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Dr. Fritz Sennheiser, founder of the international electronics company that bears his name, died this past Monday (May 17) at 98. The official press release from the Sennheiser Group states his “biography as a developer and entrepreneur was indeed one of the most remarkable careers in Germany.”

Though he first became enamored of radio technology as an 11 year old boy – at which time he built his own receiver from simple and readily available components – he had another passion: landscape gardening. He actively pursued this as a career; however, upon graduating from grammar school in 1932, the dreadful state of the economy revealed little demand for such a skill. So he instead pursued his “second love,” enrolling in Berlin’s Technical University, where he studied electrical engineering with an emphasis in telecommunications.

At the Heinrich Hertz Institute, where he wrote his dissertation, he worked as a research assistant with Dr. Oskar Vierling, where he helped design and implement the “Grösstonorgel”:  a vacuum tube oscilator-based organ which was used at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. (Vierling, for his part, was an important member of the Institute, which was responsible for most of the intensive activity in electronic music and musical instruments in Germany during the 1930s). This organ was, in actuality, a modified grand piano which formed a reverberation unit that made the piece of music played sound as if it were being played in a huge church.

In 1938, when Prof. Vierling was offered a chair at the Technical University of Hanover, Sennheiser helped him set up the Institute for Radio Frequency Technology and Electroacoustics. Shortly after, during World War II, Sennheiser worked in the field of crytography, in the radio transmission of coded messages. Even after he left the Institute and became a successful businessman, Sennheiser maintained close links with the academic world (in both teaching and research) as an honorary professor at the University of Hanover until 1980.

Immediately following World War II, Sennheiser risked a new beginning in the city of Wennebostel, where he founded the “Laboratorium Wennebostel” or “Labor W” and brought in seven colleagues from the Institute. Tensions between Sennheiser’s venture and an Allied (British) telecommunications unit were great – to the point where Sennheiser’s keys were confiscated from him and a sign had been placed on their facility restricting employees’ entrance on penalty of death. But having a spare set of keys, Sennheiser instead opted to take the sign down, and he and his colleagues started work.

The first products the new lab produced were valve (tube) voltmeters, which were sold to Siemens in Hanover. Siemens was pleased and began placing orders for further measuring equipment. With news of their high quality products spreading, Sennheiser’s group was commissioned by them to build a replica of a dynamic microphone, the DM 1.  As Labor W began to gain deeper knowledge of the technology, they were able to eventually offer Siemens a new microphone, the MD 2, which was to be the first in a long line of Sennheiser microphones. Radio stations, with high quality demands, became an important customer base.

The successful MD 2 microphone was quickly followed by the MD 3 (also known as the “invisible microphone” for its tiny size), and in 1951, the company launched the MD 4, which because of is larger size and virtually indestructible construction, became known by its main constituency (marketplace stallholders) as the “bug crusher.” 1953 saw the launch of the MD 21, which had become something of a legend as the microphone of choice for reporters, and notable personalities such as President John F. Kennedy, and Louis Armstrong.

Sennheiser MD 21 microphone

1956 saw the introduction of the revolutionary MD 82 “tele-microphone,” which permitted the recording of sound from a distance with pin-point accuracy.

In 1958, Labor W changed its name to “Sennheiser” – in part because of the growth of the company, but also in because of a report from the company’s Australian sales partner claiming that the Australian Prime Minister refused to speak into a Sennheiser microphone because he assumed that “Labor W” meant it belonged to the opposition Labor Party.

Though by 1958, the company was involved in a more diverse array of electronics products, Sennheiser finally returned to its core business of wireless technology. In 1957, a German TV personality, having gotten tangled up in the wires of his Sennheiser microphone one time too many, proceeded to grab a pair of scissors and cut the wire – and managed to carry on with the show without missing a beat! It was a good bit of free publicity for a company at the forefront of wireless electronics. Their microphones offered an added benefit for TV in that their high density allowed wider camera shots in which the speaker didn’t need to be in close proximity to the microphone. Hollywood soon came calling and Sennheiser became the standard for the film industry. This important contribution to film resulted in Fritz Sennheiser being awarded the 1987 “Scientific and Engineering Award” by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences” for the MKH 816 shotgun microphone.

In 1960, Sennheiser achieved a further milestone with the MD 421 studio microphone. Apart from offering outstanding sound quality, this “all-rounder” for speech and vocals was exceptionally robust. This microphone is also still part of today’s product range and is the microphone of choice for radio networks.

The World’s First Open Headphones
Sennheiser once said, “Our engineers have always been given a lot of freedom. They are allowed to give free rein to their creative ideas, no matter how crazy they might seem. Often, it is these very ideas that result in the best developments and the best products. Any reservations expressed by financial managers who first of all had an eye on profit were thus reliably dispersed. After all, a company doesn’t only sell products but primarily sells ideas.”

It was this philosophy of Fritz Sennheiser’s that enabled the company to develop and patent the world’s first open headphones. While playing around, one engineer discovered that headphones – which at the time were all bulky, closed models – sounded better when the ear-pieces were open. The result was the HD 414, which even today is at the top of the bestseller list for headphones. “The success of the HD 414 came as quite a surprise, and when manufacturers from all over the world started to sign licensing agreements with us for our patent on the “open headphones”, things really started to get interesting”, said Fritz Sennheiser.

Sennheiser HD414 "Open" headphones

During the 1970s, there was a focus on globalization of the company. Their diverse and established sales force had succeeded to the point where 40% of the company’s revenue resulted from abroad.

In the meantime, work went on in further perfecting wireless microphone technology: noise reduction systems, Diversity receivers and miniaturization made Sennheiser wireless technology the star on all stages. Musicals in particular benefited from the inconspicuous microphone technology. In 1975, wireless sound also became available for the end user, as Sennheiser launched the prototype of cordless headphones that used infrared transmission. At the same time, professional microphone technology became affordable for home use with the introduction of the electret condenser microphone. 

“Money – just figures to calculate with”
Ever since he had founded the company, Fritz Sennheiser considered its independence to be one of the most important values. Therefore, he consistently turned down offers of takeovers or partnerships. “For me, money was always just figures to calculate with.” The company remained financially independent, invested only what its capital allowed it to, and enjoyed sound growth from its own resources. The final decision to remain a family company was taken in 1973, when Fritz Sennheiser converted the company into a limited partnership. The founder’s son, Prof. Dr. Jörg Sennheiser, became a limited partner and, on March 1, 1976, Technical Director. 

In retiring in 1982 at the age of 70: “I had prepared myself for retirement – although I must admit that I would have been happy to have carried on even longer, simply because I enjoyed it, and of course because we had always been successful. After all, it took me two and a half years to get used to not being able to make the decisions any longer…”

But of course Prof. Dr. Fritz Sennheiser maintained close ties with his company, attending shareholder meetings and visiting the factories and offices. The Sennheiser employees will remember him as a courteous, frank and responsible person of high integrity.

Dr Sennheiser remains one of the foremost pioneer entrepreneurs of the 20th century, and his legacy will live on in the extraordinary quality and diversity of his electronics products.

This account was largely adapted from a biography of Dr. Fritz Sennheiser appearing on Sennheiser Worldwide’s website: http://www.sennheiser.de/

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