, to make it."

They formed their company right there in Ed's basement. They called it Acoustic Research. Their AR-1, AR-2, and AR-3 speakers changed music. The record companies had improved recording to the point where long-playing records -- albums -- were catching on. But the speakers were the weak link.

Born on May 28, 1917, in Manhattan, Edgar Marion Villchur's father was the editor of a Russian-language newspaper and his mother was a biologist.

By the time Kloss and Villchur went into business, Ed had already applied for a patent for his “acoustic suspension” design. He recalled having difficulty explaining his invention to his patent attorney.

In a 2005 interview with David Lander, Ed said, "The estimate the patent attorney gave me was too high. I said, 'How about if I just come talk to you and you tell me what I need to do to write my own? How much would you charge for that?' He said, '$30 an hour,' and I said, 'I'll take one'."

He then shopped his idea to speaker manufacturers. They were not interested. Ed told Landers, "I made up my mind to ask $10,000 and, if they offered me $5000, to take it. I called somebody I knew at Altec and told him what I had, and he said, 'You know, Ed, we have a pretty good staff of engineers here. If there were something around such as you describe, I think they would have found it'."

Which led to his setting up shop with Kloss. Their partnership lasted barely three years. The company could not survive with two company presidents. Kloss sold his shares to Ed and agreed to pay a royalty for the system. Heath-Kit, too, agreed to the royalty, as did other manufacturers. When the Electro-Voice Company refused to pay, Ed sued for patent infringement in 1962. Electro-Voice countersued saying he had infringed on one of their patents. The judge agreed with Electro-Voice and voided Ed's patent, but Ed decided against appealing.

He cited what happened to Edwin Armstrong, who invented FM radio but wound up filing nearly two dozen patent lawsuits. I wrote about him in "Exceptional Americans 2: The Capitalists." The legal battles and the battles with the FCC took their toll; he was nearly broke financially and emotionally. On January 31, 1954, Armstrong put on his overcoat, scarf, gloves and hat. He removed the air conditioner, opened his window, and leaped to his death, falling 10 floors. His suicide note was two pages long. He was a man obsessed with those legal battles and it killed him.

Yes, his family collected on all 21 suits, but the price paid was not worth it. Ed Villchur decided eight years later to move on and work on other things. His speakers were the best in the business and he had a 32 percent market share. Hee also had just received a patent for his direct-radiator dome tweeter. But he was an artist at heart. Running a business took a toll. He cashed in his chips in 1967, selling the company to Teledyne and signing a non-competitive agreement.

And that was when the fun began. Ed turned his attention to hearing aids. He worked on developing the multichannel compression hearing aid that is now the industry standard. It amplifies soft sounds that are hard to hear while keeping the loud sounds from being too loud.

In 2004, Ed wrote, "To the hearing-impaired listener the fidelity of a hearing aid is not fidelity to the input sound but fidelity to the normal perception of that sound."

But as great as that innovation is -- helping millions to hear any sound at all -- it is his hi-fi speakers that people remember. For its 50th-anniversary issue in 2006, Hi-Fi News listed the “50 Most Important Audio Pioneers.”

Ed Villchur was No. 1.

He died on October 17, 2011, at 94 in Woodstock, New York.


I am publishing the best of these tales, in Kindle and on Amazon. Volume I covering American history from the 16th through the 20th century is here. And Volume II on The Capitalists is available here.

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