AR—A Unique Company

My father, Edgar Villchur, obtained a patent on his invention, the acoustic suspension loudspeaker, in December 1954. When he was teaching at NYU after the war, one of his students was Henry Kloss, who had a business in Cambridge, Massachusetts, building wooden cabinets for loudspeakers. Villchur persuaded several friends to invest a few thousand dollars in his idea, and, in partnership with Kloss, started manufacturing speakers based on the newly patented principle.

They called the new company Acoustic Research, Inc.—AR. It was convenient to house the firm in Cambridge, where Kloss already had a going concern and business contacts. But it was also something Villchur wanted—distance from his residence, and a clear separation of his business life from his family life and the community of Woodstock.

The first home of Acoustic Research, Inc., at 24 Thorndike Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The offices were on the first floor. The second and third floors housed the manufacturing operation, and the machine shop and testing area were on the top floor.

The factory building today.

Every Sunday afternoon, Edgar’s wife, Rosemary, and their daughter (yours truly) would drive north, from Woodstock to Albany, a trip of about an hour and a half. Edgar would board a plane to Boston. The flight between Boston and Albany took fifty-five minutes. So when we picked him up on Friday, we had to leave Woodstock before he even boarded his flight in Boston.

Albany airport is the oldest municipal airport in the US, with planes first landing there in 1908. It moved several times, had four major expansions—in 1962, 1968, 1979, and 1998—and is now the Albany International Airport, with service by major airlines and jumbo jets. In the mid 1950s, the terminal consisted of a small, square building with a ticket desk and a few vending machines.

Edgar Villchur was a reluctant businessman. His plan had been to sell the patent to a large manufacturer, but none of what he called “the big boys” were interested in it. He did have faith in his invention, and he knew that it was destined to be the future of loudspeakers. Henry Kloss agreed. They became partners, along with two business-oriented friends of Kloss’s. Their partnership lasted three years, at which point irreconcilable differences convinced Villchur to buy out Kloss and his friends, and to hire four of his own friends as executives. Kloss went on to found KLH speakers, which licensed the acoustic suspension design from AR and became a successful business. Although the old friends with whom Villchur chose to work did not have as much business experience, they all got along well, and they were all very smart. Two of the four had PhDs; three of them, like Villchur, were teachers; and one, Abe Hoffman, who became vice-president and treasurer, was a CPA.

As a young man, Villchur had been active in political causes, including the fight for workers’ rights. So when he had to opportunity to start a company, he decided to make it worker-friendly. The employee handbook, which he wrote, reads like a wish list for those who organized for fair employment practices.

Perhaps the most innovative business practice Villchur instituted was a policy of complete nondiscrimination. In the employee handbook, this single paragraph, buried near the back of the book under the rubric “Employee Practices Required by Law” sums it up: “NONDISCRIMINATION IN HIRING AND PROMOTION,” and, under that, “AR policy (and Massachusetts law) does not allow job discrimination because of race, religion, sex, or age.” It may have been the law, but nondiscrimination was not the practice in Cambridge in the 1950s. When AR advertised the first job openings and began doing interviews, word quickly spread that this company was hiring on the basis of merit, not on the basis of race.

The result was that a great number of African-Americans applied for jobs at AR, and those doing the hiring were able to choose from a large population of highly intelligent and skilled workers whose abilities had been overlooked, ignored, or dismissed by other companies because of their race. Black employees were well represented among AR’s assembly-line workers, packers, office staff, and managers. Villchur used to talk about this with amazement: How could it be, he wondered, that he was the only one to figure out that hiring without racial prejudice resulted in hiring the best workers—what he called “the cream of the crop?”

He also made a point of paying more than the standard wage. A system was instituted for monitoring local wages, to ensure that AR always stayed roughly ten percent above what other companies in the area were paying.

Another major innovation that Villchur introduced was profit sharing, which he called a “wage dividend.” In those days, before Senator Bernie Sanders made it acceptable to label oneself a socialist, the idea of giving employees a stake in the company’s profits was unheard of, and executives of competing companies thought he was crazy. But if my father was going to be a corporate businessman, he intended to do it his way. In the employee handbook, written by Villchur himself, he explains the program:

“A portion of the company’s profit is distributed among AR employees twice a year. The ‘wage dividend’ is paid as a percentage of the employee’s earnings, including overtime, in the prior six-month period.

“Since each wage dividend depends on company profit, the amount, if any, cannot be predicted. AR’s history is that a wage dividend has been paid for every six-month period since 1957 [this edition of the handbook was written around 1963]; the lowest annual dividend amounted to an extra two weeks’ pay for the year, and the highest was equal to an extra five weeks’ pay, over and above vacation pay.

“For every AR speaker or turntable shipped, a certain amount of money may be thought of as going into the profit-sharing ‘kitty.’ In past years this amount has averaged about a dollar for each product shipped.

“For every AR speaker or turntable returned for repair under guarantee, much more than this amount is lost from the profit-sharing kitty, since the cost to AR of such a return is far higher than the original profit.”

George “Benny” Benedetti, Assistant Plant Manager, inspecting an AR-2 loudspeaker on the production line in 1957. AR’s rigorous testing was aimed at preventing costly returns of merchandise. Photo is from the AR company newsletter.

It should be noted that AR’s return and repair policy was very generous. At the company’s beginning, each product sold came with a a one-year warranty; this was later changed to five years. Shipping, both to and from the factory, was paid by the company, and AR repaired its products no matter how they were damaged.

In an interview in Stereophile magazine in 2005, Villchur described several of the employee benefits at the AR factory. “And we had profit sharing,” he added, “which is meaningful only when wages are up to scale or better. We had twice-yearly meetings at which I’d announce what the profit sharing was. The highest figure was twenty-one percent of earnings for half a year. That was for the ordinary Joe; foremen and top management got more. While it’s what I believed in, it really is very good business, because the employees know that the better the quality of their work, the more their bonuses will be. We also made it clear to them that when something comes back because it fails, it takes far more out of the profit-sharing kitty than it ever contributed. Profit sharing stimulated efficient but careful work.”

AR speakers were rigorously tested before shipment to ensure the highest quality. This “reverberant” testing chamber was custom-designed so that no wall was parallel to any other wall. If the speaker were tested in a rectangular box, the frequencies corresponding to the height, width, and depth of the box would be overly emphasized. This non-parallel chamber displayed the speaker’s total combined sound output measured from all directions.

Other employee benefits included major medical insurance for employees and discounted health insurance for their families; life insurance; disability insurance; sick pay; pregnancy separation pay (one week’s pay for each year of employment); two weeks’ vacation; pay for jury duty and military service; nine holidays each year; a twenty-five dollar savings bond (two hundred dollars in 2017 money) as a gift upon marriage or having a baby; three days paid leave for bereavement after the death of an immediate family member; and a discount of forty percent for employees buying AR products for their own use. These policies are generous even by today’s standards. In the mid 1950s, at a small manufacturing firm, they were unheard of.

The hi-fi business is seasonal, slowing down considerably during the summer. Villchur made it a priority to keep his workers employed year-round, so the summers were used as a time to build inventory for the busier winter months. During one particularly slow summer, some workers were given alternate jobs renovating the offices and painting the plant. The factory closed for two weeks in the summer, when employees were expected to take their paid vacation. Office workers continued to work during that time, and each office employee scheduled a vacation at the convenience of the worker and the company. Villchur was proud of the fact that AR had laid off only a few staff members, only one time, and that he was able to rehire those same employees later in the year.

Inside the AR factory around 1957. The company maintained a strict policy of nondiscrimination based on race, religion, sex, or age.

In the mid-sixties, Harvard Business School published a three-volume, thousand-page textbook presenting several dozen case studies of actual businesses. Representatives of the school asked for, and received, permission to study the operation of AR, and researchers followed the workings of the company for six months. The summaries in the book ranged from twenty-five to over one hundred pages; Acoustic Research’s entry in the text occupied eighty-eight pages.

Villchur decided that Harvard would have full access to all company information, that the company would have no secrets, and that (unlike several other firms Harvard studied) no pseudonyms would be used. AR was named as the subject of the study, as were the actual executives.

At a meeting to introduce the Harvard study team, Villchur made an announcement to the assembled staff: “Before we get started here, let me introduce our guest. He’s from Harvard, and is not merely a student but is a research associate. And for some reason, he has taken an interest in us. Well, I just want to let you know that he represents Harvard and not us. Anything you want to say to him is all right with us. Go ahead. He’ll keep it to himself. If you want to call the president a “son of a B—,” that’s up to you, and it won’t come back to us [Much protest and laughter].”

AR’s Vice-President, Abe Hoffman (l.) and Edgar Villchur, at the Acoustic Research plant in Cambridge, circa 1958. This photo was posed—the factory atmosphere was very informal, and executives rarely wore suits to work. It is also unlikely that Edgar ever actually used a gavel to call a meeting to order.

The Harvard study of AR begins with a summary of what they call “The Phonograph Industry”—we would today call it “Stereo Systems” or “Home Entertainment.” In describing sound reproduction as high-fidelity—that is, the reproduced sound has a high degree of faithfulness or “fidelity” to the original music—they note that there are two main criteria: physical fidelity, which is measured by comparing the sound wave produced by the original with that of the reproduction, and physiological fidelity, which is measured by the more subjective criteria of what the listener perceives. Within physiological fidelity there are still objectively measurable tests: frequency response, or how wide a spectrum of frequencies is reproduced; flatness of response, or how even the volume of the recorded sound is at different frequencies; and freedom from distortion.

