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William Lang: Pioneering Noise Control in the Digital Age

From Acoustics to Computing

William Warner Lang, born on August 9, 1926 in Boston, Massachusetts, is best remembered as a pioneering figure in noise control engineering. However, his groundbreaking work at IBM also helped to lay the foundation for the digital revolution that would transform society in the late 20th century.

Lang‘s journey began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he earned a Master of Science in acoustics in 1949. At the time, computers were still in their infancy, with IBM‘s first commercial electronic computer, the 701, released just three years earlier. As Lang launched his career at the architectural acoustics firm Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN), digital technology was beginning to emerge as a powerful tool for scientific research and engineering.

In 1958, IBM recruited Lang to lead the development of a comprehensive noise control program for the company‘s rapidly expanding line of business machines and electronic equipment. It was in this role that Lang‘s expertise in acoustics would intersect with the cutting edge of computing technology.

Pioneering Noise Control at IBM

As the 1960s ushered in a new era of mainframe computers and high-speed impact printers, complaints about office noise began to rise. Recognizing the need to address this issue, William Lang established IBM‘s first dedicated acoustics laboratory in Poughkeepsie, New York.

The lab, which featured state-of-the-art facilities including an anechoic chamber and reverberation room, allowed Lang and his team to conduct detailed noise measurements and analysis using the latest instrumentation and data processing techniques. In a 1963 paper presented at the IEEE International Convention, Lang described the use of a punch card-programmed computer to generate noise spectra from 1/3-octave band data, an early example of leveraging digital technology for acoustic analysis.[^1]

Lang‘s team made significant strides in understanding the sources of noise in IBM‘s products and developing innovative solutions to mitigate them. One key area of focus was the design of quieter print mechanisms for high-speed impact printers. Through a combination of mechanical isolation, damping materials, and acoustic shielding, Lang and his colleagues were able to reduce printer noise levels by as much as 10 dBA, a substantial improvement that helped to make IBM‘s printers more tolerable in office environments.[^2]

Another critical aspect of Lang‘s work at IBM involved the development of new sound-absorbing materials and structures to control noise in computer rooms and data centers. In a 1974 article in the IBM Journal of Research and Development, Lang detailed the use of perforated metal panels filled with fiberglass absorbers to reduce reverberant noise in computer installations.[^3] These designs, optimized using computer modeling techniques, set a new standard for acoustic performance in the industry.

Advancing Digital Signal Processing

As digital technology continued to advance throughout the 1970s and 1980s, William Lang recognized its potential to revolutionize the field of noise control engineering. He was an early advocate for the application of digital signal processing (DSP) techniques to problems of noise measurement, analysis, and reduction.

In a seminal 1975 paper, Lang and his IBM colleague Robert Beyer outlined the use of fast Fourier transform (FFT) algorithms for real-time spectral analysis of noise signals.[^4] This work laid the groundwork for the development of more sophisticated DSP-based noise reduction systems in the years that followed.

Lang‘s expertise in DSP also played a key role in IBM‘s development of advanced speech recognition and synthesis technologies. In the early 1980s, he collaborated with a team of researchers at IBM‘s T.J. Watson Research Center on the design of a DSP-based speech coding system that enabled high-quality voice transmission over digital networks.[^5] This work helped to pave the way for the widespread adoption of digital telephony and voice-over-IP communication in the decades that followed.

The Noise Control Act and Beyond

Even as he pushed the boundaries of digital technology at IBM, William Lang remained a tireless advocate for the broader field of noise control engineering. In the early 1970s, he played a key role in the development and passage of the Noise Control Act, the first comprehensive federal legislation aimed at regulating noise pollution in the United States.

Lang worked closely with Senate staff to draft the technical provisions of the Act, drawing on his deep knowledge of acoustics and noise control to craft effective standards and guidelines. The passage of the Act in 1972 marked a major milestone in the fight against noise pollution and helped to spur the growth of the noise control engineering profession.

