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STEM Squared Summit Guest Innovator: Lewis Athanas

Posted by Sara Goodman on Mar 18, 2016

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"Mrs. Condry understood something about how my mind process works. What happened was that she realized I liked to make connections. ... That's what I got from Mrs. Condry. It was really pretty neat. She gave me permission to use my brain and think." -Lewis Athanas

Audio technology innovator Lewis Athanas spoke at the STEM² Summit about his adventures and misadventures throughout his education and how they eventually guided him to pursue a career in audio and noise-cancelling technology.

In this transcript of his talk at the Summit, you'll read about:

  • His precocious early beginnings in elementary school
  • How a few good teachers shaped his passions into his vocation
  • How he almost set his dorm on fire by keeping a scientific experiment under his bed


 

Dr. Priscilla Nelson: Lewis Athanas is a designer of audio equipment, primarily patenting loudspeakers. His fascination in this field is the boundary where electricity turns waveforms and wavefronts in the air around us. His first successful project was an Edison tin-foil-cylinder recorder/player, built at the age of eight in 4th grade.

Mr. Athanas has some 40 mass produced products to his credit and a handful of patents on which several companies have been founded. He has been senior engineer at Boston Acoustics and inventor-in-residence at Arthur D. Little & Company. He is a mostly self-taught engineer and musician. Mr. Athanas claims the self-taught aspects are most evident in his musicianship, which he continues without any encouragement whatsoever.

Lewis Athanas: I do loudspeakers. How does this fit in with what you do? I was a science kid from an early age, and here I am.

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That was me — 3rd grade, 4th grade. I was a science kid. I really liked science. I was also what you call an introvert, quiet. A lot of people who are inventors are introverts in some way. Do a lot of good work by themselves. I was like that. I have a bit of shyness.

First big experience was in the 3rd grade. My teacher, Mrs. Baron, I was mildly mouthing off about planets or something related to science. She said, "Why don't you tell the class?" I was as nervous then as I am now. "Tell the class about the planets." I got up in front of the class, and she walked out the door. She had a cup of coffee; a couple sorries were said. We talked about the planets. I was a science kid.

Also, I don't expect any little violins playing: I was sick a lot; I was home a lot as a kid. Always did very well in school. I read a lot and was sort of left to my own devices, one of which was taking stuff from my parents and putting them back together. My dad's camera that he took this picture with, I took it apart and put it back together. Luckily, got it back together.

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I played around with tape recorders and record players a lot. There's my record player. I had tape recorders, two of them. I had this Webcor and a Wollensak. I found it really cool to use them both at the same time. I would run the tape out of the one, and around the legs of my mother's nicely polished Queen Anne furniture in the living room, back to the other tape recorder. I'd get this delay. It was maybe a minute. I'd have conversations with myself and come back around, talk back and forth. I'd play two tape recorders at the same time. This was long before the Beatles, by the way. I had this creative side where I liked to do plays. I'd write scripts. I liked the technical side of things.

[...] One day — that's the Webcor. We don't have a picture. I'll go back to this one here. I had my record player. My record player had broke. I wanted to listen to this record. This was my first record player.

This is it. It broke. I couldn't hear anything out of it.

You take the mic.

This was my first loudspeaker. You get to either hear Frank Sinatra or The Legend of Billy Jack. Those are our two selections for today. Good choice? This is what I did.

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I had been reading about Thomas Edison's method, the original recording cylinder. I took a funnel and a needle and said, "I can make a speaker out of this." I really wanted to hear this. I did. Is this on? What did you do? Just til it does that. One second. I'm going back to Billy Jack. I like the Billy Jack better.

All right, this is my "A-ha" moment. I finally got a flash, "What's going on with the groove?" That was my pursuit of fidelity. That's my "A-ha" moment.

Francis, that's what he wanted me to focus on, was the "A-ha" moment. That was it! I'm fascinated, because I've seen the record. I look at the grooves, and there it was. It was in my hand that I was getting sound in my hand.

I was home for weeks at a time. I decided I would make this. These are some photographs. No one was around to tell me I couldn't do it. I designed one.

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It was like this. This thing turns. You turn the handle. This thing turns, and it's on a threaded shaft. It moves sideways. It cuts this spiral groove and marks the aluminum foil. I said, "I can do this." There's no reason I should be able to do it, actually, but I thought I could do it. I graphed it and designed it, as far as I could design anything. That's the idea.

There's another example of how it worked. I used a funnel. I needed this threaded shaft.