The introduction goes on to describe the divide between companies that made one-piece phonograph sets and those that manufactured components (mostly turntables, amplifiers, receivers, and loudspeakers). The former targeted the general public. The latter aimed their marketing at a group that soon became known as “audiophiles.” When stereo became widespread in the late 1950s, component sales increased, since the stereo effect (the quality that makes listeners feel as though an orchestra surrounds them) required a six- to ten-foot separation between the speakers, something that could not be achieved with an all-in-one console.

After describing the basic operations of AR, the Harvard study team concentrated on the policies that made AR different from other audio manufacturers. Villchur set the dealer discount at thirty-five percent, which was low for the industry. Unlike practically every other speaker manufacturer, AR did not solicit new dealers, did not offer quantity discounts, did not pay “push money” to get dealers to promote their products, and did not fix prices—dealers were allowed to sell at any price they wished. If they reduced the prices to the consumers, they would make less profit per unit but sell more units. Many dealers disliked these policies, but Villchur felt strongly that they were good for business because they were consumer-oriented. The Harvard investigators wrote, “AR’s marketing program was based on management’s belief that a superior product—once it became known—would sell on its own merits. Management believed that high quality at low prices would create its own market. Mr. A. J. Hoffman, vice president and treasurer, summarized the AR’s overall marketing approach as follows: ‘We depend upon the customer to beat the dealer’s door down and insist on AR. We just open the mail in the morning and count the orders.’”

Acoustic Research, Inc., thrived despite what industry leaders said were overly strict dealer policies and what most business pundits thought were unnecessarily generous job benefits.

Some other AR job benefits must be mentioned. AR gave everyone two ten-minute breaks a day, in addition to lunch. Coffee was available at no charge, and fresh-baked doughnuts were delivered from a local bakery for both breaks and lunch. Soup was available free at lunch. On payday, an extra ten minutes was provided before lunch so employees could cash their paychecks.

It should come as no surprise that the employees at AR were not only efficient and careful, but also extremely loyal to the company. Villchur often spoke of his workers with respect and affection. But he was never able to understand one particular quirk in the way employees felt about working at AR. The good wages, the excellent benefits, and the absolutely unique profit-sharing program—these were not the advantages AR’s employees valued the highest. Most of them, when asked about working at AR, said the same thing: what they liked best about working at AR was the free, fresh doughnuts delivered every day.

© 2017, Miriam Villchur Berg


The illustrations used in this blog post are from the actual AR Inc. employee handbook, circa. 1963. To read the entire pamphlet, click here.

The Harvard study can be found on pages 431–519 of Business Policy: Text and Cases, by Edmund P. Learned, C. Roland Christensen, Kenneth R. Andrews, and William D. Guth. Published by Richard D. Irwin, Inc., 1965.

My sincere thanks to Tom Tyson for supplying many of the photographs used in this article.

Mark Efimovitch Villchur, Part 2

In the early part of the twentieth century, Edgar Villchur’s father, Mark Efimovitch Villchur, was working as the City Editor of the Russkoye Slovo, the largest of the three Russian-language daily newspapers in New York City. He had two major letters to the editor (we would call them Op-Eds today) published in the New York Times. His beloved wife, Mariam Vinograd Villchur, was a biochemist at the Rockefeller Institute, and had four scientific articles published in chemistry journals. The family was living in Manhattan, and life was good.

Tragedy struck the family when Mariam died at the age of thirty-four in the worldwide flu epidemic that followed World War I. Mark was able to continue to work full-time because of child care help from relatives in New York and Connecticut.

Silhouette of Mark Villchur. Silhouettes like this were popular, from the mid-nineteenth century on, as less expensive alternatives to miniature painted portraits. Although they were made mostly obsolete by photography, they continued to be a sentimental favorite among many American and European families.

In 1922, Mark took a job as the manager of the Russian language bureau at the Foreign Language Information Service. The FLIS was initiated in 1918 by the US Committee on Public Information, a campaign by the federal government to convince Americans to support the country’s entry into World War I. The organization was given the auxiliary task of explaining American life and institutions to immigrants in their own languages. For more than two decades after its founding, FLIS sent weekly educational articles in nineteen languages to nine hundred foreign-language publications in the United States. It assisted hundreds of thousands in the process of becoming citizens, and helped immigrants learn about American industries, farming, and other career paths. In one informational pamphlet, the work of the FLIS is described: “It has served as a national ‘information desk’ for newcomers in every state, helping to solve the difficulties faced in a strange country, to unite families, to encourage naturalization…. It has opposed unjust anti-alien bills and urged legislation to facilitate citizenship and fair play…. It has fostered interest in the folk arts, and encouraged the foreign born to preserve and contribute the best of their native culture to American life.”

The cover of The Bulletin, a publication of the Foreign Language Information Service. The organization’s motto is “To interpret the Immigrant to America and America to the Immigrant.”

Although the US Committee on Public Information was disbanded after World War I, the FLIS continued its work, and in 1940 changed its name to the Common Council for American Unity. The enormous waves of immigration were over, but first- and second-generation immigrants still faced problems of assimilation, discrimination, and loss of their ethnic identities. The CCAU broadened its mission to helping to create unity, mutual understanding, appreciation, and acceptance for the various communities of foreign-born Americans.

The masthead of The Bulletin, showing Mark Villchur as the manager of the Russian Foreign Language Bureau.

Read Lewis, the director of the FLIS (and Mark Villchur’s boss), is perhaps best known for his 1939 book How to Become a Citizen of the United States. He became the Director of the CCAU, and went on to publish its magazine, Common Ground. Contributors to this legendary literary quarterly included Archibald MacLeish, William Saroyan, Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Alan Lomax, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.

It should be noted that the artist Yasuo Kuniyoshi, the first living artist chosen to have a retrospective exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, lived for many years in Woodstock, New York, and taught at the Art Students’ League there. He died in 1953 at the age of sixty-three, so Edgar, who got to Woodstock in 1952, never met him, but Kuniyoshi’s widow, Sara Mazo Kuniyoshi, was a member of the Woodstock artist community for many years after that, and was a friend of my parents, Edgar and Rosemary Villchur.

Read Lewis gathered some of the great progressive minds of the era to be part of the Common Council for American Unity. The Board of Directors included several “muckraking” journalists: Ida Tarbell, author of The History of the Standard Oil Company; William Henry Irwin, whose most famous articles covered the San Francisco earthquake and anti-Japanese racism; and Mary Phillips Riis, social reformer and the widow of Jacob Riis (photographer and author of How the Other Half Lives. Also on the board were the US Commissioner of Immigration and Naturalization, James Houghteling; Slovenian author, advocate for ethnic diversity, and Common Ground’s first editor Louis Adamic; child-labor activist Josephine Roche; journalist, reformer, and Manhattan Borough President (1910-1913) George McAneny; and future U.S. senator Alan Cranston, who both wrote for and later edited Common Ground.

The Advisory Board was chaired by John Palmer Gavit, a famed journalist and the author of the first style guide for newspaper reporters. Other members of the board included suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters; Norman Thomas, pacifist and presidential candidate (on the Socialist party ticket); Julia Lathrop, advocate for child welfare and Commissioner of the United States Children’s Bureau (1912-1921); and Dr. James T. Shotwell,, a member of President Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy advisory group.

James Shotwell was a professor of history at Columbia University and a renowned scholar. He contributed two hundred fifty articles to the Encyclopedia Britannica. President Woodrow Wilson appointed him official historian of the United States delegation to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, for which he wrote the provisions establishing the International Labor Organization (ILO). He promoted a policy of internationalism, first with the League of Nations and later, when the League foundered, with the United Nations. He is considered one of the main parties (along with Eleanor Roosevelt) responsible for the inclusion of the Declaration of Human Rights in the UN Charter. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952.

It is almost certain that Mark Villchur, an executive staff member of the CCAU, would have met and conversed with Dr. Shotwell, a member of the group’s advisory board.

In 1911, Dr. Shotwell purchased land on Overlook Mountain in Woodstock, and built a house in the Craftsman style for himself and his family. Decades later, Mark Villchur’s son Edgar would buy that same house from the Shotwell family and live there for more than fifty years.
I had never heard the story of this connection, and assumed that my father had never learned of it. As I was writing this blog post, however, I came upon a folder labeled “Read Lewis” among my father’s files. Inside was a letter from a colleague of Lewis’s, advising friends and family of his death, and a letter my father had written in response. Edgar Villchur wrote: “My father worked for the old Foreign Language Information Service, first as head of the Russian Bureau. I knew Mr. Lewis in the late twenties, when as a child I visited the office. About fifteen years ago [the letter is dated April 6, 1984] I received a phone call from Read Lewis. The bus had dropped him off at Woodstock for one of his hikes. He refused my offer to pick him up with my car, and when I started to give him walking directions he said ‘I know your house well—I used to visit the Shotwells there in 1914.’ We spent a very pleasant afternoon at my house.”

I was delighted to learn that my father did indeed know of the connection and of the amazing coincidence that he had purchased the home of Dr. Shotwell, who worked alongside his own father on the important issues of helping immigrants and fostering international cooperation.

Mark’s beloved wife Mariam, a biochemist at the Rockefeller Institute (see earlier blog posts), had died in January 1920, a victim of the worldwide flu epidemic. Their young son, Edgar, was just two and a half years old. Mark had help with child care from relatives in New York City, but a year later, he decided that Edgar would be better off living with his aunt, uncle, and cousins on the farm in Lebanon, Connecticut, that he had bought in 1919 with his brother-in-law Moisie Vinograd. Mark commuted by train, spending weekends with his son at the farm and continuing to work as a writer and editor in New York City during the week. Life on the farm will be the subject of an upcoming blog post.

