Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Wildlife Acoustics

Ninth in a series of articles about the history of the mill and its past and current tenants.

Employees of Wildlife Acoustics, Maynard, MA. Taken 2016.
Ian Arganat, founder and president, front row center, in sports jacket.
Images courtesy of Wildlife Acoustics, Inc.
“Seeing is believing.” Hearing is believing, too, if you know what you are hearing. Wildlife Acoustics, Inc., a company that was started in 2003, relocated from Concord to Maynard in 2013, and is an expert provider of devices that allow us to detect all sorts of animal noises and know exactly what we are listening to.

Wildlife has 16 employees working in Maynard. They are responsible for management, R&D, marketing, sales, etc. Basically, everything but manufacturing, which takes place in Westford. Aside from bits of the internal electronics, this is a 100% U.S. company. Occasionally there is even a bit of field testing in and around Maynard and Stow. Plus, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which includes the Assabet River National Wildlife Refuge, is a customer.

When asked how all this got started, Ian Agranat, founder and president, replied that by 2002 he had completed his sale of and responsibilities for Arganat Systems, a software company located in Maynard, and was at loose ends. He was out on a hike with his brother-in-law, an avid outdoorsman and birder, who casually wondered “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a device that could identify a bird by its song?” 

A million dollars or so later, Ian had a device that worked – sort of – but was far too expensive for bird-watching hobbyists. What he did have, however, was a device that was almost good enough to meet the professional research needs of environmental consulting firms, governments and academic researchers. A bit more R&D, and voila!      

Wildlife Acoustics Song Meter SM4BAT for recording sounds
made by bats. Click on photos to enlarge.
For professional bioacoustics research scientists, Wildlife Acoustics has a selection of devices to record and interpret animal noises in the air, on land and under water. Its products are used to study animals ranging from bats to whales. More than ten years of research has gone into the hardware (sound sensors and recorders) and software (pattern recognition and noise filtering) needed to detect and decipher animal noises. 

The product family includes Song Meter, which works for land animals and birds, a variation engineered for the much higher pitch needed for detecting bat sounds, and submersible versions for fresh and saltwater listening. The Song Meter could be used to determine if spring peeper frogs gather at Maynard and Stow vernal ponds. Recently, the company launched Echo Meter Touch – a device and accompanying software that can make smartphones and smartpads into bat sound detecting systems that in the recent past would have cost thousands of dollars.   

Echo Meter Touch mounted
on a smartphone makes the phone
a bat recording device.
One year ago, Wildlife Acoustics launched Song Sleuth, a $9.99 iPhone app that has become its most widely used software product. Think of it as the acoustic parallel to binoculars. The program was developed in a collaboration with David Sibley, a renowned bird expert. When birdsong is heard, the app records the song. Names and images of the three most likely bird species appear on the screen. Information and images from The David Sibley Bird Reference allows the user to identify the correct bird. The software then allows the user to geotag the location and share the recording with other birders via messaging or email. At present, the program can identify 200 of the most common vocalizing land birds in the U.S. Song Sleuth should be available on Android phones later this year.

Wildlife Acoustics logo
All this begs the question – what do animals hear that we don’t, and vice versa? Hearing is about pitch, in frequency measurement units called hertz (Hz). Humans can hear in the 20 to 20 Hz range, but hear best between 100 and 5,000 Hz. Dogs hear up to 40 kHz (kilohertz), which is why a dog whistle is inaudible to us. Cats up to around 75 kHz, which allows them to hear communications of small rodents such as mice. Bats cannot hear anything in our range, but can hear up to 100 kHz and higher. If bat calls are slowed down to 1/10th speed the sounds are in our range. Elephants can communicate with sounds at frequencies below what humans can consciously hear. However, these low-frequency sounds, felt more than heard, make us feel uneasy and “spooked.” Directors of horror movies have been known to incorporate these as sound effects.  