There is where a local Bostonian professor that made this possible, that I could actually build this and make it. That's him. He's not a science professor. He is an English professor. His name is Harry Kemelman. He wrote mystery novels — Tuesday the Rabbi. He had a hardware store. He was terrible at it. He was awful. He knew nothing about hardware.

This was actually the first interaction of a guy with science and marketing. I'll explain what that is. I said, "I need to buy..." There it is. That's where it used to be. It used to be there.

I said, "I need to get a threaded rod, but it needs to have very coarse thread." He says to me, "What the hell does a kid like you want a threaded rod for? Get a wiffle bat. Wiffle bats are for kids.” He says, "I got one here." I said, "That's almost right. The thread needs to be coarser ‘cause it has to move further." He says, "All right; I got a salesman coming in Wednesday. Come back Wednesday and maybe he has something like that." I'm leaving and he said, "There's nobody buying my kites or anything." I said, "You got the wrong kites." He said, "What do you mean, the wrong kites?" I said, "The paper ones with the triangle things. They crash once and get wet. They get ruined. No kid's going to buy those."

He struck a deal with me. He said he was going to help me get the stuff he needed if I helped him buy the junk for the kids. Kites, gliders, and stuff like that. I would come in there after school and I sat down. He said, "Here's the catalogs. Write down what you need." I needed a handle; the handle was cool. It was a flying wheel operated thing that was really nice and actually came from an apple core. His salesman found the rod I needed and cut it in the right size for me and all the other parts I needed. He was very nice. I went to the catalogs and I had a piece of paper. I'm writing down the numbers. He said, "What are you doing? It's a catalog! Circle the catalog. Don't write it down." So I did that. He also had the catalog for the toys and stuff. I went through both of those. We traded back and forth. I build this thing. It worked. It was great. It really did work.

I went up to my 4th grade class and my teacher. I told her what I was doing. She said, "Cocky but shy; bring it into the class."

The class demonstrated it. They put it on display for a couple weeks in a glass case in front of the cafeteria. What happened was that they said, "It's time to take it down." They had other stuff coming in for spring or whatever. I went down to get it, and I'm walking back to class with it.

I had this experience later on, too. The school bully and his henchmen are wandering around, following. Unfortunately for me, they had taken my Edison phonograph and smashed it to smithereens. They do the same thing to me. I'm not very happy about it.

No problem; I go back to work. I had been working on another project which was a Van de Graaff generator. This is a side story, but it's worthwhile telling.

That is the Van de Graaff. Mine was not this fancy. Mine was aluminum foil [...] I brought it in, and it wasn't as strong. That was generally what happened. You made the spark go and everyone's hair stands on end. The school bully was there, too. I had also brought my Leyden jar, which is really a big capacitor. I had trapped it up pretty damn well. It was too big. It was a big thing like this. I had a brass doorknob on top to get that spark. He said, "Let me try the Van de Graaff." I said, "You can't. It's for kids. You're too big." He was in the fifth grade, shaving. Obviously, a really terrible human being.

I said, "Perhaps you should try the Leyden jar." He was going to reach for the brass doorknob, and it started going slow motion. I'm saying to myself, "Maybe I went too far." Then the image in my head of Benjamin Franklin killing turkeys with the Leyden jar. I said, "No," but it was too late. You heard a loud crack. The room went silent, except for the sound of Bully. He started to cry. It's really bad. That's when I made my second mistake. I said, "Maybe you should try the Van de Graaff."

The rest is kind of a blur. I ended up in the principal's office. Four parents. They are going on how I would never do it again. All the parents — my parents, his parents — left. [...] As a matter of fact, it turned out that a lot of what you're doing is kind of scaring the other kids. I'm the one that got my thing smashed. That was a new school. I went back to the other school.

I don't have a picture of Mrs. Condry but I wish I did. Mrs. Condry understood something about how my mind process works. She was an English teacher, as was the guy who owned the hardware store. What happened was that she realized I liked to make connections. I had a quick mind and would not continue the spelling tests until I made a pun of every word. Really, it got to the point — "Lewis, I'm not continuing. Make the joke." She had me after class, and said, "Look. You have an interesting mind. You make connections." She sort of coached me. She came up with words. She came up with two words and wanted to see how quick my brain could work, and also was interested in what I was doing at home.

All my science stuff was based on slot cars. I had a really sophisticated model-building career outside of school.

