Sidney Harman, who died yesterday, was born in Montreal in 1918, and grew up in New York City. According to Harman/Kardon’s website, “At New York’s City College, he majored in physics. In 1939, after he completed school, he found a job in the engineering department of the David Bogen Company, a firm that made public-address sound systems. He and his boss, chief engineer Bernard Kardon, quickly became friends.” In 1953, the two men partnered to found Harman/Kardon.
Harman and Kardon’s collaboration helped to create a new industry: high-fidelity audio. By 1954, the company simplified access to high-fidelity sound for the non-technical consumer with the introduction of the world’s first true hi-fi receiver, the Festival D1000. This product incorporated a tuner, control unit and power amplifier in a single chassis. Four years later, Harman Kardon presented the world’s first stereo receiver.
Harman bought out Kardon, who retired in 1956 and proceeded to greatly expand the company. By the mid-1970s Harman-Kardon was a leader in the U.S. stereo industry. The company profited by pioneering the concept of separate components. Consumers would be able to mix and match them to create their own audio system. And the convenient part for the company was that Harman/Kardon made a wide array of those components.
In 1976, Sidney Harman accepted an appointment in the Carter administration as undersecretary of the Department of Commerce. Upon entering government, he sold his company to conglomerate Beatrice Foods to avoid appearance of a conflict of interest. Beatrice then proceeded to sell nearly half of all the company’s holdings.
After Harman left the Commerce Dept. in 1978, he created Harman International Industries and went on a buying spree for new businesses, including several which Beatrice had previously sold off. Consequently, the company’s assets grew from approximately $80 million in 1981 to more than $500 million in 1989. By 1990, Harman International was selling consumer audio gear under such brands as JBL, Harman Kardon, Infinity and Epicure loudspeakers, as well as professional audio systems with such brands as JBL Professional, UREI, Soundcraft, etc.
Harman collected magazines from an early age and devoured them as quickly as he acquired them. A lifelong Democrat, Harman opposed the Vietnam War and for a year taught young black students in Prince Edward County, Virginia after the public schools were closed in a callous attempt to avoid desegregation. In 1980, Harman married 9-term California congresswoman Jane Harman.
In 2010, Harman made a splash in the publishing and political worlds by purchasing financially troubled Newsweek magazine for $1 plus $47 million in liabilities. His leadership resulted in the magazine’s joining forces with Tina Brown’s online publication The Daily Beast.
Having aquired a personal fortune over his lifetime of some $500 million,
Harman gave millions to education, the performing and fine arts and other philanthropies. Harman has been often referred to as a “Renaissance Man” with a penchant for quoting long passages of Shakespeare from memory, and who lectured at the University of Southern California in disciplines as varied as architecture, medicine and law.