Vern Oliver Knudsen

Scientist, Academic Leader,
Chancellor, University of California Los Angeles
(1959 to 1960)

Vern Oliver Knudsen, Chancellor, UCLA

Brigham Young High School
Class of 1912

Vern Oliver Knudsen was born in Provo, Utah, on December 27, 1893, the youngest child of Scandinavian immigrant parents. His parents were Andreas "Andrew" Knudsen, born in Loiten Hedemarken, Norway, 1854-1936 and Kjersti "Chasty" Akesson Sward, born in Malmo, Sweden, 1854-1940. His parents married on June 9, 1877. They had seven children:
  • Albert John Knudsen, 1878-1911;
  • Lydia Christine Knudsen, 1880-1972;
  • Heber Adolphus Knudsen, 1882-1950;
  • Karl Joseph Knudsen, 1884-1954;
  • Nettie Knudson, 1888-1964;
  • Vilate Knudsen, 1890-1982; and
  • Vern Oliver Knudsen, 1893-1974.

  • Vern Oliver Knudsen graduated from Brigham Young High School, Class of 1912. He then earned a bachelor's A.B. degree in Physics from Brigham Young University in 1915.

    Knudsen served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1915 to 1918 in the Northern States Mission, which was headquartered in Chicago.

    Knudsen then joined the staff of Bell Laboratories where he worked with Harvey Fletcher, who had been one of his professors at BYU.

    Vern Knudsen married Florence Telford of Ogden, Utah, on December 19, 1919. They first met while both were missionaries in Chicago. He courted her by correspondence soon after. They had a family of musicians, four children:
  • Marilyn Knudsen, 1920-1925;
  • Robert Telford A. Knudsen, 1924-2001;
  • Margaret Constance Knudsen, 1927-2000; and
  • Vern Oliver Morris Knudsen, 1927-2014
    (Morris and Margaret were twins).
  • Knudsen received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Chicago in 1922.

    Knudsen's publications included three seminal books:
  • Architectural Acoustics, published in 1932,
  • Audiometry, a textbook, and
  • Acoustical Designing in Architecture, with Cyril M. Harris, 1950.
  • Vern Knudsen co-founded the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), and served as its president, 1933–35, and the ASA awarded him the Wallace Clement Sabine Medal in 1958 and the Gold Medal in 1967. He was the recipient of the John H. Potts (Gold) Medal from the Audio Engineering Society (AES) in 1964.

    In 1934, Vern Knudsen was made Dean of the Graduate Division of the Southern Section of the University of California, a post which he held for 24 years and during which time the UCLA Graduate Division increased from 287 to 5160 students.

    Vern O. Knudsen then served as Chancellor of UCLA from 1959 to 1960. The Chancellor is UCLA's chief executive officer, overseeing all aspects of UCLA's mission of education, research and service. At UCLA a Physics building was named Knudsen Hall in his honor. Source.

    Vern Oliver Knudsen (1893-1974) was a professor in the Department of Physics at UCLA before serving as the first dean of the Graduate Division (1934-58), Vice Chancellor (1956), Chancellor (1959). He also researched architectural acoustics and hearing impairments, developed the audiometer with Isaac H. Jones, founded the Acoustical Society of America (1928), organized and served as the first director of what is now the Naval Undersea Research and Development Center in San Diego, and worked as a acoustical consultant for various projects including the Hollywood Bowl, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Schoenberg Hall, the United Nations General Assembly building, and a variety of radio and motion picture studios.

    Acoustical Society of America
    Gold Medal Award - 1967
    Vern Oliver Knudsen

    VERN OLIVER KNUDSEN needs no formal introduction to this Society. He was there at its inception, saw it through adolescence, and is participating vigorously in its maturity. Vern Knudsen may or may not have started his research in acoustics at birth, as Dr. E. C. Wente insists Harvey Fletcher did, by early discovery that the vowels attracted much more attention than most consonants, but his interest in music began early for he recently revealed that he attended his first concert in the Mormon Tabernacle at the tender age of six.

    Vern Oliver Knudsen was born in Provo, Utah, during the "gay nineties," and this may have had a profound effect, for Harvey Fletcher, during the dedication ceremonies of Knudsen Hall at UCLA in 1964, gave his first impression of him as "a romping little boy—always so jovial and smiling." Although his romping has subsided some, he has remained gay and jovial and smiling.

    Harvey Fletcher was Vern's teacher in physics and mathematics at Brigham Young University where he received his AB degree in 1915. During his senior year, he was permitted to assist Dr. Fletcher with his research on Brownian movement. Upon graduation, he followed his professor to the Bell Telephone Laboratories where he was engaged on some of the early work on oscillators, and during World War I investigated earth currents with such early equipment on a 1700-mile segment of a transatlantic cable.