Mark Villchur with his second wife, Tatiana Pavlovna, at the farm in Connecticut

Sometime after 1930, when Edgar was a young teenager, Mark Villchur remarried. Tatiana Pavlovna—the “ovna” is the feminine form of the Russian patronymic, meaning her father’s name was Pavel or Pol—was a dentist in her native country, but did not pursue her career after she emigrated. By the time of their marriage, Mark and Edgar had moved back to New York City, but the family continued to spend weekends and vacations at the farm.

The 1930 census shows Mark and Edgar living in the Bronx along with Mark’s niece Fannye, age twenty-eight, a teacher in public schools, and her sister Celia, age twenty-three, a librarian in the public library. Ten years later, the census shows Mark, Tatiana, and Edgar living in Manhattan, at 168 West 143rd Street. Tania, as she was known, was a loving stepmother to Edgar through his teen years and young adulthood. She worked at the Common Council for American Unity alongside her husband.

Mark, Tatiana, and Edgar Villchur pose for a photograph on the occasion of becoming a new family

That census was taken on April 1, 1940. Two months later, Mark Efimovitch Villchur died of a heart attack at the young age of fifty-six. My grandmother Tatiana (Tania) preserved all the many telegrams, notes, and letters of condolence, as well as several articles and obituaries in English, Russian, and Ukrainian. Mark was remembered as a kind-hearted, generous soul who helped those in need. One obituary says in Russian, “He was very popular and famous among Russian immigrants. For the last fifteen years he was the head of the Russian Bureau of the Foreign Language Service Newspaper. He helped many immigrants become citizens.” The wife of the engineer on the SS Normandy wrote, also in Russian: “He was a good person, I visited their home, and he was very hospitable. He helped me become a citizen and I am grateful for that. I keep his memory in my heart.” There were numerous expressions of shock and sadness from friends and colleagues at the Foreign Language Information Service. Several of Tatiana’s relatives wrote from California asking her to move out to the West Coast to live with them, which, in fact, she did. Edgar, then twenty-three years old and employed as a commercial artist, decided to remain in New York.

Although she lived across the country from her stepson and his family, Tania Villchur kept in touch through hand-written letters. I visited her several times at her home in Los Angeles. My father supported her throughout her life, and would see her whenever he went to audio shows in California with his company, Acoustic Research. She died in 1982.

Edgar Villchur with his stepmother, Tatiana Pavlovna Villchur, during a Los Angeles Audio Show in the 1950s.

My father had no memories of his mother, although he kept all her papers and many photographs. He remembered his father as an accomplished writer and a dedicated advocate for the rights of immigrants and minorities. When he spoke of his father, Edgar often mentioned how grateful he was to be an American. He had escaped the anti-Semitic repression of tsarist Russia, and had survived the deadly pogroms. His adopted country gave immigrants from around the world the opportunity to become citizens, the right to vote, and the ability to retain the traditions of their native lands even as they were becoming part of the American fabric.

But of all the freedoms he had been given, Mark Efimovitch Villchur told his son that the most amazing one was the freedom to travel around without having to tell anyone where you were going, and without fear of being stopped and asked for papers. Mark told Edgar that he must always treasure this freedom, and must always work to ensure that America remains a place where people had the right to move freely from place to place.

Mark Efimovitch Villchur, Part 1

Mark E Villchur -silhouetteAs I mentioned in an earlier post, Edgar Villchur’s grandfather, Eliezer, changed his name at the turn of the twentieth century and was officially adopted by a non-Jewish family, the Vinograds, so that he could attend secondary school in Russia. But even with a Gentile surname, a Jewish family was not safe under the regime of Tsar Nicholas II. Russia at the time was a dangerous place for all Jews. Anti-Semitic laws made life difficult, but the greatest danger came from the pogroms—violent attacks on Jewish settlements. These were riots perpetrated mostly by mobs of working-class Russians, but they were stirred up by official anti-Semitic propaganda and condoned by local and national authorities.

There had been waves of such violence throughout the nineteenth century. There was anti-Jewish rioting in 1859 in Odessa, and in 1881, riots in Kiev and other cities were triggered by the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, which was falsely blamed on a Jew.

Anti-Semitic violence in imperial Russia escalated in the early years of the twentieth century. In 1903, in the town of Kishinev, near Odessa, forty-five Jewish men, women, and children were murdered, and hundreds of homes and shops were plundered. The New York Times described the Kishinev pogrom: “There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Orthodox Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, ‘Kill the Jews,’ was taken up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded.”

Jews started banding together in for self-defense. Members of my family told me that Edgar’s father, Mark Efimovitch Villchur, and grandfather, Eliezer Vinograd, were part of such a group. They stayed up nights in their hometown of Ekaterinoslav, standing guard and listening for the sound of horses’ hooves. They fashioned spears from broom handles, and when the pogromchiks attacked, they fought for their lives. The 1905 pogrom in Ekaterinoslav lasted three days. The uncounted dead included many children. A firsthand account and photographs can be found here. It became publicly known that the editor of the local newspaper had been given funds by the government to stir up anti-Semitic sentiment.

Bund Committee
A Jewish Defense Group in Gombin, Poland, meeting to discuss plans to defend the town against a pogrom. The Yiddish below the picture reads: The Bund Committee. Right to Left: Ezekial Hodes, Bluma Liederstein, Shmuel Bernstein, Henich Goldschmidt, Sara Golda Frankel, Yitzak Moshe Chai, Shlomo Adler. [From the memoirs of Jacob M. Rothbart]

My family survived the pogroms, but it was becoming obvious that life in Russia was dangerous, and that greater opportunity, with fewer restrictions, could be found in the United States. Eliezer Vinograd and four of his six children emigrated to the United States in the early twentieth century. Overall, more than three million Eastern European Jews came to America between 1880 and 1924, nearly half of those in the first fourteen years of the twentieth century.

Between 1890 and 1900, New York City’s population more than doubled, to almost three and a half million people. In the first decade of the twentieth century, immigrants from many European nations, driven by economic and political hardships at home, swelled the city’s population by another thirty-eight percent, to nearly five million. The largest group of immigrants was German, and there were large numbers of refugees from Ireland, Russia, and Italy.

In 1900, there were 1.2 million foreign-born residents of New York City, of which 182,000 were Russian. Ten years later, the foreign-born residents numbered 1.9 million; 484,000 of these were Russian. By 1920, there were over two million foreign-born New Yorkers, of whom 543,000 were Russian. Since Russia was an empire at the time, those who listed their nation of origin as “Russia” could be from Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, or any of several other nations annexed by the Tsar.

Edgar Villchur’s father, Mark Efimovitch Villchur, emigrated in 1911, settling in New York City. Mark and his fiancée, Mariam Vinograd, were already a couple when he left Russia. As I said in a previous post, Mariam decided to delay her travel to New York in order to go to Germany to finish her education. Mark got a job at the Russkoye Slovo (“Russian Word”), the largest of three Russian-language newspapers in New York City.

MVV and MEV engagement
Mark Efimovitch Villchur and his fiancée, Mariam Vinograd, getting ready to travel from Russia to the United States in the early twentieth century.

By the time Mark Villchur arrived in New York, he already spoke and wrote fluent English. In 1915, The New York Times published a letter to the editor written by him, defending those who opposed the Russian Tsar. (This was a long article, what we would today call an Op-Ed piece). His letter is titled “Russia of the Radicals,” and he is listed as the City Editor of Russkoye Slovo.

Mark wrote that dissatisfaction with the Tsar’s government dated back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. The revolutionary movement, however, was put on hold with the Great War (i.e., World War I), and all of Russia banded together and supported the army during that struggle. Villchur said he supported the war effort, and would not speak out if reactionary spokesmen were not misrepresenting the Russian revolutionary movement. From the start, he says, thinking men realized that the Tsar’s government “followed unswervingly the policy of preventing Russia from falling into the line of civilized nations, cruelly suppressing every attempt to spread civilization in the vast country of profound ignorance.”

He went on to say: “There is indeed a ‘great Russian democracy,’ but the Tsar is its worst enemy, and surely not its defender. It is this democracy that is fighting for political liberties, for local self-government, for a modern and accessible system of justice, for railroads, for schools; it is the Tsar’s government that is trying to prevent Western civilization from permeating Holy Russia.”

Villchur defended Russia against the accusation that it is a “barbaric country,” saying that he did not believe that Americans felt that way. He reminded readers of the literary contributions of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev, the music of Tchaikovsky and Glinka, and the scientific contributions of Élie Metchnikoff (who won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on the immune system) and Dmitri Mendeleev (who formulated the periodic table of the elements).

Mark E Villchur
Mark Villchur worked for the largest Russian-language newspaper in New York City, Russkoye Slovo.
As part of his job at Russkoye Slovo, Mark Villchur conducted a survey of its readers, publishing a questionnaire in the newspaper and asking how their reading habits in New York differed from those in their native Russia. Out of three hundred and twelve respondents, only sixteen had regularly read newspapers in Russia. Ten people said they would occasionally read papers in the village administration center, and twelve were subscribers to weekly magazines. In America, all the respondents were subscribers or regular readers of Russian-language newspapers. Villchur said Russian immigrants reported that back in the old country their main use for the newspapers was to roll cigarettes, but that here they actually read them, to learn about events and ideas around the world. They said that English-language papers were too local and did not interest them.