What humans hear listening to humans has some interesting quirks. Although people can consciously speak above or below their natural pitch, female voices naturally fall into a 165 to 255 Hz range and male voices 85 to 160 Hz. Research suggests that women are more sexually attracted by low pitch male voices (Barry White, anyone?), while men find women with higher pitched voices sexy (maybe not as far as the baby talk range). Male low pitch tends correlate with both larger body size and more testosterone. Women high pitch tends to correlate with younger age, and perhaps better fertility. Volume counts, too. Dialing down the decibels and getting a bit breathy causes the listener to lean in to hear, which works for both sides. Let’s talk about this.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Lichen ('li-ken' or 'le-chen'?)

Lichen. In American English, pronounced “li-ken” (like “liken”). In British English, “le-chen” (like “kitchen”). Either way, the word refers to a symbiotic collective of either algae or cyanobacteria in conjunction with fungi, slowly growing on trees or rocks. Some may have leaf-like lobes while others are flat, thin, and so deeply embedded into the rock that they look more like two-dimensional circles of green/gray paint rather than any live thing. The alga or bacteria use sunlight to make nutrients for the fungus, primarily sugar, while the fungus provides minerals, shelter from the elements, and retains water captured from the environment. Even when growing on living matter, such as tree bark, lichen are not parasitically taking nutrients from the host.

Lichen growing on stones set in a stone wall.
Lichens are complex. The novel idea that what appears to be one living thing is actually a combined effort dates to microscope observations by a Swiss botanist named Simon Schwendener. He proposed this theory in 1867. Leading lichenologists (great word!) of the time were dismissive. In time, the idea became accepted science as did the name for what was going on – symbiosis. And yet there was a problem. Try as they might, scientists could separate the algae or cyanobacteria from the fungi and grow each separately, but when remixed, the result did not grow as lichen.

Only recently, and only with the help of DNA analysis, did Toby Spribille discover that two fungi species, not one, were needed to create the complex structure of lichen. Fungi of the division Ascomycetes were the known part of the partnership. What his research showed was that trace amounts of Basidiomycetes fungi were equally essential, integrated into the outer surface of the colonies. This begs the question of whether every lichen we see is the successful result of a three-way blind date, or is there a physical means of creating new colonies by all three being relocated together. Looks like the latter.

Lichens get around. Volcanic activity about 20 miles from Iceland’s south coast ended up creating an island – Surtsey – in 1967. Scientists observed biocolonization over the years. Moss and lichen were observed within a few years. Over time, birds nesting on the island transported seeds caught in their feathers and in their feces, which also added to create fertile soil (as did their carcasses when they died), but lichens and mosses still dominate much of the island to this day.   

Lichen growing on a headstone in Lower Village Cemetery, Stow, MA
Lichens are slow-growing. The crustose types (flat, on rocks) may grow less than one millimeter a year from the edges outward, so that a colony a few inches across can be decades old. Lichenometry is the science of dating when stones arrived at a location, either a landslide, or fast-moving flood, or a stone wall. Confirmation of this as a useful dating device stemmed from knowing exactly when stones presented a surface to the air, as in stone split or cut for tombstones. With that as a benchmark, dating could be determined for archeological items too recent for radio-carbon dating. For human-made structures of wood and stone, tree-ring dating for the wood and lichen growth for the stone help confirm each other as accurate yardsticks.

Glacial erratic (boulder left behind by last ice age) showing more
 than one type of lichen, some bumping into their neighbors.
While moss prefers the north side of trees (sort of), lichen is not as particular. Moss is all about moisture, so in regions with dry times of year, the north side, not subjected to direct sunlight, stays damp longer after rains or morning dew. Lichen, with its slower growing pace, is more likely to end up anywhere on a tree trunk or on rocks on the ground.

Locally, just about any walk in the woods, or for that matter, in one’s own backyard, will yield many sightings of various types of lichen. In retrospect, actions on these woodland boulders and stone walls are ferocious territorial wars, fought small, slow and in silence. Lichen versus moss. Lichen versus lichen. At times, deus et machina a gigantic snail or slug speeds over the battlefield, rasping away at everything in its path. Interestingly, these terrestrial gastropod mollusks have a somewhat inefficient digestive system, so as they move along, defecating as they go, they leave behind the beginnings of new lichen colonies, perhaps boldly growing where no lichen has grown before (cue Star Trek theme music).