    By 1919, armed with the latest information about the new vacuum tubes and electronic circuits, he started his graduate work at the University of Chicago. Here he studied physics under Michelson, Millikan, and Gale. Millikan wanted him to work on the contribution of electrons to the specific heat of metals for his dissertation. Knudsen wanted to work on some problem in acoustics on which he could utilize his knowledge of vacuum tube circuits. This impasse was resolved, however, for Millikan went to Europe. With Gale's assistance, Knudsen had his work on sensibility of the ear to small differences of loudness and frequency so well along by the time Millikan returned that he too endorsed the thesis. Millikan introduced Knudsen to Dr. George E. Shambaugh, the dean of otologists of that day. This contact resulted shortly in two significant papers on which Knudsen and Shambaugh collaborated: "Sensibility of Pathological Ears to Small Difference of Loudness and Pitch," and "Report on an Investigation of Ten Cases of Diplacusis."

    Vern Knudsen received the Ph.D. degree in Physics from the University of Chicago magna cum laude in 1922 and joined the Department of Physics at UCLA (then known as University of California Southern Branch) the same year. In 1922, UCLA was without almost everything we now consider essential for a modern Department of Physics. Andrew Knudsen, Vern's father, made the trek across the plains a generation before to settle in the desert of Utah. Vern confronted the lack of research space and equipment with the same drive and spirit that his father displayed. He found in the Los Angeles area many auditoriums and classrooms, most acoustically bad. In these, with organ pipe and stop watch in hand, he began the research on architectural acoustics.

    With Dr. Shambaugh's advice, he joined forces with Dr. Isaac H. Jones, a distinguished otologist of Los Angeles. Shortly, definitive papers were rolling out under these two names on normal and impaired hearing. Some 26 audiometers were built in the Knudsen's back yard and made available only to doctors who agreed to use them for research. This Knudsen–Jones audiometer was the first instrument which enabled the otologist to make a differential diagnosis between conductive (middle ear) and perceptive (cochlear) impairments of hearing, and to test the cochlea directly.

    When the "talkies" hit the motion-picture industry in 1929, Vern Knudsen was called to help design stages of sound recording. For this and other acoustical work, adequate facilities for the determination of the absorption of sound in acoustical materials was not required. In the move of the University to the Westwood site such facilities were included. A double-walled reverberation chamber and measuring rooms were built as part of the Physics Building. With newer equipment it was now possible to make more precise measurements using reverberation techniques.

    Knudsen quickly observed, however, that these measurements could not be duplicated with anything like the accuracy the new equipment justified. The results were quite repeatable on any one day but there were large deviations from day to day. This discrepancy was observed in the reverberation time of even the empty room. After exhaustive tests to make certain the walls of the enclosure were not changing, the now well-known dependence of the absorption of sound in air on the humidity was discovered.

    At this point, Dr Knudsen joined forces with Dr. Hans Kneser, a visiting professor from Marburg, Germany. Together they found that the experimental results could be well explained by interactions between the oxygen molecule and water vapor. For his contribution to this important finding, Dr. Knudsen was awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science prize of $1000 in 1935.

    During World War II, Dr. Knudsen gave his attention to the study of sound under the sea. He was the first Director of Research at what is now the Navy Electronics Laboratory at San Diego, California. In record time, distinguished scientists and an excellent supporting staff were recruited for this "crash" program. Vern guided much of the early investigation of the propagation of sonar signals and the influence of the ambient sound encountered in the sea. During this period, he served as a member of the National Research Council.

    Vern Knudsen's publications include two definitive books, "Architectural Acoustics," published in 1932, and "Acoustical Designing in Architecture" with Cyril M. Harris, 1950. Over 100 articles are to be found in scientific and technical journals. On looking through the bound volumes, I find it easier to locate Vern's papers among the well-used pages than I do to use the index.

    Vern Knudsen is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society, and the Acoustical Society of America, (president during 1933–1935). He has been a member of the Los Angeles Building and Safety Commission. He is a past president of the California Institute for Cancer Research and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Hollywood Bowl Association (president during 1960–1961 and chairman 1961–1963). The Vern Knudsen Graduate Fellowship in Physics is supported by the Hope for Hearing Research Foundation. He has received honorary degrees from Brigham Young University, where he started his professional career, and at UCLA upon his retirement. He was the first recipient of the Wallace C. Sabine Medal from The Acoustical Society of America in 1957. He was the recipient of the John H. Potts Medal from the Audio Engineering Society in 1964.

    In 1934, Vern Knudsen was made Dean of the Graduate Division of the Southern Section of the University of California, a post which he held with distinction for 24 years and during which time the UCLA Graduate Division increased from 287 to 5160. In 1956, he was appointed Vice Chancellor. He became Chancellor in 1959 and, as the Spanish neatly put it, reached the age of "jubilation" in 1960. As many of you know, retirement for Vern has meant an opportunity to again put his major effort to problems of acoustics.

    Dr. Simon Ramo, speaking at the dedication of Knudsen Hall at UCLA in 1964, said of Vern Knudsen that he had the "quality of combining depth of perception in science of the physical world and understanding of human beings and had his confidence in them.

    The Acoustical Society of America again pauses to do honor to Vern Oliver Knudsen by presenting him the Gold Medal 1967.

