Norman C. Pickering, an engineer, inventor and musician whose pursuit of audio clarity and beauty helped make phonograph records and musical instruments sound better, died on Nov. 18 at his home in East Hampton, N.Y. He was 99.
A man of intellectual energy and wandering curiosity, Mr. Pickering flew planes and designed solutions to help mammoth passenger aircraft manage vibration issues. He played the French horn because a baseball injury to his hand upended his aspiration to be an orchestral violinist. He studied the acoustical properties of stringed instruments, and he aided ophthalmologists by developing an ultrasound method for identifying eye ailments.
Record lovers, however, probably owe him the most. In 1945, Mr. Pickering, who enjoyed listening to records and was frustrated by the sound quality of recordings, developed an improved pickup — that is, the mechanism that includes the phonograph needle, or stylus, and translates the information in the groove of a record into an electrical signal that can be reproduced as sound.
Previous pickups were heavier and more unwieldy; styluses were made of steel, they needed to be replaced frequently, and the weight of the mechanism wore out records after a limited number of plays.
The so-called Pickering pickup (and later, its even more compact iteration, the Pickering cartridge) was introduced just as the favored material for records was shifting from shellac to vinyl, which had a lower playback noise level.
Originally designed for use in broadcast and recording studios, it was a fraction of the size of earlier models, and it replaced the steel of the stylus with a significantly lighter and harder material — sapphire or diamond — which lasted much longer and traced a more feathery path along the record. Because of it, records lasted longer and original sounds were reproduced with less distortion.
Norman Charles Pickering was born in Brooklyn on July 9, 1916. His father, Herbert, was a marine engineer who disapproved of his son’s interest in music.
“His father thought it was for sissies,” Mr. Pickering’s wife, Barbara, said. But his mother, the former Elsie Elliott, played the piano, and young Norman learned to read music sitting by her side on the piano bench. Her mother introduced him to the violin, starting his lessons at age 7.
As a teenager, Mr. Pickering hurt his right hand playing ball, so he turned to the French horn. (Its valves are played with the left hand.)
At his father’s insistence, though he would have preferred music school, Mr. Pickering attended Newark College of Engineering (now part of the New Jersey Institute of Technology) and after graduating went to Juilliard.
In 1937, he joined the fledgling Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, playing three seasons in the horn section, and in 1940, he joined C. G. Conn (now Conn-Selmer), a leading manufacturer of musical instruments in Elkhart, Ind., where he helped design instruments, including a Conn model French horn that has been in wide professional use.
After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the C. G. Conn plant was converted by the Sperry Gyroscope Company to produce aircraft instruments, and Mr. Pickering spent the war years in a Sperry research laboratory on Long Island. The work sparked his interest in aviation and led to his vibration control designs for Boeing 707s and 747s.
Mr. Pickering, whose first two marriages ended in divorce, married the former Barbara Goldowsky, a writer who uses her maiden name professionally, in 1979. In addition to her, he is survived by a daughter, Judith Crow; three sons, David, Frederick and Rolf Pickering; two stepsons, Alexander and Boris Goldowsky; and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In 1948, Mr. Pickering was among the founders of the Audio Engineering Society, now an international organization that disseminates news and information about improvements in audio technology.
In the 1970s, he worked in a laboratory at Southampton Hospital in Southampton, N.Y., where he developed his ultrasound diagnostic technique for the eyes. After 1980, he turned to his first love, violins, studying their acoustics; serving as president of the Violin Society of America; consulting for D’Addario, a manufacturer of guitar strings and orchestral strings; and building violins and bows.
Oddly enough, given the musical pleasures for living-room listeners that Mr. Pickering’s pickup engendered, the inventor himself did not envision it as a product for wide use; his aim was to aid broadcasters and recording companies. But as high-fidelity equipment grew in sophistication and popularity, demand for his pickups ballooned, and by the mid-1950s, his manufacturing company employed more than 150 people.
“It was a big surprise to me that the public took to this device as they did,” Mr. Pickering said in a 2011 oral history interview for the engineering society. “It was never intended to be a consumer product. It was a professional transducer for people in the record business. So we found that we were selling them right and left for people who just wanted to play records at home.”
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