We light a candle today for Dr. Sheridan Speeth. Today (January 26, 2015) marks the 20th anniversary of his passing.
Sheridan Speeth (1937-1995) held a Ph.D. in Experimental Psychology from Columbia, a master’s from Harvard (where he was a graduate assistant to behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner) and a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin. In his early career, he worked as a research scientist at Bell Laboratories and Cornell Aeronautical Laboratories and as a founder and director of R&D at Autotelic Industries.
Dr. Sheridan Speeth was renowned in scientific circles for his work in psychoacoustics. In 1961 Speeth was credited with discovering that humans could distinguish between underground earthquakes and nuclear explosions by listening to audible seismographic data. A classically trained violinist, Speeth believed musicians would be the most successful at this task. He hired teams of trained cellists, who boosted the reliability from 60 to better than 90 percent. Thanks to this and other classified work, on-sight inspection became less of an issue in international disarmament treaties and many trained cellists had steady jobs with the government. Speeth’s work was highlighted in the academic paper “Listening to the Cold War, The Nuclear Test Ban Negotiations, Seismology, and Psychoacoustics, 1958– 1963” by Axel Volmar of the Max Planck Institute, available for download as a PDF here. He also brought his expertise to bear on a film soundtrack. He bounced two sounds off each other, creating a lower frequency tone than would be possible to carry and convey on the soundtrack otherwise. Details on that film are available here.
Speeth’s later inventions included educational toys and devices for the severely disabled. Speeth, an idealist, participated in the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960s and then moved to India with his wife Susan and his children to establish a school for a group of children who fell below the caste system, then known as untouchables (now Dalits). The school, situated just outside New Delhi, was called “Why Not! A Centre for Total Education.” It borrowed loosely from Skinner, Montessori and others, and was envisioned during a time of educational experimentation and innovation in India less than 15 years after India’s 1947 independence. Spanning a spectrum of subjects, the Center attracted many young people traveling through India.
During the experimental school years, the school’s mailing address was 78 Sunder Nagar, New Delhi. Workshops illustrating the school’s approaches were conducted at schools in New Delhi including the American Embassy School.The school as described operated from 1969-1971, after which it became the Indira Gandhi School, operated by the Bharat Sevak Semaj. The Center continued to operate in Sunder Nagar, New Delhi, as a preschool until 1973. The logo below is shared with permission of the designer, Jo Hayward Haines, who was also involved at the school along with his wife Susan, and Baba Bedi.
The Center demonstrated by its practices the fundamental equality of souls, and rights of all children to a quality education, one that helps them discover themselves and the world they live in and nurtures them into adulthood, regardless of background. As such, a major focus was on curriculum development. Another was designing the responsive environment for the children, who hailed from a village outside New Delhi. At this Ashok Vihar school there was a small zoo designed and operated by the former director of a zoo in Istanbul, a garden operated by a couple of American farmers, an art program , a biology class and language and music instruction. The playground equipment, constructed of whatever spare parts could be found, embodied the autotelic principles he had designed and developed stateside. Please contact us if you have further information regarding that school or have information on outcomes for anyone who might have studied there.