I used to race these slot cars against grown men in the middle of the night, at 8 o'clock, at 10 o'clock, smoke in the tower. They get this kid who is going head-to-head with them. Very sophisticated things I did with the guys.

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This is one of the cars. It's called the Chaparral. It was designed by Jim Ford. This thing here is an airflow I had working on my ... Mrs. Condry had me write a journal of what I was doing at home and the explosives I was making, and the aircraft that crashed into neighbors' houses. I wrote about this. She said, "It would be great if you could..."

This guy was cool. Jim was cool. One of the things he did, anything he did sort of became illegal in the world of racing. I think that's great. You're obviously doing something right.

One of the methods on the next car, he actually had a vacuum cleaner — a huge vacuum cleaner that would suck the car out of the track. The guy could get on with the race. That's against the law. You can't do that in car racing anymore.

I made one with this airflow that would flip up and down. She said, "You should talk with him sometime." I thought, "Yeah, it would be great to talk with him." She said, "No; now." I said, "What do you mean, now?" She said, "Come to my office." I went to the office so we could find the guy's phone number up. “He's from Texas. Call him up. If you don't call him up, I'm going to flunk you." I said, "How can you flunk extra credit?" She did. She made me call him up, which I did. I called this guy. I had a half-hour conversation with him in honor of the design. It was great.

That's what I got from Mrs. Condry. It was really pretty neat. She gave me permission to use my brain and think.

Also, laughing at my adult voices. I've been listening to myself on those tape recorders too much. I really felt like it was a Robert Wagner. I learned how to talk. This comes up later. It was an important time. It was a big deal.

What's this? Oh, high school. I went to prep school, and if you read it by the book, I was interested in middle English, early music, the drama club.

How does this fit in with science? One of the things was that my teacher named Mr. Thomas came to visit me in my dorm room which was apparently a nightmare of tape recorders and Slinkies and speakers running around the room. I had told him that I had the perfect set of sound effects. He was the head of the drama club; he was an English teacher, again, who also had a passion for electronics. I said, "I got the perfect sound effect." I showed him what I was doing with my tape recorder, which was really a horrible thing — making them into oscillators, making these two-beat frequencies happening.

We're doing Ionesco's Rhinoceros. We needed an engine-room sound and a rhinoceros sound. I did some tape recording with him. He said, "You can't do that to your tape recorder. It's going to ruin it."

A couple of days later, after English class, he said, "I want to show you something." He bought a bunch of these RadioShack oscillators. He had, like, five of them. He said, "I'm doing what you did. Show me what you were doing." We did recordings together, with this. He told me to come and join him in the drama club as an actor, because I was doing performance. That's one thing he did.

This is a plasma loudspeaker. I made them out of Bunsen burners. I don't know why I got this idea, but I thought it would be pretty cool. Inverted a guitar amplifier. Had a 2,000-volt power supply. I made the Bunsen burners into little speakers. I was told to cut it out.

Mr. Thomas went to the physics room and said, "This is actually pretty interesting. Let me explain why." The English teacher was like my physics advocate. The physics department didn't know very well, actually. I had an argument. This comes up later, too.

Those rubber tanks, you turn the ball and make the ripples in the water? He said, "We're discussing phase." I said, "It's not phase. What you've got is delay." There's a big difference between phase, delay, and polarity. He says, "I've been teaching this for years. I just follow the script here." "But it's not right. You're talking about delay. You have to turn into a certain frequency, or you don't get what you're looking for — for phase." Anyhow, we had this argument. Two weeks ago, with the people in the audience community. You don't have to know what it is. Phase, delay, and polarity. I did not really do well in physics.

What's the next picture here? Oh. When I was on a hill, I was hitchhiking, when you can do that in school.

I ran into this guy named Bruce Gregford. He had a nice sports car. We are talking. He says, "I'm going to Advent." Advent was owned by Henry Khloss. Henry Khloss's companies were KLH Advent, Khloss Video, Cambridge SoundWorks. He says, "I'm going there now, do you want to come?" I said, "That would be awesome. I would love to come." Which he did. He took me there. We went there repeatedly after that. I was invited and I met Henry Khloss. I met Andy. I don't have a picture of him. Andy Kotsatos, who became president of Boston Acoustics, who I worked for years later.

I still see Bruce Gregford. He lives in Marblehead. He's the guy who first taught me how feedback really works. I couldn't get a handle on it. This was a big deal for me, outside of school. These guys let me in, and I would go repeatedly to Advent where they were working on some very sophisticated stuff. It was very nice. It was a great thing. Andy, in particular, who I ended up working for at Boston Acoustics, has no degree, but he was an English major. The audio field seems to be full of them.