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Irving Burg: Mill Manager 1953-74

Eighth in a series of articles about the history of the mill and its past and current tenants.

The American Woolen Company had a last burst of busy-ness at the mill during the first years of the Korean War, but those contracts ended in late 1950, and that was the end of wool for Maynard. A group of local business people tried to arrange financing to buy the property in 1950, but that failed. Not until July 1953 did a group from Worcester calling itself Maynard Industries Incorporated (MII) close a deal.

What they bought was 1.2 million square feet of brick and wooden buildings, and more: the land included the mill pond, the Ben Smith Dam, Lake Boon and part of the Fort Meadow Reservoir. The purchase price of $200,000 equates to $1.9 million in today’s dollars. A few years later Lake Boon was relinquished to the Town of Stow in lieu of unpaid property taxes.

Irving Burg was hired to be the facilities manager six months after the purchase. His credentials were a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, and several years managing a textile plant. Which was exactly the business Maynard’s mill would never be in again. Burg thrived. His job was to keep the place running and rent out all the space. By April 1954 the mill was 50% rented, by November, 70%, and so on. Despite desperately necessary facility improvements, the operation was profitable by the third year and every year thereafter until Digital Equipment Corporation, a tenant starting in 1957, bought the entire complex (including pond, canal and dam) in July 1974. Burg’s history of the mill complex, written in 1982, mentions that in his 21 years as manager the mill had 82 companies as tenants.  

Aerial view of Maynard's mill, circa 1930s. In spring, but the pond is still
partially covered by ice. Note twin chimneys, one light in color. Also note
no parking lot on the left, next to Main Street, or on the right, by Bldg. No. 5. 
Berg’s recollections returned again and again to parking problems. One has to realize that during the decades as a woolen mill, employees walked to work. A circa 1930s aerial view shows no parking lots whatsoever. Dennison Manufacturing – in the gift wrap paper business – finally insisted on a dedicated lot, so fill was added next to Main Street, making space for 100 cars. Years later, more parking needed, so one of the two chimneys was demolished and the bricks added to the fill. This widened the parking lot that now hosts the Farmers’ Market. Digital, needing parking for Building No. 5, accomplished this by filling in more of the pond on the south side.

Speaking of Digital, only because of a timely bankruptcy of a small company named Maynard Mill Outlet did space open up when Ken Olsen and Harland Andersen came calling. After a few visits they committed to a three year lease for 8,680 square feet at $300/month. They and Ken’s brother, Stan – 100% of Digital’s employees – spent weekends painting the space themselves, then filled it with furniture bought from Gruber Brothers on credit. Digital’s early operations stayed close to the bone. Heating buildings on weekends cost extra. Raytheon shared one building with Digital. If Raytheon wanted heat, Digital got heat. Raytheon would call noon on Friday to specify which buildings it wanted heated. Ken Olsen would call at 1:00 to see if he was going to get his part of the building heated for free.

Similar view, one chimney, with parking lots. Courtesy Maynard
Historical Society. Click on photos to enlarge.
One more parking story. Into the 60s, space was so tight that people were allowed to park in the millyard, including on the railroad tracks. For the infrequent arrivals of a freight train on the spur that ran into the mill, all cars had to be moved. Burg had everyone’s phone number, and he and his secretary would hastily get on the phones. Whenever the call came, Ken Olsen would step out of his President’s office to move his car.
Burg retired in January 1989. His career, first at MMI, and then for Digital, spanned 35 years. Although at the time of his retirement he was working for Digital in Colorado, he was flown to Massachusetts for an exit interview with Ken Olsen. It’s a good guess that they reminisced about when back in 1957, Olsen had showed up to rent a smidgen of space in the mill. Burg passed away in October 2008. His collection of newspaper articles and his history of the in-between years (in the collection of the Maynard Historical Society) are essential to any understanding of the history of Maynard’s mill complex.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Powell Flutes (part of Buffet Crampon)

Seventh in a multi-part series AT THE MILL.

