In 1940 Victorian gothic, old Memorial Hall stead on the sacred precincts of the Delta, gathering dust and age, but with the exception of examinations NROTC classes, and an occasional performance in Sanders Theater it had seen its best days. It was a tradition but an obsolete structure in the University scene.
Today, to the casual observer, it appears much the same, but to those who took their recent hour exams in its great hall, there came the sneaking suspicion that there was a stirring and constant life in the very heart of the venerable building.
This fall the basement of Memorial Hall is a beehive of activity as 50 workmen and scientists turn the musty storeroom of the Thirties and the kitchen that fed half a century of Harvard men into one of the most modern and complete psychological laboratories in existence.
War brought Expansion
War and the precocious growth of the infant study of psychology brought about this development which, little known to most students, has been going on slowly since 1940. In that year of anxious peace in the United States, the Psychology Department, in its cramped old quarters on the top floor of Emerson, called for more space to initiate a Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory to do original research on the problems of sound and its effect on the human car and mind.
Starting modestly in the deep sub-basement that had once housed the independent heating plant for Memorial Hall, the laboratory began exploration into a field which had not been long out of the stage of tuning forks and eartrumpets. A year later the country went to war, and the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory and its findings became another secret, government-directed, war research laboratory whose discoveries became known to the general public only last winter.
Anechoic Chamber Built
Under the pressure of war the laboratory expanded its modernistic, fluorescent-lighted, and ventilated office and laboratories to every inch of space of that part of the basement below Sanders Theeater. In conjunction with this, on Oxford Street, opposite Malinkrodt, a peculiar two-story, pill-box-like structure arose. This block of concrete even today is a mystery to most of the people who walk by it, and they would be little enlightened if they knew that it was an anechoic chamber.
This unique chamber and its smaller replica in the Memorial Hall laboratory are rooms entirely without echoes which make possible the accurate measurement of sound so essential to scientific study of its effects on humans. Seven carloads of wedge-shaped fingers of fiberglass create an atmosphere which is literally out of this world, for in nature the only similar condition is found in the upper atmosphere.
In these anechoic chambers, in the ear splitting noise room, and in half a dozen instrument paneled laboratories, myths and hearsays of the world of sound were refuted or sustained by rigorous investigations. The ancient fable, that a certain frequency with a certain intensity would send a man into raving insanity, was sent back ot the writers of science fiction wood pulps. Incessant testing of human guinea pigs proved that loud and constant noise does no hamper efficiency or make for neurotic individuals. A steady stream of practical inventions for wartime communications and medical purposes poured forth form this laboratory and its partner project in Cruft, the Electro-Acoustic Laboratory. Among the contributions of the joint effort were an clactroacoustic air speed indicator, lightweight soundproofing for air-planes, aural blind flying instruments, and special earplugs which make possible better hearing of voice under conditions of sustained loud noise.
Stevens Directed War Word
Working with the Psycho-Acoustic laboratory since its inception, S. Smith Stevens, professor of Psychology, has directed the wartime achievements of the laboratory and worked simultaneously on several other acoustical projects also sponsored by the super-secret Office of Scientific Research and Development. Stevens, whose work is now partially sponsored by the Navy, has brought his research work practically to a standstill as he has taken over de facto direction of the vast reconstruction of the main part of the Memorial hall basement into psychological and physiological laboratories which will go into operation sometime in January or February under Edwin G. Boring, professor of Psychology.
Cause of this peacetime expansion in addition to the tremendous advances made during the war is the reorganization of the whole Psychology Department brought about by the new Department of Social Relations which started its official career in the classroom in June. A combination formed form part of the Anthropology Department, part of the Psychology Department and the now defunct Sociology Department, Social relations is an attempt to integrate the related parts of these three field which heretofore have been artificially departmentalized.
The result of this experiment is that psychology, which has been walking an intellectual tightrope between science and social science, has now been split down the middle, with social and clinical psychology merging in the area of Social Relations and the Psychological Laboratory joining its scientific brothers north of the Yard.