After the end of the Great War, Mark Villchur wrote another long letter that was published in The New York Times (“Bolshevism and Russians Here,” June 11, 1919) In this letter, he defends the Russian population in America against the accusations of Bolshevism (the term was later changed to Communism). He says that some manufacturers have started to lay off Russian workers in order to “cleanse” their businesses of what they consider dangerous Bolshevik influences. Mark points out that Russians are not at all a homogeneous group, but belong to different religions, different classes, and different political persuasions. Russians in America, he says, are much more likely to be literate than their counterparts in their motherland. They are not likely to belong to any organizations. They are patriotic Americans who bought Liberty Bonds to help the United States finance the war, and they participated as soldiers in the war, even those who were not naturalized citizens. He says Russians are hard-working and law-abiding citizens, and he concludes with the opinion that purging them actually serves as propaganda for the Bolsheviks:

“Being ‘laid off’ on account of being a Russian is surely the best kind of anti-American propaganda any Bolshevik would ever desire. It is playing the game of the Bolshevist agitator and it is, at the same time, an act of great injustice to the average Russian in this country. By hard and earnest labor he earned his reputation as the best digger, the best miner, the best weaver, and the giant laborer of America, unafraid of the hardest kind of labor. He is the forerunner of the best that Russia had to offer America in labor, in science, in music, in literature, and every other high calling of men. And he cannot but resent the wholesale accusations now made against him, which are rapidly degenerating into wholesale persecutions.”

Mark Villchur’s son Edgar inherited his father’s talent and inclination for writing letters to the editor. My father took great pride in the number of letters of his that were published by The New York Times (at least twenty-two over the years), and his files also contain letters he wrote that were published by numerous other periodicals. The subjects of these letters, which deserve and will receive their own future blog post, include such wide-ranging topics as religion, the Vietnam War, Albert Einstein, and women’s rights.

The story of Edgar’s father’s life and career will continue in the next blog post.

Edgar Villchur’s mother, Part 2

Mariam Vinograd, Edgar Villchur’s mother, applied for and received an appointment as a research scholar at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research shortly after arriving in New York around 1912. It was an excellent job, with opportunities for original research that could make a difference in the world. And the Institute was well funded, thanks to its founder and benefactor, John D. Rockefeller.

Mariam Vinograd around 1912, shortly after arriving in New York City.
Mariam Vinograd around 1912, shortly after arriving in New York City.

John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) founded Standard Oil (later named Esso—a spelling out of the company’s initials, S.O.—and then Exxon). As the importance of gas and oil grew, so did Rockefeller’s wealth. During his lifetime he was the richest man in the world, and he is considered by many to be the wealthiest American of all time. He was the first person in history to be worth more than a billion dollars (more than twenty-four billion in today’s dollars).

Although Rockefeller was criticized for unscrupulous business practices by muckraking journalists such as Ida Tarbell, many who knew his work have written that his business dealings were humane, especially when compared with his contemporary Andrew Carnegie. Rockefeller was a deeply religious man, and charity was an essential part of his faith. Even as a sixteen-year-old, in his first job as a clerk, he gave six percent of his earnings to charity. He belonged to the Northern Baptist Church, but when he traveled in the south, he often attended services at African-American Southern Baptist churches, and would always leave a substantial donation.

After retiring in 1897, he devoted his life to philanthropy. He founded the University of Chicago and turned a small volunteer-run Baptist seminary into Spelman College (one of the earliest colleges for African-American women). He provided major funding to many other educational facilities. When his grandson died of scarlet fever in 1901, Rockefeller decided to fund a research facility dedicated to curing and eradicating the infectious diseases of the world. He donated hundreds of millions of dollars to establish and operate the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research and its adjunct hospital. In 1965, that organization added graduate education to its purview and became The Rockefeller University. Since its inception, the Rockefeller Institute and University have provided laboratory and study facilities to scientists—twenty-three of them Nobel prize laureates—who have made major advancements to the fields of genetics, infectious disease, public health, and the study of medicine. In its certificate of incorporation, the purpose of the Rockefeller Institute is given as “medical research with special reference to the prevention and treatment of diseases.”

The Institute encouraged women to become scientists. Photographs from the era show several women among the men on the research teams. The report of the Director of Laboratories for January 1915 shows that research was being conducted on polio, dysentery, influenza, mumps, streptococcus, beriberi, and pneumococcus. The volume for the next period adds meningitis, typhoid, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and trypanosomiasis. This last disease, also known as sleeping sickness, killed two-hundred and fifty thousand people in Uganda on the lower Congo River in 1901. Two years later, Scottish physician and microbiologist David Bruce identified the vector for the disease as the tsetse fly. In 1910, Nobel laureate bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich, of gram-staining fame (no relation to Paul R. Ehrlich, who wrote The Population Bomb), developed an effective treatment based on arsenic. Although it cured eighty percent of cases, it had to be abandoned when it was found to cause permanent blindness in many of the patients. As Paracelsus said, the dose makes the poison.

Rockefeller Institute research scientists, about 1914. Mariam Vinograd-Villchur is the woman on the left in the second row.
Rockefeller Institute research scientists, about 1914. Mariam Vinograd-Villchur is the woman on the left in the second row.

Mariam Vinograd was apparently heavily involved in research on arsenic, probably in hopes of finding a way to make it safer as a treatment for various diseases. A research paper by her (which may have been excerpted from her doctoral thesis) was accepted by the Journal of the American Chemical Society (Vinograd, Mariam. “Determination of arsenic in organic matter,” JACS Vol, 1914, xxxvi. 1548, xxii., 372.), and then printed as a monograph by the Rockefeller Institute. She joined the Rockefeller chemistry research team led by Donald D. Van Slyke.

Dr. Donald Van Slyke, the father of clinical chemistry (diagnosis through analysis of blood samples). He was Mariam Vinograd-Villchur’s supervisor, and the lead author of three journal articles to which she contributed.
Dr. Donald Van Slyke, the father of clinical chemistry (diagnosis through analysis of blood samples). He was Mariam Vinograd-Villchur’s supervisor, and the lead author of three journal articles to which she contributed.
Van Slyke made major contributions to biological chemistry, including his early work on identifying amino acids in protein (on which Mariam Vinograd-Villchur assisted) and his later research on the measurement of gas and electrolyte levels in tissues. He is considered to be one of the founders of modern quantitative blood chemistry, and is known as the father of clinical chemistry—the area of clinical pathology that is concerned with analysis of bodily fluids for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes, one of the basic and indispensable tools of modern medicine.

It was common practice for the Rockefeller Institute to send its fellows abroad for additional work, and in 1911 Van Slyke was sent to Berlin to study at the Kaiser Wilhelm Society under Nobel laureate Emil Fischer. I was unable to discover at which German university Mariam studied, but it may well have been in Berlin; it is entirely possible that Van Slyke met Mariam Vinograd in Berlin during that year, and that his familiarity with her work paved the way for her to be hired as a research scholar at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City two years later.

Mariam Vinograd-Villchur at work in the laboratory at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, around 1914.
Mariam Vinograd-Villchur at work in the laboratory at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, around 1914.

In addition to the paper on arsenic for which she is the sole author, Mariam is listed as an additional author on three other scientific journal articles. One of these was the study that disproved the validity of the pregnancy test invented by Emil Abderhalden. She and her research team used the test on three groups: women who were pregnant; women who were known not to be pregnant (because they were too young or too old, or because they had just given birth); and men. In the summary, the scientists conclude, “The individual variations of both pregnant and non-pregnant sera make the results from both overlap so completely as to render the reaction, even with quantitative technique, absolutely indecisive for either positive or negative diagnosis of pregnancy.”

On the Wikipedia page for Emil Abderhalden, it says that he is known for developing a blood test for pregnancy, but that it was determined to be unreliable a few years after its inception. The footnote to that sentence references Donald Van Slyke and Mariam Vinograd-Villchur as authors of the article disproving Abderhalden’s work.

It’s worth noting that Abderhalden went on to become a Nazi sympathizer, and helped purge Jews from the German Academy of Natural Scientists. Although Abderhalden did not participate directly, his work was used by Josef Mengele, the physician in charge of selecting prisoners for medical experimentation, forced labor, and death in the gas chambers at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Mengele was trying to develop a blood test for identifying Aryan and non-Aryan individuals, and (mistakenly) thought that Abderhalden’s research could create such a test.

Mariam Vinograd-Villchur (left) and an unknown fellow scientist at the lab at Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, around 1914.
Mariam Vinograd-Villchur (left) and an unknown fellow scientist at the lab at Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, around 1914.
After three years of biochemical research at the Rockefeller Institute, Mariam Vinograd-Villchur found herself pregnant. In a handwritten letter preserved in the Rockefeller Archives, she says: “It is with a feeling of poignant regret that I am obliged to inform you that the state of my health would scarcely permit me to do full justice to the regular work of the laboratory and would, most probably, prevent me from continuing on the regular staff at least for the time being.” She was approximately four months pregnant at the time. Perhaps she was having a difficult pregnancy, or perhaps she had other health problems. Perhaps she felt it best to stop working, or was pressured into leaving the workplace simply because of her pregnancy. In any case, she asked them to accept her resignation, and the board wrote back and said they accepted it with regret.
Mariam Vinograd-Villchur with a microscope. The title of the slim book hanging under the telephone is “New York City Telephone Directory.”
Mariam Vinograd-Villchur with a microscope. The title of the slim book hanging under the telephone is “New York City Telephone Directory.”

Edgar Marion Villchur was born on May 28, 1917. His mother preserved details of his first year in a satin-bound baby book. We can tell a lot about his mother by reading what she wrote in that baby book. She wanted to preserve every moment, every detail of his early life. Being the scientist she was, she carefully recorded his weight: weekly for the first six months of his life, and monthly after that until he was almost a year and a half old. Mariam’s work in the laboratory had always been in metric units, but she recorded Edgar’s data in the “proper” American way, in pounds and ounces.

