Sidney Harman was born in Montreal in 1918, but he grew up in New York City. Interestingly, for a man who later became a co-founder of the famed Harman-Kardon company, his father worked for a hearing aid company.
Harman studied physics at a branch of City College that later became Baruch College, graduating in 1939. He went to work at the David Bogen Company, which made loudspeakers in New York. He served in the army from 1944-45, and upon release went back to David Bogen and became a general manager by the early 1950s.
In 1953 Harman and chief engineer at Bogen Bernard Kardon both quit their jobs and started a company with $5000 each called Harman-Kardon. The company created the first integrated hi-fi receiver, known as the Festival D1000.
The company became an instant success, and just three years later was worth about $600,000. In 1958 Kardon retired, and Harman produced the first hi-fi stereo receiver.
During the 1960s Harman became and activist and an opponent of the war in Vietnam that the US was engaged in at the time. He was also part of the civil rights movement, traveling down to Prince Edward County in Virginia to teach black students after the schools were closed in order to avoid their legal obligation to end segregation.
In 1986 Harman took his company public, and was its CEO until 2007 and then retired as chairman in 2008. That year he went to teach at USC as a polymath professor. He lectured on architecture, medicine, law, economics and other subjects.
Harman was an active philanthropist, donating millions of dollars to a huge variety of worthy causes and institutions. His love was education, performing and fine arts although he went way beyond those areas in his giving. He gave $20 million to build the Shakespeare Theater Company’s Sidney Harman Hall in Washington. He was also a trustee of the Aspen Institute, Cal Tech, Freedom House and the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and the National Symphony are beneficiaries of his largess.
His last great act was to purchase the troubled news magazine, Newsweek in August 2010. The $1 he paid for it dropped a debt worth $47 into his lap. At the age of 92 he was far from daunted. Under his leadership, and with the help of Barry Diller, the owner of the Daily Beast, the two news outlets merged. When Harman died in April, 2011, the Newsweek/Daily Beast project was still afloat, although struggling. At the time of Harman’s death, Diller said,
“Three weeks ago, when he told me of his illness, he said he and his family wanted to continue as partners in Newsweek/Beast in all events. We will carry on, though we will greatly miss his passionate enthusiasm and belief in the venture.”