John Victoreen – The Rest of the Story

John Austin Victoreen, LL.D., (1902-1986)
John Austin Victoreen, LL.D. (1902-1986)

Many in the discipline of hearing are familiar with his name, associated with the discipline of otometry in working with hearing impairment. What few know is “the rest of the story.”

John Austin Victoreen, LL.D., (1902-1986) known to his friends as Jack, was a self-taught physicist, engineer, and inventor, especially active in applied physics. He authored two books and numerous articles related to hearing enhancement, various technical papers on radiation and sound waves, and held in excess of 30 patents. He was born in Johnstown, PA.

Radio Was His Start
At the age of 17, he became interested in radio, and in 1919 started as a radio and radio parts manufacturer in Cleveland. He was one of the first amateurs to take radio tests following World War I. His first patent, at the age of 23, was for a high-frequency tuning device that could be used in radio frequency amplifier systems having constant frequency. He then became interested in designing and building high-quality radio receivers. His Heterodyne was considered by some to be the “Rolls Royce” of radios (Figure 1). During this time he developed an interest in vacuum techniques and made his own vacuum tubes under the name “Victoreen Radio Company”{{1}}[[1]] http://www.antiqueradio.com/corkutt_superhet.html[[1]].Poem 23

Figure 1.  Heterodyne device invented by John Victoreen.
Figure 1. Heterodyne device invented by John Victoreen.

From Radio to Radiation
Victoreen’s interest turned to radiation measurement, and in 1928, he founded the Victoreen Instrument Company in Cleveland Heights, OH (8506 Hough Avenue). He founded this company as a result of being asked to manufacture an x-ray dosimeter invented by Hugo Fricke and Otto Glasser. This was the first commercial x-ray dosimeter (http://artsci.case.edu/dittrick/online-exhibits/explore-the-artifacts/dosimeter-victoreen-condenser-r-meter-1928/) that accurately measured the intensity and total dosage of X-ray exposure (Figure 2). This  was an immediate success, it became the industry standard, and Victoreen emerged as an industry leader in radiation measurement.

Figure 2.  The Victoreen Instrument Co., founded in 1928, marketed the first commercial model, known as the ‘Condenser R-Meter,’ and it proved an immediate success.
Figure 2. The Victoreen Instrument Co., founded in 1928, marketed the first commercial x-ray dosimeter, the ‘Condenser R-Meter.’

The Victoreen Instrument Co., founded in 1928, marketed the first commercial model, known as the “Condenser R-Meter,” and it proved an immediate success. This instrument, consisting of an ionizing chamber connected to an electrometer, accurately measured the intensity and total dosage of x-ray delivery and of radiation. It soon became the industry standard and Victoreen emerged as a leader in radiation measurement.

When World War II started, Victoreen was the world’s only manufacturer of radiation measuring instruments. He was responsible for the design and manufacture of many of the radiation measuring instruments used by the Manhattan District, U.S. Corps of Engineers, as the original atomic bomb project was called (later called the Manhattan Project ), and was singled out as being important to its success. His company became one of the prime contractors to develop portable radiation devices for this project and for the highly secret Operation Peppermint project leading up to D-Day. Operation Peppermint’s mission was to counter the potential use of radioactive materials by the Germans against the Allied invasion of Europe. Fortunately, the Germans did not use radioactive material so the instruments were not needed. Victoreen’s company operated under secret contracts to manufacture vacuum tubes and instruments to measure radiation in the field by all the armed services (see photo below).

Figure 3.  US soldier using a Victoreen radiation detection device.

He made improvements in the Geiger-Mueller tube and developed a practical hand-held radiation detecting apparatus, the Geiger Counter. For this, he gained international fame. He also developed other radiation measurement devices and his company provided 95% of the radiation instrumentation for the Bikini and Enewitok atomic bomb tests after World War II (Figures 4 and 5). Following the A-Bomb project, John Carroll University in Cleveland awarded him an honorary Legum Doctor (LL.D.) in 1949, after which he became affectionately known as “Dr. John.” His company was considered to be the “first nuclear company”{{2}}[[2]]http://ech.case.edu/cgi/article.pl?id=EAEI[[2]]. A complete 107-page history of Victoreen’s radiation developments can be found{{3}}[[3]]http://national-radiation-instrument-catalog.com/new_page_26.htm[[3]]. By 1948, Victoreen’s instruments found extended use in cancer patient experimental treatment using radioactive cobalt at Ohio State University Hospital.