An inverted triangle logo and "Powell Flutes" grace the end of the Mill & Main building No. 1, adjacent to the parking lot next to Main Street. The triangle displays the stylized letters V Q P for Verne Q. Powell, the founder of the company.

Powell was a jeweler/engraver living in Fort Scott, Kansas. He came from a musical family and played piccolo and flute (wooden) in the town band. During a visit to Chicago he heard a European flutist performing on a silver flute. He was so impressed with the quality of the sound that he decided to craft a silver flute. As the story goes, he melted silver coins, watch cases and teaspoons to create the first silver flute made in America, in 1910. The keys were inlaid with gold from gold coins. The instrument became known as "The Spoon Flute," and is still in the family's possession to this day.

Verne Q. Powell (date unknown)
The flute impressed William S. Haynes, one of several wind instrument makers based in Boston. Haynes hired Powell as foreman, where he worked for over ten years before setting out on his own, in 1927. Powell's shop was on Huntington Avenue, near the New England Conservatory of Music and Boston Symphony Hall. From the beginning Powell flutes and piccolos were renowned as top-quality professional instruments. Still, the business grew slowly. It took 25 years to reach flute #1,000. Powell sold the company to a group of employees in 1961. The company moved to Arlington in 1970, to Waltham in 1989, and then to Maynard in 1999.

Buffet Crampon, a France-based winds and brass instruments company with roots dating back to 1825, bought Powell Flutes in 2016. Starting with a long history in clarinets and saxophones, the company now presents ten brand names, with showrooms in major cities in eastern Asia, Europe and North America. Prior to this acquisition, Buffet Crampon had student-level flutes, but with the acquisition gained top level expertise and reputation.

Locally, the company employs about 50 people and is adding staff, as Powell Flutes will continue as the high quality flute manufacturing division of the parent company. Mark Spuria, General Manager at Verne Q. Powell Flutes, mentioned that “Powell employs many flutists and other musicians who perform with many local groups,” although he was not aware of anyone playing in the Maynard Band. The company is considering outreach to the schools.

Engraved gold flute. Photo courtesy of Powell Flutes. Click photos to enlarge.
The William S. Haynes Company from which Verne Q. Powell had left to start his own company still exists, now located in Acton. The Brannen brothers left Powell in 1977 to make flutes on their own, and are currently in Woburn. Lillian Burkart and Jim Phelan met while working at Powell, married, and later launched Burkart Flutes & Piccolos, currently in Shirley. David Williams was at Powell, put in a stint at Brannen Brothers, and in 1990 launched as Williams Flutes, in Arlington. Lev Levit followed the same Powell-to-Brannen path before starting Levit Flute Company in Natick. Kanichi Nagahara started in flutes in Japan, then put in a few years at two Boston area flute companies before starting Nagahara Flutes, now in Chelmsford. Eastern Massachusetts is definitely a nexus of flute manufacturing!

Flutes can be expensive. Student quality flutes are available for several hundred dollars, but professional level flutes are made of silver, gold or platinum, and can range from several thousand dollars to as much as $50,000 for 18K gold. The most ever paid for a flute was at a 1986 auction at Christie’s, New York, where spirited bidding between two parties took the price to $187,000. The losing bidder was a banker who supposedly wanted the flute for his 12-year old daughter. The flute, a 1939 creation in platinum and silver from Powell Flutes was on loan to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art before it returned to Christie’s for auction again, in 2009. Anti-climactically, it was knocked down for only $37,500. The new owner was not mentioned by name, and it is unknown whether the flute has changed hands since. It is currently on loan to Brandon Patrick George, a well-known soloist and chamber music performer who also owns a custom-made, 14K rose gold, Powell flute.