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.
In preparation for the removal of Professor Boring's offices and equipment, the larger part of the basement of memorial Hall is now a dynamo of construction, with electricians, carpenters, plumbers, and masons turning the musty old caverns into modernistic, glass bricked offices and halls. Where once NROTC students disassembled artillery pieces and fired on the small rifle range, office, shops, conference rooms and an animal room for white rats, are being marked off with cement blocks and plaster. The old kitchen, which fed over a thousand college men a day, from 1874 to the late Twenties, when the now gloomy home of final examinations was the College Commons, is now turning into psychology library, an undergraduate laboratory and a lecture room seating 100 students.
Fitting a modern laboratory into the construction ideals f the 1870's has been no easy job, as Stevens can well testify, Regardless of the opinions of latter day aspiring architects and Fine Arts students, Memorial Hall was built to last. Basement partitions measure four to five feet thick and are built of slabs of rock as well as brick. Pneumatic drills have been needed more than once to put in doors, ventilators, and staircases, as called for in the blueprints. The only visible change on the exterior of this monument will be the main entrance to the Laboratory, which will be on the left side of the main south entrance to the first floor. Few things have been overlooked in this undertaking which includes a pantry adjacent to the seminar room as part of a program of applied "psychology." According to Professor Boring, students generally respond favorably to this type of stimulus and the atmosphere is set for lively intellectual exchange.
Looking to the long range plans and the future, professor Boring remarked that "this is a period in which Psychology is being re oriented at Harvard." He said that he felt that the division of the department was beneficial, and he hoped that the groups in the Memorial Hall establishment would work in close harmony on their various research projects. In spite of what appears to be a further departmentalizing of science, the work in the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory, for example, has called on the talents of doctors, engineers, physicists, as well as psychologists.
Though plans for research in the physiological and psychological divisions are as yet indefinite because of the readjustment and lack of critical personnel, the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory is looking forward to intensive basic research in aural rehabilitation for deafness in war causalities of which there are 40,000. "The ultimate aim of this work is to find out how the car works," Professor Stevens remarked and added that a great deal was still unknown in this field of research.
Another remarkable development of wartime research was a microphone so tiny that it could be inserted into the car to determine the intensity of sound at various points near the surface of the eardrum. A further discovery was that hearing aids are not improved by being adjusted to particular frequencies depending on the individual's type of hearing loss. It was found that complete amplification of al levels of sound was more satisfactory to those suffering frm partial deafness In spite of this probing in the tender zones of the car, and the exposure of some subjects to noise approaching 140 decibels (a point at which sound becomes highly painful) no subjects suffered permanent hearing disability. Conscientious Objectors who offered themselves for this experimentation proved invaluable, Stevens stated.
With a new lease on life in the form of 50 percent more working space and recognition of its scientific nature, the department will put into operation this winter a laboratory, which in its anticipated 30 years of service, may well bring developments which would be as starting to people today as the intricate devices in Memorial hall would appear to the venerable professors who moved into the first planed psychology laboratory atop Emerson Hall in 1905.