Figure 4.  The Model 247 was designed as a more rugged, waterproof version of Victoreen’s first ion chamber survey meter, the “little black suitcase.”  It was developed and produced in large quantities during World War II as part of the highly secret  Operation Peppermint.  http://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/surveymeters/vic247a.htm
Figure 4. The Model 247 was a more rugged, waterproof version of Victoreen’s first ion chamber survey meter, the “little black suitcase.” It was produced in large quantities during World War II as part of the highly secret
Operation Peppermint. http://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/surveymeters/vic247a.htm

The Model 247 produced by the Victoreen Corporation dates to July 1943. It is reported that this instrument was used at least through 1946 during the atomic tests in the Pacific. The earliest published reference for the Model 247A, the version pictured in Figure 4, is from the October 1949 issue of Nucleonics. The radiological control program for the state of Florida, which donated the instrument, claimed that it was one of the first instruments that they purchased and that it dated from 1947.

Figure 5.  By July of 1950, the Models 247B, C and D were also available.  The Model 247A was also given the military designation IM-3/PD. http://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/surveymeters/vic247a.htm
Figure 5. By July of 1950, the Models 247B, C and D were also available. The Model 247A was also given the military designation IM-3/PD. http://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/surveymeters/vic247a.htm

From Radiation to Hearing Instruments
Victoreen retired from the field of radiation physics in 1950, sold 80% of his company to General Electric, which asked him to assist with various projects (notably, the development of controlling water temperature for automatic X-Ray film processing, and making the first electronic stethoscope). He commented that the latter died a natural death because no physician wanted to admit to a hearing problem{{4}}[[4]]Radio Age, Vol. 12, No. 4, page 1, 1986[[4]].

He moved to Colorado Springs and worked as a consulting physicist at the Medical Center until 1962, during which he spent considerable time in otology. He also assisted Memorial Hospital in building their Isotone Department. It was in Colorado Springs that his interest in audio power amplification and frequency response led him into the discipline he coined as “otometry” in 1953. He then devoted his research efforts to hearing enhancement and founded the Vicon Instruments Company, a manufacturer of hearing aids and hearing related equipment in Colorado Springs.

Victoreen eventually sold Vicon to Alaska Interstate, and his son Robert (Bob) served as CEO for the company. This was estimated to be in about 1962, the same time he moved from Colorado Springs to Maitland, FL. Vicon was resold in 1975 to hearing aid industry personnel Marvin Pigg, Ron Morgan, James Nunley, and Chauncey Hewitt{{5}}[[5]] Vicon Instruments is now locally owned. Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, Feb. 23, 1975, page 110[[5]]. In June 1978, the company was sold to Don Schaefer and Mel Sorkowitz, who were both involved in hearing aid sales. Vicon was subsequently sold to a private investor and went bankrupt in the early 1980s{{6}}[[6]]Personal communication with Mel Sorkowitz, October 24, 2014[[6]].

The Victoreen Laboratory in Maitland, FL, under the name Otomet Corporation, served as a consultant to Vicon Instruments Company at least through 1968, and this author assumes that this had been the case since 1962 when Victoreen moved to Florida, though he could find no evidence of this.

John Victoreen died in Maitland, FL in 1986. This ended a significant, but under-reported chapter in the annals of hearing aid history. What I find interesting is that even with his illustrious scientific background, which few hearing professionals knew about and even fewer could match, many of them considered Victoreen as unqualified when it came to issues related to hearing. This was odd because he probably spent more time in the laboratory working on hearing solutions than most of his critics. I suspect that he knew much more than those of us who presented ourselves as experts gave him credit for. During his time in the hearing aid industry, he was indeed a “voice in the wilderness.” Perhaps we should have listened with more openness, and earlier.

About Wayne Staab

Dr. Wayne Staab is an internationally recognized authority on hearing aids. As President of Dr. Wayne J. Staab and Associates, he is engaged in consulting, research, development, manufacturing, education, and marketing projects related to hearing. Interests away from business include fishing, hunting, hiking, mountain biking, golf, travel, tennis, softball, lecturing, sporting clays, 4-wheeling, archery, swimming, guitar, computers, and photography. Among other pursuits.

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