Mariam gives tidbits of information that paint a picture of Edgar’s babyhood: his hair was almost white at birth, and then golden brown (in later life, it was dark brown); he liked to go to the park; he was punished for breaking flowers off houseplants at the age of one year, eight months; his dog Grushka almost knocked him down when he took his first step; and he recited his first poem in Russian on his second birthday.

When I read about the poem, I immediately knew which poem she was referring to. Even in his later years, he talked about how he recited that poem when he was two. It’s a nursery rhyme that everyone in Russia knows by heart. It tells the story of a rabbit who goes for a walk and gets shot by a hunter. “Oh no! My rabbit is going to die!” But then the rabbit comes home, and he is alive. The lines Edgar remembered from age two until age ninety-four, and that he would recite with great solemnity, are:

Pif-paf oy oy oy!
Umiraet zaichik moy.

Then he would, with the same solemnity, translate:

Pif-paf oy oy oy! (this “translation” always got a laugh)
My little rabbit is going to die.

Edgar knew a few words in Russian even in his nineties, but his fluency apparently did not survive past his early childhood.

The page in the baby book on which baptisms, christenings, and such are recorded best demonstrates what an independent and free-thinking woman Edgar’s mother was. That page reads, “Religious Ceremonies.” Mariam’s entry reads, “None. We want your religion to be Justice, Truth, Fearlessness, and Righteousness.”

On the page for “Baby’s First Party,” Mariam lists eleven friends and relatives who came to celebrate Edgar’s first birthday. She recounts that he received “gifts of clothing and very fine toys.” Then she adds that Dr. and Mrs. Van Slyke came by to visit the next day. It must have been gratifying to her that her supervisor from the Rockefeller Institute came to pay his respects. It increases my confidence that she knew Dr. Van Slyke in Berlin, that he thought of her as a friend as well as a colleague, and that he helped her obtain the position at Rockefeller. It also means that he was not angry that she had left the laboratory.

Edgar, Mariam, and Mark Villchur in 1918 or 1919. Although it was the custom at that time for people not to smile for photographs, Mariam apparently could not contain the joy she felt with her new family.
Edgar, Mariam, and Mark Villchur in 1918 or 1919. Although it was the custom at that time for people not to smile for photographs, Mariam apparently could not contain the joy she felt with her new family.

Unfortunately, this seemingly idyllic family life did not last long.

The influenza pandemic of 1918 was one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history, killing fifty to one-hundred million people—three to five percent of the world’s population. The flu was deadlier than the Black Death in the fourteenth century, and killed more people in twenty-four weeks than the AIDS epidemic killed in twenty-four years. Unlike many epidemics, its victims were mostly healthy young adults, because it caused overstimulation of their strong immune systems.

One of those victims was Mariam Vinograd-Villchur, Edgar’s mother. Although most of the deaths occurred in the first year of the flu, Edgar’s mother succumbed later, dying on January 31, 1920. She was thirty-four years old, and her son was two years, eight months old.

Ironically, it was a Rockefeller scientist, Richard Shope, who isolated and identified the virus that caused the deadly influenza epidemic. His work was published in 1928, eight years after the death of Edgar’s mother.

Edgar’s father was fortunate to have relatives to help care for his two-year-old son. As you will read in the next blog post, he had bought a one-half interest in a farm in Connecticut along with his wife’s brother Moisie. It was there he decided to move with Edgar, leaving him in the care of his cousins, aunt, and uncle during the week, while his father commuted to New York City to work. But more about that later.

Author’s notes: I am very grateful to the Rockefeller University Archives for their invaluable help in identifying Mariam Vinograd-Villchur’s positions and work projects in that organization.

Scientific articles authored or co-authored by Mariam Vinograd-Villchur

Osborne, T. B., Van Slyke, D. D., Leavenworth, C. S., and Vinograd, M., “Some products of hydrolysis of gliadin, lact-albumin, and the protein of the rice kernel.” The Journal of Biological Chemistry, 1915, Vol. xxii, No. 2, Sept. 1915.

Van Slyke, Donald D., Vinograd-Villchur, Mariam, and J. R. Losee. “The Abderhalden Reaction.” The Journal of Biological Chemistry, 1915, Vol. xxxiii, Nov. 1915.

Van Slyke, D.D., Losee, J.R., and Vinograd-Villchur, M., “Quantitative test of Abderhalden reaction.” Bulletin of the New York Lying-In Hospital, Vol. x, No. 3, April 1916, reprinted from “A Quantitative Application of the Abderhalden Serum Test,” American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Vol. xxiii, No. 2, Feb. 1916.

Vinograd-Villchur, Mariam. “Determination of arsenic in organic matter,” Journal of the American Chemical Society, 1914, Vol. xxxvi, No. 7, July, 1914.)

Edgar Villchur’s Mother, Part 1

Mariam Vinograd
Mariam Vinograd
What must it have been like for an intelligent, educated woman in Russia at the turn of the nineteenth century? Mariam Vinograd, Edgar Villchur’s mother, would have known about other women who obtained doctoral degrees. She would have known that even Jewish women had been able to earn advanced degrees and become scholars and scientists. But she was living in Ekaterinoslav, which is now part of Ukraine and is called Dnepropetrovsk. At that time, it was part of the Russian Empire, and Tsar Nicholas I had imposed harsh restrictions on all Jews, including strict quotas on the percentage of university slots that were open to Jews.

Mariam’s brother Moisie, his wife Rachaeleah, and their three children had emigrated and were living in New York City. Her fiancé, Mark Efimovitch Villchur, had left for New York around 1911. But Mariam decided to postpone her emigration, and applied to school in Germany. She had to leave her sister Lisa and her brother Robert behind in Russia. She posed for pictures with friends and relatives, including her sister, before leaving the country.

Mariam Vinograd 1911
Mariam Vinograd with unknown friends or relatives, about 1911. The notation on the edge has the name of the photographic studio and the city, Ekaterinoslav.

I was surprised to learn that Germany was more open to educating women and Jews than Russia was at the turn of the twentieth century. Although anti-Semitic sentiments and activities can be found in all periods of German history, the last half of the nineteenth century saw a lessening of such policies. Jews were “emancipated” (that is, given nearly full rights as citizens and no longer forced to live in restricted areas) under the unification of Germany in 1871. Efforts by anti-Semitic groups to rescind Jewish emancipation did not receive a majority of votes in the new German parliament. By 1910, the Jewish population in Germany numbered over 500,000. Jews from neighboring countries took advantage of this newfound freedom—nearly 80,000 came into Germany from Russia.

Mariam and Lisa Vinograd
Mariam (right) had to leave her younger sister Lisa behind in Russia when she traveled to Germany to complete her doctorate. The book in her lap symbolizes the educational journey upon which she was embarking.
Mariam was accepted into a scientific doctoral program at a university in Germany. I wrote to the archives of four schools known to have admitted women as students in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—the Universities of Berlin, Heidelberg, Freiburg, and Breslau (now Wroklaw, in Poland)—but none of them had a record of her. Although I have been unable so far to discover which school she attended, I will continue my research, and will provide an update if I discover where she studied. Like many women scientists, she chose chemistry, specifically the field that we now call biochemistry.

After Mariam completed her doctoral degree, she crossed the ocean and joined her fiancé, Mark Efimovitch Villchur, in New York. Mark had landed a great job, working as the city editor of the largest Russian-language daily newspaper in New York City (more on him in upcoming blog posts). Mariam applied for and received an appointment to the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York City. Her letter of appointment, a printed form letter with the particulars filled in by hand, shows the salutation “Sir”—this has been carefully crossed out and replaced with the handwritten “Madam” above it. Although she was not the only female scientist at the Institute, the forms had not caught up with that fact. The letter of appointment is dated June 14, 1913:

MVV appointment letter
Mariam Vinograd’s 1913 letter of appointment as a Research Scholar in Chemistry at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.

In the late nineteenth century, women from numerous countries were making major accomplishments in the field of chemistry. Louise Hammarström and Anna Sundström were working in Sweden. In Russia, Anna Volkova, Nadezhda Olimpievna Ziber-Shumova, Julia Lermontova, and Vera Popova were doing important work. (It’s worth noting that none of these Russian women were Jewish). Agnes Pockels was working in Germany, and in the United States Ellen Swallow Richards and Mary Engle Pennington were making contributions to the field.

Most of these women are footnotes to history, remembered for being the first of their gender to receive post-graduate degrees or other distinctions, but some also have interesting stories or specific accomplishments. Agnes Pockels learned science from her brother’s textbooks, and invented a method of measuring surface tension using a device now known as the Pockels trough. The brilliant but unlucky Vera Popova married a Russian general on the condition that he build her a laboratory. She died in an explosion in that lab, trying to synthesize hydrogen cyanide.

Ellen Swallow Richards
Environmental chemist Ellen Swallow Richards (pictured here with knitting in her lap and a cat on her shoulder) received her BA in chemistry as a member of Vassar College’s first graduating class in 1870. Her later work on testing fabrics for arsenic may have influenced Mariam Vinograd, who published a scientific journal article on measuring arsenic in organic materials.
Ellen Swallow Richards, an American environmental chemist who has been called the mother of home economics, applied chemistry to household management. Among other contributions, she measured the toxicity of water supplies, and advocated a change from coal to oil or gas in heating and cooking in order to improve air quality. She wrote that her scientific writings were perhaps more acceptable to the establishment because she was not a “radical” (i.e., a suffragist), and because she was working to help women do their work in the home more efficiently and safely. She was in the first graduating class of Vassar College in 1870, and although MIT would not let her into its doctoral program, she managed to work, study, and eventually teach at that institution. Later in her career, she started a private practice in sanitary chemistry, testing water, air, and food, and testing wallpapers and fabrics for arsenic. Many historians feel that her work presaged what we now call the ecological movement.

