In an ideal life one wouldn't have to choose between the pursuit of wealth and the pursuit of knowledge. By that standard and many others, Sidney Harman—the scientist, stereo mogul, Under Secretary of Commerce, professor, philanthropist, and magazine publisher who died on Apr. 14—lived ideally.
Born in Montreal, Harman grew up in New York, where his father worked at a hearing-aid company. He graduated from City College in 1939 with a degree in physics and found an engineering job at a loudspeaker company where his boss was a man named Bernard Kardon. In 1953 each kicked in $5,000 to make the first integrated hi-fi receiver, the Festival D1000. By combining the amplifier and tuner into one visually appealing machine, Harman quickly became the Steve Jobs of his day. College campuses, wrote Harman in a 2003 memoir, "were the breeding grounds for a generation who loved the music and felt that the best way to listen to it was in the dorm with our equipment. Harman Kardon was the symbol of hip, the mark of the cognoscenti."
With his fortune assured, Harman applied himself to chasing his interests. Primary among them was active citizenship. He was vocal in his support of civil rights, and when Prince Edward County, Va., shut down its schools in an attempt to stave off integration, Harman spent a year as a teacher to ensure that the area's black students wouldn't fall behind. A passion for labor relations inspired Harman in the early 1970s to work with the United Auto Workers on a novel benefits plan at Harman Automotive's Bolivar (Tenn.) factory. The so-called Bolivar Experiment gave workers the power to make improvements in procedures and to go home when their production quotas were filled, a system called "earned idle time." In the end the shortened workday created workplace tension, but it caught the eye of President Jimmy Carter, who named Harman Under Secretary of Commerce, a position in which he served from 1977 to 1978.
Having sold Harman International Industries (HAR) to Beatrice Foods on his entry into the Administration, Harman bought the company back in the 1980s. He took it public in 1986 and retired as chairman in 2008. Along the way he gave away many millions of dollars to symphonies, theater companies, and universities. He liked to quote Shakespeare, donated about $20 million to Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company, and took a position as "professor of polymathy" at the University of Southern California. In August 2010, Harman agreed to buy Newsweek from the Washington Post (WPO) for $1, plus the assumption of $47 million in liabilities. It was his greatest hope that the magazine would reflect his eclectic interests and dominate the thing he loved most: the American conversation.
Brought hi-fi to the mass market—and countless dorm rooms
Labor relations, education, Shakespeare
Buying and resurrecting Newsweek