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BYU's first physics grad earns posthumous Grammy

Harvey Fletcher at home in October 1975.
Harvey Fletcher at home in October 1975.
Mark A. Philbrick, BYU

PROVO — BYU’s first physics graduate, known to many as the “Father of Stereophonic Sound,” is being recognized by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences at Monday’s Grammy Awards.

The academy selected Harvey Fletcher to win a posthumous Grammy for his work with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, producing more than 100 of the world’s first stereophonic recordings.

Fletcher was the first to successfully record stereo sound, perform a public demonstration of stereophonic sound and transmit stereo sound live. He also produced the world’s first vinyl recording. All of these scientific breakthroughs were accomplished between 1932 and 1933.

Born in Provo in 1884, Fletcher graduated from both Brigham Young High School and Brigham Young Academy. As a student, he helped lay out the block Y on the mountains east of campus in 1906.

Despite failing his first physics class at Brigham Young Academy, he began to show great aptitude for the physical sciences, particularly acoustics.

Fletcher taught at BYU for a year following his graduation in 1907. He then moved to Illinois to pursue a doctorate at the University of Chicago, where he was the first person to graduate summa cum laude in physics.

During his time in Chicago, he worked with Dr. Robert Millikan on the revolutionary “oil drop experiment,” for which Millikan received a Nobel Prize in 1923.

Fletcher served as the head of the physics department at BYU from 1911 until 1916, and later became the founding dean of the College of Physical and Engineering Sciences from 1954 to 1958. The Harvey Fletcher Building on campus is named after him.

Aside from his work on the oil drop experiment and the orchestra, he is credited with the creation of the first functional hearing aid, artificial larynx and 2-A audiometer — a device still used today to diagnose and assess hearing loss.

Additionally, Fletcher was the first president of the Acoustical Society of America, and he was the second person to be elected an honorary fellow of that society. The first was Thomas Edison.

Fletcher, a husband and father of seven, died in 1981 following a stroke at age 96. The “58th Annual Grammy Awards” airs Monday at 7 p.m. on CBS, Ch. 2.