Mariam Vinograd also did investigative work on arsenic. Her first published scientific article, “Determination of Arsenic in Organic Matter,” was published by the Journal of the American Chemical Society (Vol. XXXVI, No. 7, July 1914) and reprinted as a monograph by the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. Since this work came so shortly after her appointment to the Institute, we can speculate that it was gleaned from her recently completed doctoral thesis. The study deals with methods of discerning the amount of arsenic in organic substances, and includes a systematic review of known methods along with detailed instructions for the most accurate methods using state-of-the-art laboratory equipment. One cannot help but wonder whether Mariam studied the work done by Ellen Swallow Richards on testing for arsenic.

Although we now think of arsenic as a poison to be avoided under all circumstances, in the early twentieth century it was thought of as a substance with both helpful and harmful characteristics. An arsenic compound named arsphenamine was synthesized in 1907 and marketed as Salvarsan. It was the first treatment for syphilis that did not depend on mercury (which was even more toxic). Mariam mentions Salvarsan in her article: the process she describes includes introducing Salvarsan in known quantities into test samples of tissue or blood in order to evaluate the accuracy of the various methods of arsenic testing.

Another arsenic compound, Tryparsamide, was developed within the same decade, and became the first known cure for Trypanosomiasis, or African sleeping sickness. In 1920, the Rockefeller Institute sent another female scientist, Louise Pearce, to the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) to test that drug on patients. The results were highly encouraging—an 80 percent success rate—but high doses caused partial or total blindness, so its use had to be discontinued.

What we think of as poisons can sometimes have therapeutic value. Likewise, every substance we think of as beneficial—even oxygen, water, or sunlight—can cause injury or death if the dose is too high. The modern-day saying “the difference between medicine and poison is dosage” comes from Paracelsus, a sixteenth-century Swiss scientist whose teachings were undoubtedly studied by Mariam Vinograd.

A contemporary of Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus, and Martin Luther, Paracelsus (who was also an alchemist, an astrologer, and a military surgeon) is considered the father of toxicology. He said, “All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” In treating soldiers wounded in battle, he abandoned the common practice of wrapping wounds in cow dung in favor of keeping them clean. He wrote, “If you prevent infection, Nature will heal the wound all by herself.”

Paracelsus was also the first to give lectures in the vernacular German rather than the usual Latin, since he wanted to impart medical and scientific knowledge to as many people as possible. This and other medical heresies (he wrote, “What else is the help of medicine than love?”) incurred the wrath of the medical establishment, and he found it difficult to get his writings published. In addition, the Roman Catholic Church frowned on his teachings, in part because of his belief that the universe was one coherent organism with a unifying spirit, and that this—the spirit of the planet and all beings on it—was the definition of “God.” He wrote, “In us there is the Light of Nature, and that Light is God.”

Mariam Vinograd Villchur 1912
Mariam Vinograd-Villchur, shortly after arriving in New York around 1912.
The church strongly objected to his religious philosophy, saying that a distinction must be made between the Creator and that which is created. We do not know if Paracelsus was forced to leave Switzerland, but we do know that he became an itinerant physician, healer, and seer, wandering Eastern Europe for many years. His books were banned at first, but he was eventually able to restore his good reputation with a major volume on surgery.

Mariam Vinograd’s research on arsenic was done in the light of Paracelsus and his pioneering work in toxicology. Her work enabled later discoveries of better medicines for deadly diseases. Mariam must have felt a kinship with the small group of women who were undaunted by the obstacles placed before aspiring female scientists, and who took their place among the scholars and researchers of the age. Her article on arsenic is written in excellent English, and all of the references are from German research studies. She apparently spoke and read fluent German, English, and Russian, and may have also known Ukrainian, Yiddish, and Hebrew.

In the next blog post, we will follow her career at the Rockefeller Institute and the remainder of her tragically short life.

Edgar Villchur’s Grandfather

The Russian Empire under the tsars was geographically vast and ethnically diverse. In the late nineteenth century economic hardship, low wages, and poor working conditions led to massive strikes in major industries. Ethnic groups asserted their right to maintain their distinct cultural identities. Tsar Nicholas II, who ruled from 1894 until the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the rise of communism, promoted an official policy of assimilation. This was called “Russification” of ethnic minorities such as Poles and Finns; it established Russian as the only language allowed in schools and administrative offices and encouraged conversion of the Jews to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Instead of the desired effect of unification as a Russian people, the policy resulted in greater intercultural strife. Nicholas publicly blamed Russia’s problems on the Jews, and imposed severe restrictions—including more than a thousand laws—on Russia’s Jewry. It was against the law to speak Hebrew or Yiddish in public. Travel and settlement were severely limited for them. Jews could not serve in the prestigious sectors of the armed forces although conscription into the basic army was compulsory, even for children. Jews could not vote in district elections, but still had to pay taxes. Many industries and professions were closed to them. The Russian Orthodox Church sponsored aggressive campaigns to convert Jews to Christianity.

It was into this unfavorable environment that Eliezer Finkel, Edgar Villchur’s maternal grandfather, was born in 1849. He lived in Ekaterinoslav, an industrial city in the heart of the Ukraine. In the late nineteenth century the city’s population of one hundred thousand was forty-five percent Russian, thirty-five percent Jewish, and fifteen percent Ukrainian. The city was named for the Tsarina Catherine, who was later known as Catherine the Great and ruled from 1762 to 1798. Today it is an industrial city in central Ukraine called Dnepropetrovsk, named for the Dnieper River, on which it lies.

Eliezer and Olga Vinograd
Eliezer and Olga Vinograd. Their arranged marriage took place when he was fourteen and she was twelve.
Arranged marriage was the norm in Russia until the early twentieth century. At the age of fourteen, Eliezer Finkel was married to Olga, who was twelve. He was a scholarly young man, and wanted to pursue higher education. But the tsar had placed a quota on the number of Jews who could study in secondary schools and universities: ten percent within the Jewish district (The Pale of Settlement, which consisted of the westernmost fifth of the empire, established by Catherine as the only place Jews could live on a permanent basis), three percent in the big cities of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and five percent in the rest of the Russian empire.

One way to circumvent the restrictions on Jews in education was through official “adoption” by a Gentile family. So Eliezer Finkel had himself adopted by the Christian Vinograd family, and was thus able to attend gymnasium (secondary school). Such adoptions had government approval, because they were considered a kind of Russification. By giving up one’s Jewish family name, it was thought that the “adoptee” was giving up Jewish ways, whether or not any such assimilation actually took place. Eliezer went on to study mathematics, an interest he instilled in his daughter, Mariam Vinograd Villchur (for whom I am named), and his grandson, Mariam’s son Edgar Villchur.

Eliezer Vinograd, mathematician
Eliezer Vinograd was a mathematician who loved books and learning.

Edgar Villchur on a wintry day in Woodstock, New York, 1960. Edgar smoked a pipe that was nearly identical to the one his grandfather smoked.
Edgar Villchur on a wintry day in Woodstock, New York, 1960. Edgar smoked a pipe that was nearly identical to the one his grandfather smoked.


By the time he was a young man, Eliezer had quit Talmudic school and had become an atheist. He told his wife Olga, “I will put up with your piety if you will put up with my atheism.” Edgar remembered that his grandfather retained that dichotomy of feeling about Judaism throughout his life. On the one hand, Eliezer presided over the Seders in Hebrew every year at Passover. On the other hand, after he emigrated to the United States and settled with on a farm in Connecticut, he paid no attention to the kosher laws: He was delighted when a neighbor gave him a side of bacon in gratitude for Eleizer’s help on the citizenship examination.

Eliezer came to America in the first decade of the twentieth century. By mutual agreement, his wife Olga stayed behind when he left Russia, and remained there throughout her life. Of their six children, all but two emigrated to the United States. Eliezer’s name does not appear in the Ellis Island records, nor does that of his son Moisie, perhaps because of difficulties with transliteration from the Cyrillic alphabet. His daughter-in-law Racheleah, however, is listed, as Rosa Vinograd, age twenty-eight, on the manifest of the ship Saint Louis, which arrived in New York City in 1905. Three children were listed as arriving with Rosa: Annie, eight years old; Bessie, six; and Fanny, four. Five years later, the 1910 census shows Rosa and her husband, Moisie (listed as Morris), living in the Bronx with two more children—Celia, four, and Pauline, two. A sixth daughter, Ruth, was born after that census.

Rosa and Morris Vinograd
Rosa and Morris Vinograd, Edgar’s aunt and uncle, on their farm in Connecticut.
Vinograd farm, Lebanon, CT
Vinograd farm, Lebanon, CT

According to the land records of the town of Lebanon, Connecticut, Morris and his brother-in-law, Mark Villchur (Edgar’s father) bought an eighty-six acre farm there in 1919. The 1920 census lists Eliezer as a member of the household with his son Morris and daughter-in-law Rosa and their children on that farm. Edgar Villchur lived on that farm for seven years, starting in 1920, but he missed the census count, having arrived too late in the year. More information on his time there will be found in upcoming blog posts.