I started to use the ability that I had gotten from Ms. Condry calling up the guy in Texas: I would just call famous people. If they took their phone calls, I learned from them.

This is Ray Cooke — owned a company called KEF, worked at BBC. Made very high quality loudspeakers. BBC was influential in really determining what high fidelity was. It was a big deal for me to talk to him on my phone call. We talked about drivers. I took things apart down to the wire level and he was very nice and very helpful.

This is Alex Tremulis, who designed the Tucker, amongst other cars. A very unusual man. He took my phone calls too. [...] Got it from the 50s. Made this unusual car with a rear-matted engine. He did a lot of sophisticated stuff for Ford. He loved to make fun of my car. [...] He said it looked like it was designed by a French pastry chef. He liked to run a kilter for it. I had a good time. Very nice of him to take my phone calls.

Another guy here — this is Peter Walker at a company called Quad, in England. He made electrostatic loudspeakers, which were made really from the late ’50s up until now. I guess they still make Quads in Germany. It's basically a piece of Saran-Wrap that you push and pull; there's no magnets. No nothing. I was very much into that simple plasma speaker.

This was outside school, really. Inside school, I was the middle-English guy. Ran the drama club. Was interested in early music. Also, Mr. Thomas the English teacher, when they found out the company who was going to record the choir didn't show up, he told them, "Lewis has all the tape recorders you need. Have him record; we need somebody professional, so just have them do it." It didn't make me mad, except for the noise floor, which is exactly what Telemann recorded people doing. I ended up working for them for a summer, setting up microphones, recording college classical music groups and stuff. Although I don't like Telemann, it was nice. This is extra credit.

Why are these two people on the screen? That's Larry from the Three Stooges. That's John Lennon, a British musician. After class, come up and ask me if you have an idea why those two people are on the screen.

This was the fire alarm in the dormitory that I burned down almost three weeks before I graduated.

Typically, you burn down a dormitory because you are smoking something either legal or illegal. That would be too simple. I was trying to make some stuff called an electret material, which is a set electricity analogue of magnets, always charged. That involved melting carnauba wax and some methylenes, pouring them into a pan, putting a [inaudible] of 5,000 across them while it melted, and then letting them cool. I used water from a friend of mine and a thermostat. The thermostat was broken, apparently. I was not allowed in the physics lab. A good place for this was under my bed.

I had already finished all my requirements. My last half of the year was doing independent study on modal music, Indian music versus plain chant, Gregorian chant, and middle English. I went around talking middle English and going to plays while everyone else was going to school.

I was doing this, and I nearly burned down the dorm. That's probably the end of my K-12 experience. There were some more.

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[...] I went to work for WBC. This is Bill Eckstine on his little bill. WBC was a big deal. It was really a freeform radio station. It was a more popular station in Boston. They let me run wild in the recording studio, do all kinds of interesting tricks. There's no reason bringing that up, besides it was lots of fun. I'll leave this, in case you forget who I am. Recording studio was on the radio live two, three nights a week, doing very unusual, what I thought was funny.

What happened was, a bunch of guys from Harvard, one of them ran a lab, and I was talking about what I was interested in doing with phase and delay. I was deep in the loudspeakers. It's really different for me to do on the calculator. They talked amongst themselves and said, "Look, we've got this room full of people." The reason I met them was because I had a bunch of vacuum tubes. This was in that building as a display unit. I had some vacuum tubes that we used as switches. The thing wasn't working.

Once a year they'd start up PDP. It was a clattering machine. It was really cool. I helped them start it up. That's how I met them. They let me set up my lab in the basement. I was not anywhere near associated with Harvard University whatsoever, but I had my lab in the basement.

We had a lot of students — grads, post-grads — working the PDP 11s. They were running all night. Everything but the business computers were in this building. They said, "We would really like it if we could work with you in examining what you're looking at in phase and delay and sewing tube speakers together, into crossovers and such." These were kids who had the desire, could program these things and take something in the physical world and turn it into mathematics. They were willing to spend the better part of the night and the small hours of the morning to do this. In other words: guys without girlfriends.

I was there, too. I was very good. This was how I got my start in the audio business.

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This is McKay Library, where they thought I was a grad student and gave me the key to lock up. I walked around with the key in my pocket. I was there. I lived there.