    ~ ~ Leo P. Delsasso


    Vern O. Knudsen, BYH Class of 1912, Chancellor

    Vern Oliver Knudsen, Physics: Los Angeles
    Professor and Chancellor, Emeritus

    Vern O. Knudsen, the world's leading authority and most respected figure in architectural acoustics, died of pneumonia on May 13, 1974, at the age of eighty.

    With his passing UCLA has lost one of its stellar lights, who guided our University from its early days and greatly influenced its later development. His death saddened numberless colleagues who had been befriended by Vern, who was universally recognized for his genius for friendship, his enthusiasm, and his skill in applying science to the service of humanity.

    Vern Knudsen was born in Provo, Utah, on December 27, 1893. He entered Brigham Young University in 1913 where he studied with Harvey Fletcher.

    Following his B.A. degree in 1915, he served as a Mormon missionary and as acting head of the Northern States Mission in Chicago.

    In 1918 he joined Fletcher at the Bell Telephone Laboratories (then Western Electric), where he collaborated in the development of the then emerging vacuum-tube technology.

    During World War I, Vern applied his knowledge of the new vacuum-tube circuits to the study of Earth parasitic currents.

    Following the war he entered the University of Chicago where he studied with Robert A. Millikan, Albert A. Michelson, and Henry G. Gale, and wrote his doctoral dissertation on a subject of his own choice: the application of acoustics to the problem of hearing.

    He received his Ph.D. in Physics magna cum laude in 1922. He confounded both colleagues and teachers by turning down offers from the University of Chicago and the Bell Telephone Laboratories to accept the position of instructor at UCLA, which had been recently established and was known as the Southern Branch of the University of California.

    The staff of the physics department at that time consisted of an associate professor, two assistant professors, an associate, and Leo P. Delsasso who, although only a sophomore student, served as an assistant to the department chairman. A close professional and personal relationship developed between Delsasso and Knudsen, which endured undiminished until Delsasso's death in 1971.

    In his physics research at UCLA, Vern is best known for his experiments that uncovered the role that relaxation processes, involving the vibrational and rotational states of gas molecules, play in affecting the attenuation and dispersion of sound, and the way in which the measurement of these two acoustical quantities can be used to understand certain properties of molecular dynamics. For this pioneer work he was awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science Prize in 1934.

    Twelve years after Knudsen arrived at UCLA, the institution first offered work leading to advanced degrees. He was the prime mover in establishing the Graduate Division and became its first dean, serving in this capacity from 1934 to 1958.

    It is with a sense of deep gratitude and pride that we acknowledge that today's enviable stature of UCLA in graduate studies is to be traced to the drive, enthusiasm, and great foresight that Vern Knudsen displayed during his twenty-four-year tenure as dean.

    In 1956 he was appointed Vice Chancellor and then Chancellor in 1959, a position which he held for only one year because he had reached the mandatory retirement age in 1960.

    Retirement provided the opportunity that Vern Knudsen had been eagerly anticipating, and he returned to his physics department office and to the acoustics laboratories. Here, in collaboration with Leo Delsasso, he devoted his full attention to acoustics, its theory and applications, including architectural acoustics.

    The long life of a great man like Vern is replete with honors, prizes, and signal accomplishments so numerous that we can only touch on some highlights.

    With Harvey Fletcher, Wallace Waterfall, and Floyd R. Watson, Vern Knudsen was one of the founding fathers of the Acoustical Society of America. He served as president, 1933-35, and the society awarded him the Sabine Medal in 1958 and the Gold Medal in 1967.

    Knudsen is best known for his work on architectural acoustics, a subject on which he wrote two books and over one hundred articles, which appeared in scientific and technical journals.

    As a consultant he was responsible for the acoustical design of over five hundred structures of which the Thomas Hall at the University of Akron, Ohio, stands as his magnum opus and a lasting monument to his genius.

    He was a member of the Los Angeles Building and Safety Commission, president of the California Institute for Cancer Research, and of the Hollywood Bowl Association. Two Vern Knudsen Graduate Fellowships in Physics are supported by the Hope for Hearing Foundation and by voluntary contributions to the UCLA Foundation.

    He received honorary degrees from Brigham Young University and from UCLA and, as an added honor, the new physics building at UCLA bears the name Knudsen Hall.

    During World War II, Knudsen played a key role in antisubmarine efforts. He was the first director of what is now the Naval Undersea Research and Development Center in San Diego. During this period he served as a member of the National Research Council.

    The impact of a teacher and a researcher on his students is manifold. For Knudsen the dominant factor was his character and his unimpeachable integrity. The high principles by which he lived and conducted his affairs were so deeply ingrained in his behavior that his response to all human situations, however difficult, was always immediately instinctive and always right.

    He invariably enriched the lives of the many who knew him. His greatness never detracted from his innate goodness and modesty. Vern Knudsen was the epitome of the truly great man.

    ~~Gustave O. Arlt, Alfredo Baños, Jr., and Isadore Rudnick


    Vern O. Knudsen, BYH Class of 1912


    BYH Biographies