Eliezer Vinograd CT barn
Eliezer Vinograd in front of the barn, around 1920.
The deed for the farm includes “the following articles of personal property, viz.: six cows, two heifers, twenty-five hens, twelve pullets, one pig, one market wagon, one buggy, one tip cart, one lumber wagon, one grindstone, one wheel barrow, one plow, one stone drag, one sleigh, three scythes, 1 hay tender, one mowing machine, one heavy harness, one driving harness, one horse rake, one cultivator, two milk pails, one corn cutter, one hundred fifty bu. corn on ear, all corn fodder, all hay except two tons, all oat fodder, all cut wood, two separators, one farming mill, one wagon pole, one vise two saws two axes, hoe, shovel, hand rake chains, two bu. apples, two blankets, one wheelbarrow, two milk cans, one stove.”

Tip cart
Tip cart

The family drove into town for supplies in either the buggy or the market wagon. In the winter, they used a horse-drawn sleigh. One of their two horses was too big to be hitched to the wagon, so they used the horse named Mary, who was blind. On the way home, they didn’t use the reins at all. They just told Mary to take them home, and she knew the way, even without sight.

Market wagon
Market wagon

After one of their trips to town, Edgar’s grandfather drew some water from the well. He gave some to Mary to drink, and then drank some himself from the same cup. Edgar’s father reproached him, saying it was unsanitary. Eliezer said “The Mary, she clean horse!” Edgar used to tell this anecdote with affection, showing his grandfather to be a compassionate person, but also using the story as an example of the fact that, because the Russian language contains no articles, Russians have a lot of difficulty with the use of articles in English. It has become a stereotype, perhaps unfair but nonetheless persistent, that Russians leave out articles, both definite and indefinite, when they speak English. (“Strong like bull!”) Edgar’s grandfather, trying to be more American, put them in where they were unnecessary.

They had two fields for alfalfa and corn just for the cows. In the garden they grew potatoes, peas, beans, and other vegetables. They used kerosene lamps for light, and there was no indoor plumbing. There are more images here of the kind of farm equipment that was used in those days, and what the cycle of seasons was like on an early twentieth century farm.

The farm got a telephone before it got electricity. To make a call, one would crank the phone, and the operator would make the connection. Their number was “2 ring 5,” meaning if it rang five times, it was a call for them. On one occasion, Edgar’s aunt called the doctor in Colchester to ask him to come see her sick child. She asked him if he would, as long as he was making the trip, also bring a loaf of bread, some corn flakes, and some laundry soap. He came out in a horse and buggy, traveling an hour and a half, brought the groceries, and treated the young girl.

Another time, Sam, the boyfriend (and later husband) of Edgar’s cousin Ruth, came to visit her on the farm. Sam was also interested in mathematics, and he and Edgar’s grandfather, Eliezer, sat up late working on a math problem, which they were not able to solve. Everybody except Eliezer went to bed. In the middle of the night, Eliezer ran up the stairs shouting that he had found the solution. Math was so important to Edgar’s grandfather that he felt no compunction against waking up the entire household in the middle of the night to tell them he had solved the problem.

Eliezer Vinograd
Eliezer Vinograd on the farm in Lebanon, Connecticut, wearing a wool cardigan sweater with leather buttons.

Like his grandson, Eliezer was an inventor. Before he moved to the farm, he lived with Morris and Rosa in New York City. Apparently, he loved railroads. Watching the train cars, Eliezer came up with a new way for the cars to couple and uncouple. With the help of a friend, Max Groten, he applied for and received a patent for “automatic couplers for use on cars provided with spring buffers.” The Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office lists his patent, number 1,339,487, issued on May 11, 1920. [Volume 274, p. xii, Alphabetical List of Patentees, and v. 274, p. 231]

Edgar Villchur, age 88, wearing his favorite sweater, a wool cardigan with leather buttons.
Edgar Villchur, age 88, wearing his favorite sweater, a wool cardigan with leather buttons.

Edgar’s grandfather was protective of Edgar, and made sure he pursued his studies diligently. Once when Edgar was a young teenager, his grandfather saw him dressed up and primping to go out for the evening. Eliezer asked young Edgar where he was going, and Edgar proudly told him that he had a date with a girl. Eliezer’s face fell. “What about your homework?” he asked. “I already finished it all, Grandpa,” was Edgar’s reply. “What about your chores?” Eliezer asked. “I did them all too, Grandpa.” Eliezer was still troubled. He had been married at fourteen, and he wanted his grandson to have the opportunity to pursue his studies. He looked Edgar in the eye and asked, “And what if there should be a child?” Edgar, realizing what his grandfather was worried about, quickly said, “Oh, no, Grandpa, nothing like that!” Eliezer said, “Oh! In that case, go. Have a good time.”

Vinograd and Groten patent 1920

Eliezer was an important mentor for his grandson. He taught him to spend his life learning, to use his knowledge, his logic, and his understanding to solve problems, and to pursue his goals. In addition to a love of mathematics and scholarship, Edgar’s grandfather gave him a moral compass, a strong work ethic, and a desire to give back to his community. Edgar Villchur obviously learned those lessons well.

Miriam Villchur Berg
July 1, 2016

I am deeply indebted to the Historical Society of the Town of Lebanon, Connecticut, for their generosity and for their extensive and scrupulous research into my family’s time in that town.

Roy Allison

Before continuing with the story of Edgar Villchur and Acoustic Research, I want to pause to remember a great man, Roy Allison, a longtime colleague, collaborator, and friend of Villchur’s who died last month at the age of eighty-eight.

Roy Allison in 1997. Photo by Tom Tyson.
Roy Allison in 1997. Photo by Tom Tyson.
Like Villchur, Allison was largely self-taught in engineering and mathematics, but his brilliance and inventiveness resulted in major contributions to the design of audio components. After working on radar installations during World War II, Allison started writing for a magazine that would eventually become Audio Engineering (later renamed Audio). In 1959 he joined Villchur’s company, Acoustic Research, as assistant to the president, concentrating on product development. Villchur noticed his value to the company, and Allison worked his way up to chief engineer, then plant manager. After Villchur sold AR to Teledyne in 1967, Allison was appointed vice president of engineering and manufacturing. He was responsible for either the design or design supervision of nine separate models of AR speakers.

Edgar Villchur, Roy Allison, and an unknown colleague work on equipment, circa 1959. Photo credit unknown.
Edgar Villchur, Roy Allison, and an unknown colleague work on equipment, circa 1959. Photo credit unknown.

Five years later, when Allison’s contract was up, he left AR and started doing research on his own. He is well-known for working on the “Allison boundary dip,” a phenomenon in which loudspeakers show consistent power response in a testing environment, but become irregular—losing power in the middle of the bass range—when placed into a typical living room. Allison figured out the cause and how to fix it, received patents, and started his own loudspeaker manufacturing company, Allison Acoustics, in 1974.

Villchur was very pleased with Allison’s new products. In a speech to the Acoustical Society of America in June 1997, he said: “No one has imitated the Allison tweeter, a sort of pulsating version of the dome tweeter…. I consider it a significant improvement over my original dome in addressing the same problems I did.” The admiration was mutual. In an email I received from Roy in 2010, he spoke highly of my father’s gift for writing: “Would that everyone had the same appreciation for clear language, which also promotes clear thought. Eddie is a master of the language and a mentor to us all.”

Roy Allison was very involved with the Live vs. Recorded concerts produced by AR, about which I will write later. When the Fine Arts Quartet came to Woodstock in 1959 to record for those concerts, Roy Allison was the engineer in charge. After a long day of taping, the quartet, the engineers, and many Woodstock friends gathered at the Villchur house for dinner and a party. The Fine Arts Quartet was (and remains) among the most important and respected chamber ensembles; I was eleven years old at the time, and an aspiring musician. Awestruck by these musical greats, I felt a little shy. When dinner was announced, Roy Allison, whom I had come to know from audio trade shows, seemed to sense my discomfort. He came over to me and held his arm out, offering to escort me into the dining room and treating me like a grown-up. I felt like a grande dame, and I will never forget his sensitivity and consideration. He was the ultimate gentleman.

To learn more details of Roy Allison’s life, you can read Tom Tyson’s very informative tribute. You can learn more technical details of Allison’s research in “A Glorious Time,” a Stereophile magazine article marking the fiftieth anniversary of the invention of the acoustic suspension loudspeaker. The article contains interviews with both Roy Allison and Edgar Villchur.

— Miriam Villchur Berg

Inventing the Speaker

“The real satisfactions for me have come from analyzing a practical problem with the aid of the physical sciences, working out a solution, and finding out that the solution works.”
— Edgar Villchur

Edgar Villchur teaching the course Reproduction of Sound, whose substance and syllabus he designed, at New York University in 1952.
Edgar Villchur teaching the course Reproduction of Sound, whose substance and syllabus he designed, at New York University in 1952.
Edgar Villchur and his family had a good life in the early nineteen-fifties in their new hometown of Woodstock, New York. Villchur was driving two hours to New York City one day a week to teach a night class at New York University. He had proposed the course to the administration at NYU, and they had accepted the idea. The NYU engineering faculty had decided to overlook the fact that Villchur’s master’s degree was in art education, rather than any scientific or engineering field. He was highly intelligent, well-read in his field, and articulate in both speaking and writing, and the topic was one that was in the forefront of the public’s mind. People were buying sound systems for their homes, and they wanted to know how they worked, how to buy them, how to use them, and how to repair them. A new college-level course was born: Reproduction of Sound.

In the syllabus for his course, Villchur went through the various components of a home sound system. At the time, he was also writing articles for various publications, including Saturday Review, a publication known for its mix of cultural, political, and scientific writings. One of Villchur’s articles illustrates his deep interest in the loudspeaker as the biggest problem in the high-fidelity systems of the day. “Taken all together,” he wrote, “the weakest link in the chain of audio reproduction remains the one which seems, to the lay eye, to have the greatest exterior efficiency—the speaker itself.” (Villchur, E., “A New Speaker Principle,” Saturday Review, September 27, 1952, Pages 60-61).