I was a drop-in. People were dropping out of school. I would take classes, I would walk into classes for a week, befriend people I didn't know. No credit whatsoever for it.

That's the PDP 1. That's the PDP 11. They were state-of-the-art at the time. That's it. That's how I got started doing technical stuff.

For me, the interesting thing is the English teacher thing, starting with Harry Kemelman, who wrote... I knew we had a good relationship, by the way, when he hid me when I was there. It was Saturday, and I ate bacon. That's not funny. I was in the back room and he was laughing his head off. I was eight at the time.

The English teacher thing was really interesting. He had no interest in science whatsoever. Mrs. Condry did. Certainly Mr. Thomas did. He got me interested in an awful lot of European electronic music from the 1950s.

I wish they were my science teachers. They probably are now.

Time for questions? The lady says questions. Actually, I'd like to answer. Yes.

Audience member: Can you just talk a little bit more about that? I actually come from the arts and the humanities. What really struck me throughout your story was how interested you were in the arts, and how important those English teachers were in identifying your creative mind to fuel all the work you were doing in science. I wonder if that's something you've explored more of that connection, beyond being grateful to them.

Athanas: Yes. I haven't a clue. It's inside of me. I told you I stayed home a lot. I watched a lot of movies. Watched a lot of TV. Listened to a lot of music. Had a huge collection of 70s, listened to music throughout recorded history. I read the encyclopedia. My father said, "You're actually reading the encyclopedia? I'm supposed to do that."

As far as the arts go, I wanted to perform too. I did perform some comedy in the Boston area. I was uncomfortable, as I am now, in front of you. I was much happier doing voices in front of a microphone and tying things together that way. It is important.

I could never get a handle on math until I had sound and music to hang it out. Really. The quadratic equation — no way to wrap into it. I was working on — I should have been interested in musical instruments, but I went right for the important thing.

I was interested in fuzz boxes. I would take them apart and rebuild them. I had some help from a musician at one of the stores. A guy had let me borrow ...

Well, I had some fuzz boxes and returned them without paying any money for it. An interesting side of the story: He's no longer with us.

There were a couple friends I had that did the same thing. Very much interested in music and filmmaking. Some of them, one of my best friends from high school, went on to produce videos, a lot of rock videos for groups like Red Hot Chili Peppers. He made his own film equipment and slides. He did promos for HBO and NBC. Anybody who watched TV in the ’80s and ’90s, you saw his work, while he was doing his crazy band. Really intense individual. He had a heart condition since he was 12. He was a good friend of mine.

The arts were great. I was very much interested in the connection between the two, especially recording stuff.

Audience member: What were your cold calls like, when you called these famous people saying, "I have a passion in this, can we talk about it?" What did you say?

Athanas: That's what I said: "I have to ask you a question. Thanks for taking the call, Peter Walker. What do you do about the polarity issue? The polar response? How the sound spreads around the room?" I said, “By the way, your dealer in Boston told me I didn't want to hear the Quads.” Actually, Mr. Thomas said, "Go down to Minute Man Radio in Harvard Square and listen to these Quad speakers; you'll really like them." I said, "I like pop music."

Right along, Gregorian chant and the Beatles' Revolver and some really well-recorded stuff — Joe Boyd which is in productions. Listen to them. He knew all the things I listened to. I said, "Sounded great on voices. I'm in love with speakers." That's how I got on with him. You probably ought to tell your salespeople that the guys in Cambridge, Mass., there's a speaker for everybody and not just for small groups. That's one of the things. [...] I sounded much older than I was. Any other questions?

Audience member: In your vision, what do you think should be happening in schools — assimilating kids to appreciating and going further into science?

Athanas: Noticing when somebody has... One of my kids, one of my two son's friends, was considered special-class material. I noticed when he was at the hose playing, he was always waving his hands in front of lights, looking at shadows and stuff like that. People are just looking at his hand. I was looking at the wall. He became a really good photographer.

What goes on in your head, between the ears, noticing what's going on with somebody is really important, not to mold them and tell them what to do. Anyhow, I helped this kid play around with cameras and projectors. He was fascinated. He's a photographer now — 32.

I think the trick is, try to see what they are good at. I never thought history, science. History to me blended over into the history science. It blended over into the history of music. It's interesting how old I could trace the music back. For me, that's something. Not everybody goes in the same rate up and down. There are various things one learns. Thanks for listening.

 


Images courtsey of the speaker.

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Topics: STEM, STEM Squared Summit

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