Belar, Herbert, 1901-1997

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Herbert Belar was born on March 5, 1901. He was a research fellow at the Radio Corporation of America's David Sarnoff Laboratory in Princeton, N.J., where, with his superior Harry F. Olson, he developed the first music synthesizers. Belar retired to Florida, where he died on December 7, 1997.

With RCA's huge investment in recorded and broadcast music, the company's engineers were quick to grasp the importance of Claude E. Shannon's groundbreaking 1948 paper, "A Mathematical Theory of Communications," the foundation stone of modern information theory. On May 11, 1950, Olson and Belar issued their first internal research report, "Preliminary Investigation of Modern Communication Theories Applied to Records and Music," in which they proposed to consider music mathematically as information and thus be able to generate music mathematically instead of from traditional instruments. On February 26, 1952, Olson and Belar demonstrated their first experimental model for David Sarnoff and other company officials, having it perform renditions of "Home Sweet Home" and "Blue Skies."

Another three years of research and experimentation were required to render more complex pieces and achieve something close to commercial sound quality. The Mark I Synthesizer was revealed to the world by Gen. David Sarnoff in a January 31, 1955 speech to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, and a 12-inch demostration LP was offered commercially. Like all computers of the period, it was a massive array of 12 oscillator circuits, one for each of the basic 12 tones of the muscial scale, which could be modified by other circuits to produce almost any kind of sound. It was programmed using punched tape somewhat like player piano rolls. The Mark I was followed by the Mark II, which used magnetic tape and had twice as many tone oscillators. However, RCA's Victor recording division rejected the device to avoid friction with its contract recording artists and union musicians. The Mark I was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, and the Mark II to the new Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York, where it was used by serial composers to test their theories and push the boundaries of composition. However, one student at the center, Robert Moog, developed the keyboard synthesizer that bears his name and led to the widespread use of synthesizers in popular music.

As a spin-off from their work on the synthesizer, Olson and Belar also collaborated on a more complicated music composing machine and on a phonetic, i.e., voice activated, typewriter. Although not commercially successful for RCA, these projects were important precursors to later forms of electronic music, digital sound recording, and speech recognition systems.

From the description of The Herbert Belar collection of RCA documents, 1950-1967. (Hagley Museum & Library). WorldCat record id: 708247396

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
Place Name Admin Code Country
Synthesizer (Musical instrument)
Speech processing systems
Sound--Recording and reproducing
Voice-activated typewriter


Birth 1901-03-05

Death 1997-12-07



Ark ID: w6737t86

SNAC ID: 58489702