Recognizing the need for a dedicated professional society to support the implementation of the Noise Control Act, Lang and several colleagues founded the Institute of Noise Control Engineering (INCE) in 1971. As the first president of INCE-USA, Lang helped to define the organization‘s mission and establish its flagship conference, INTER-NOISE, which remains the premier international forum for noise control research and practice.

Lang‘s leadership in INCE also helped to foster greater international cooperation and knowledge-sharing in the field. In 1974, he played a key role in the formation of the International Institute of Noise Control Engineering (I-INCE), serving as its first president. Through I-INCE, Lang worked to promote global collaboration on noise control standards, research, and education.

Quantifying the Impact

Over the course of his distinguished career, William Lang‘s work in noise control engineering had a profound impact on both the digital technology industry and society at large. Some key metrics illustrate the scale and significance of his contributions:

  • Noise levels in IBM‘s printers and other products were reduced by up to 10 dBA through Lang‘s innovative designs and materials, greatly improving the acoustic environment in offices and data centers.[^2]
  • The use of perforated metal and fiberglass absorbers optimized by Lang‘s team achieved sound absorption coefficients of 0.95 or greater, setting a new standard for noise control in computer rooms.[^3]
  • Digital signal processing techniques pioneered by Lang enabled real-time spectral analysis with frequency resolutions down to 1 Hz, opening up new possibilities for precision noise measurement and reduction.[^4]
  • Lang‘s contributions to the Noise Control Act of 1972 helped to establish federal noise emission standards for over 50 categories of products, from industrial machinery to household appliances.[^6]
  • Under Lang‘s leadership, INCE-USA grew to over 1,000 members by 1980, while I-INCE expanded to include member organizations from 45 countries around the world.[^7]

A Lasting Legacy

William Warner Lang passed away on October 23, 2016 at the age of 90, leaving behind an indelible legacy in the fields of noise control engineering and digital technology. His pioneering work at IBM, his leadership in professional societies like INCE and I-INCE, and his tireless advocacy for noise control had a profound and lasting impact.

Perhaps most significantly, Lang‘s career demonstrated the power of interdisciplinary collaboration and the importance of applying cutting-edge technologies to solve real-world problems. His ability to bridge the gap between acoustics and computing, and to leverage digital tools for noise measurement and analysis, set a powerful example for generations of engineers to follow.

As the digital revolution continues to unfold in the 21st century, William Lang‘s legacy serves as an enduring reminder of the critical role that noise control engineering will play in shaping a more sustainable and livable future. Through the continued advancement of digital technologies, from machine learning to the Internet of Things, noise control engineers will have ever-more powerful tools at their disposal to tackle the challenge of noise pollution and create quieter, more peaceful environments for all.

[^1]: W. Lang, "The Use of a Computer for Noise Spectrum Analysis," IEEE International Convention Record, vol. 11, pt. 6, pp. 124-132, 1963.
[^2]: W. Lang and R. Beyer, "Noise Reduction in High-Speed Impact Printers," IBM Journal of Research and Development, vol. 25, no. 6, pp. 307-317, 1981. 
[^3]: W. Lang, "Perforated Metallic Materials for Sound Absorption," IBM Journal of Research and Development, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 19-23, 1974.
[^4]: W. Lang and R. Beyer, "Real-Time Spectral Analysis Using the Fast Fourier Transform," IEEE Transactions on Audio and Electroacoustics, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 170-174, 1975.
[^5]: W. Lang et al., "A Digital Signal Processing Approach to Interpolative Speech Coding," Proceedings of the IEEE, vol. 68, no. 4, pp. 433-446, 1980.
[^6]: S. McDonald and W. Lang, "The Noise Control Act of 1972," Sound and Vibration, vol. 6, no. 12, pp. 16-20, 1972. 
[^7]: "INCE History," Institute of Noise Control Engineering,, accessed May 25, 2023.