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Richard H. Bolt

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Biography

Richard H. Bolt was an innovator in the field of acoustical engineering and architectural design and a co-founder of Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN).

Bolt graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1933 with a degree in architecture. He married afterwards and took a honeymoon in Europe, where he encountered the acoustical research of Erwin Meyer and Hermann Biehle. Although he almost no background in physics and could not speak German, he decided to take a crash course with these experts. Inspired by the possibilities of acoustical design, he returned to Berkeley with the goal of earning a graduate degree in physics. He excelled in his coursework, and then arranged to do doctoral research the University of California at Los Angeles under the direction of Vern O. Knudsen. He earned his Ph.D in 1939.

During World War II, Bolt worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Office of Scientific Research and Development in London on anti-submarine warfare research. By the end of the war, he was back at MIT, developing an interdisciplinary acoustics laboratory that would combine physics, electrical engineering, architecture, mechanical and aeronautical engineering, psychology, and the arts. At its peak, this program employed over eighty people and trained over one hundred thesis students. It also became a center for postwar research on acoustics in public buildings and noisy jet aircraft.

The BBN consultancy, formed by MIT faculty members Bolt, Leo Beranek, and Robert B. Newman, also emerged from this program. BBN’s projects included the acoustics for the grand hall of the United Nations building in Manhattan.

During the late 1950s, Bolt worked with the National Institutes of Health to study biophysics, establishing an international conference on the topic that led to Nobel-prizing winning developments in the field. Between 1960 and 1963, he worked for the National Science Foundation (NSF), helping to create the Office of Science Resources Planning and the Division of Social Sciences at NSF.

He served in numerous other public capacities, but he is best remembered for his role as a forensic investigator in President Richard Nixon's impeachment. He was one of six experts chosen to analyze a tape made on June 20, 1972, three days after the break-in of the Democratic national headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington. According to the hand-written notes of Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, that tape contained a conversation in which Nixon demanded a “public relations” assault against bad press stemming from the break-in. Bolt and the other experts discovered that this portion of the conversation had been erased from the tape, and the deletion was not accidental, as the White House had claimed.