Loudspeakers, Villchur noted, had as much as five percent harmonic distortion in certain frequencies (mostly in the bass). Amplifiers of the day had distortion of a fraction of one percent. In his article, Villchur then reported on what he called “a potentially revolutionary idea in loudspeaker design.”

No, it was not the acoustic suspension loudspeaker he was on the verge of inventing. It was a French design for what was called an “ionic” loudspeaker, which is based on a varying electrostatic field. In describing the limitations of current loudspeakers, he used the analogy of acting to explain the problem of mechanical springs: “Ideally the device must be entirely passive, speaking only as continuously directed, without asserting any oscillatory life of its own; like a good actor it must efface its own personality in favor of the characters it plays. But actors do not entirely lose their own personality characteristics. The mechanical device retains some of the behavior patterns determined by its inherent inertia and restoring force, coloring the imitation and making it less than perfect.” Those with interest in the details of this proposal can read the entirety of ‎ Villchur’s article here.

But while he was speculating on the potential for this new French invention, Villchur was also working on the issue in his head. The essential problem, he knew, was in the mechanical spring that moved back and forth to create the sound in a loudspeaker. A mechanical spring will inevitably introduce distortion. So, he thought about what could replace that spring. He said to himself that the most neutral form of spring would be an air spring. But he rejected that idea at first, because he couldn’t figure out what mechanism would return the spring to its original position.

One day, as he was driving to New York City to teach his class, he suddenly realized that the return of the spring was not a problem. Just as a flywheel returns through momentum, the air spring would return to its original position on its own if the chamber was exactly the right size to create the necessary amount of air pressure.

In later years, Villchur compared this moment of discovery to the myth of the Gordian knot—an ancient knot that symbolically represented an unsolvable problem. All who tried to untie the knot failed, because they could not find the two ends of the rope. Alexander the Great solved the problem by slicing through the knot with his sword. Villchur said,

“Instead of making one more attempt to unravel the Gordian knot, I cut it.” [Birchall, 1993]

Edgar Villchur’s wife Rosemary, an expert draftswoman, designed the speaker prototype’s speaker cone surround and sewed it out of mattress ticking.
Edgar Villchur’s wife Rosemary, an expert draftswoman, designed the speaker prototype’s speaker cone surround and sewed it out of mattress ticking.
Villchur began building a prototype of the new invention. He started with an ordinary speaker, cut it apart, and threw away the mechanical spring. He figured out the geometric requirements and calculated the air pressure factors. He needed a speaker cone surround that was both flexible and sturdy. His wife, Rosemary, had been an expert draftswoman during World War II, and had done mechanical drawings of defense installations. She came up with the idea of using mattress ticking—a material similar to denim that had the qualities Villchur was looking for. She looked at his rough three-dimensional model, translated it into a two-dimensional template, then cut out the ticking and sewed it into the needed shape.

Despite the careful calculations, the first prototype turned out to be too large to provide the springiness necessary to return the speaker to its neutral position. Villchur realized that sometimes mathematical calculations don’t work as well as simple trial and error. He estimated how far off the dimensions were and built a second prototype, which worked perfectly. Hooking it up to his sound system, he was delighted to find that the low bass notes came through clear and free of distortion. Villchur knew right away that he had discovered something important.

My measurements showed that my little prototype had better bass and less distortion than anything on the market, yet it was one quarter the size. I thought, “This has got to be the future of loudspeakers.”

The prototype of the first acoustic suspension speaker, shown disassembled and assembled.
The prototype of the first acoustic suspension speaker, shown disassembled and assembled.

One night after teaching his class at NYU, he went for coffee with one of his students, Henry Kloss. Villchur had been hinting about his invention in class, and Kloss wanted to know more. Villchur explained the principle in a few sentences. In an interview many years later, after he had become an audio innovator in his own right, Henry Kloss said that hearing about the acoustic suspension speaker was one of the highlights of his life.

Soon afterwards, Kloss drove with him in Villchur’s 1938 Buick up to Woodstock, where Villchur demonstrated the new speaker. He put on a recording of E. Power Biggs performing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565), one of his favorite pieces. Biggs played it on the Baroque organ at the Germanic Museum at Harvard University. Biggs himself had supervised the rebuilding and voicing of the organ. His definitive performance of this piece demonstrates extremely low and resonant notes played by the foot pedals of that organ.

Kloss was amazed by the quality of Villchur’s speakers and their ability to reproduce those bass frequencies with such fidelity. He immediately proposed that the two of them go into business together and manufacture loudspeakers. Villchur turned him down at first, saying, “No, this is for the big boys.” He wanted nothing more than a quiet life in the country, writing his articles and tinkering with electronics on the side. Thinking about it some more, he realized he might be able to make some money from his invention, so he decided to patent the idea and sell the patent.

Without the money to hire a patent attorney, he spent several months studying the complexities of writing and filing a patent. He had a cousin who was a lawyer, who referred him to a colleague who specialized in patents. In a 2005 interview with David Lander of Stereophile magazine, Villchur 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.’” Villchur ended up completing the patent application himself, and was awarded patent No. 2,775,309 on December 25, 1954.

Drawing from Edgar Villchur’s 1954 patent of the acoustic suspension loudspeaker.
Drawing from Edgar Villchur’s 1954 patent of the acoustic suspension loudspeaker.

Villchur then went to the speaker manufacturers to try to sell his invention. He tells the story best himself:

The last thing I wanted to do was get into business. So, I thought, I’d sell it to a loudspeaker manufacturer. I made up my mind to ask $10,000 and, if they offered me $5,000, 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.” A friend approached Rudy Bozak, an audio engineer who was working on some of the same problems, and he turned it down. My friend asked why, and Bozak said, “Because what you describe is impossible.”

Henry Kloss reiterated his desire to open a factory with Villchur, so they could manufacture the newly patented acoustic suspension speaker. Kloss had a loft in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was building wooden cabinets for speakers and selling them by mail order, so there was already a location for the nascent business. Villchur approached friends and family members, asking them to invest in his venture, and raised several thousand dollars—enough to get started.

AR Inc. logoVillchur started commuting from Woodstock to Cambridge and putting together his company, which he named Acoustic Research, Inc., or AR. He decided that the only way he would be happy as a businessman was by doing things his own way. It started with the company logo, which he rendered in his favorite font—Trajan, based on lettering from ancient Rome. This was the same font he had used to paint his then-girlfriend’s name, “ROSEMARY,” on his jeep in the South Pacific during World War II. At Acoustic Research, he hired friends as executives, and designed the administration of the company to be fair and equitable to employees. And despite the fact that he ignored the usual rules for running businesses profitably, he made a success of AR.

In later years, Villchur was often praised for his revolutionary invention of the “bookshelf speaker.” It always rankled him, because the size of the speaker cabinet was secondary to the actual improvement in sound reproduction. From the point of view of consumer preferences, however, the difference between speakers that stood five feet high and ones that sat unobtrusively on a shelf was highly significant. It took the sound system from something electronics fans could display only in their basements to something their wives would happily accept as part of the living-room furnishings. The market for high-quality sound systems expanded exponentially.

In one of AR’s early brochures, Edgar Villchur (who wrote virtually all the advertising copy during his time as president of the company) explained his invention, and commented on the issue of the size of the loudspeaker:

The Acoustic Suspension Principle

If you have ever handled a conventional loudspeaker, you will know that the moving system is mounted on elastic suspensions: when you depress and then release the cone it springs back to its normal position.

The necessarily imperfect quality of these mechanical springs (which, in technical language, become non-linear on large excursions) is the greatest single source of speaker distortion. The condition cannot be cured by removing the spring tension from the suspensions, because elastic restoring force is indispensable in modern speaker design.

Acoustic Research has replaced the mechanical spring of the bass speaker suspensions with a pneumatic spring of near-perfect characteristic—the sealed-in air of the cabinet. The practical results of this fundamentally new approach to speaker design are:

1.   Reduction of bass harmonic distortion, from values currently accepted as unavoidable in speakers, by a factor of 4.
2.   Uniform and extended low frequency response. We believe that the AR-1 establishes new industry standards in this respect.
3.   Determination of optimum cabinet size as conveniently small—an extra dividend.

The size of the AR-1 speaker cabinet is dictated by acoustical considerations, and represents an advance in, rather than a compromise with, quality. No allowances for size should be made in evaluating the performance of the system.


Early AR-1 Brochure
Early AR-1 Brochure

Villchur did not want to be remembered as the person who made loudspeakers smaller. He wanted his invention to be acknowledged for its superior quality, regardless of size. The fact that its small size made it a highly marketable commodity helped make the company successful, but Villchur’s pride in his innovation was always linked to the ability of the loudspeaker to reproduce music more faithfully, and to allow people to hear in their living rooms what they might otherwise have to go to a concert hall to experience.

All the elements had come together: teaching a class in sound reproduction got him thinking about the problems in the various components of a sound system; writing articles on the same subject made him aware of other research and its successes and limitations; driving to New York gave him the quiet time to ponder all the scientific issues involved, and time to come up with a new design; being turned down by the big loudspeaker manufacturers showed him that he would have to make the product on his own; and meeting Henry Kloss, who was already in the speaker cabinet business, gave him an easy way to start manufacturing the speakers. The rest, as they say, is history—history we shall explore in future posts.
— Miriam Villchur Berg
I am deeply indebted and grateful to Tom Tyson for his generous help and especially for access to his archival materials on Acoustic Research.