About Wallace Clement Sabine
Wallace Clement Sabine (June 13, 1868 - January 10, 1919) was an American physicist who founded the field of architectural acoustics. He graduated from Ohio State University in 1886 at the age of 18 before joining Harvard University for graduate study and remaining as a faculty member. Sabine was acoustical architect of Boston's Symphony Hall, widely considered one of the two or three best concert halls in the world for its acoustics.
Sabine was selected for the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2011.
Sabine's career is the story of the birth of the field of modern architectural acoustics. In 1895, acoustically improving the Fogg Lecture Hall, part of the recently constructed Fogg Art Museum, was considered an impossible task by the senior staff of the physics department at Harvard. The assignment was passed down until it landed on the shoulders of a young physics professor, Sabine. Although considered a popular lecturer by the students, Sabine had never received his Ph.D. and did not have any particular background dealing with sound.
Sabine tackled the problem by trying to determine what made the Fogg Lecture Hall different from other, acoustically acceptable facilities. In particular, the Sanders Theater was considered acoustically excellent. For the next several years, Sabine and a group of assistants spent each night moving materials between the two lecture halls and testing the acoustics. On some nights they would borrow hundreds of seat cushions from the Sanders Theater. Using an organ pipe and a stopwatch, Sabine performed thousands of careful measurements (though inaccurate by present standards) of the time required for different frequencies of sounds to decay to inaudibility in the presence of the different materials. He tested reverberation time with several different types of Oriental rugs inside Fogg, and with various numbers of people occupying its seats, and found that the body of an average person decreased reverberation time by about as much as six seat cushions. Once the measurements were taken and before morning arrived, everything was quickly replaced in both lecture halls, in order to be ready for classes the next day.
Sabine was able to determine, through these late night forays, that a definitive relationship exists between the quality of the acoustics, the size of the chamber, and the amount of absorption surfaces present. He formally defined the reverberation time, which is still the most important characteristic currently in use for gauging the acoustical quality of a room, as number of seconds required for the intensity of the sound to drop from the starting level, by an amount of 60 dB (decibels).
His formula is RT60 = 0.049V \Sa Where RT60 is the reverberation time, V is the volume of the room in cubic feet, and Sa is the total absorption, sabins, a is the average absorption coefficient of room surfaces and S is the surface area.
By studying various rooms judged acoustically good for their intended uses, Sabine determined that good concert halls had reverberation times of 2-2.25 seconds (with shorter reverberation times, a music hall seems too "dry" to the listener), while good lecture halls had reverberation times of slightly under 1 second. As regards the Fogg Museum lecture room, Sabine noted that a spoken word remained audible for about 5.5 seconds, or about an additional 12-15 words if the speaker continued talking. A listener, then, had to contend with a very high degree of resonance and echo.
Using what he discovered, Sabine deployed sound absorbing materials throughout the Fogg Lecture Hall to cut its reverberation time down and reduce the "echo effect." This accomplishment cemented Wallace Sabine's career, and led to his hiring as the acoustical consultant for Boston's Symphony Hall, the first concert hall to be designed using quantitative acoustics. His acoustic design was a great success and Symphony Hall is generally considered one of the best symphony halls in the world. In addition, the unit of sound absorption, the sabin, was named after him.