Author’s Note: Here in the Silicon Valley, geek has a positive, not a dorky connotation. I’ve put “in the Best Sense” in the title to clarify the meaning for those in other parts of the country who might not be familiar with the positive use of the term.
Occasionally I'd hear strange noises emanating from his basement office. Sometimes a squeak, sometimes a series of booms.
When I was a small child, my dad’s older brother Julian was just my uncle, quiet and eccentric. He smoked a pipe, and would hold conversations in his introverted way. He worked at home in New Rochelle, New York, and when we were visiting my Aunt Ruth and cousins Steve and Barbara, occasionally I’d hear strange noises emanating from his basement office. Sometimes a squeak, sometimes a series of booms. My dad told me he tested hi-fi and stereo equipment, and had his own company, which was intriguing.
I also learned from my dad that Uncle Julian received a ham radio license at age 14, one of the youngest people to do so. And when he was about 10, Uncle Julian set the kitchen curtains on fire doing an experiment with a chemistry set, apparently one of many youthful misadventures that drove my grandmother to distraction. My dad was mechanically inclined and took over lawn mowing and home repairs by the time he was in his early teens, while my grandfather traveled for work. By contrast, Uncle Julian avoided all such tasks and focused on his interest in electronics. He was accepted into the electrical engineering curriculum at The Cooper Union in New York City, a very competitive institution at that time.
By the time I was in my teens, Uncle Julian had a regular column evaluating equipment for Hi-Fi Stereo Review magazine (later Stereo Review).* I thought this was fascinating. While I didn’t talk to him about it in detail, he planted the seed that one could be a writer about technical subjects–indeed, I consider him one of the first “technical writers” in a modern sense. My favorite recollection of this time is when I was invited down to his basement office with my dad and my cousin Steve to see the new “quad” speaker set he was testing. The sound surrounded us and we enjoyed the experience, although quad never took off.
But, until I got to college and into my 20s, I had no idea that Uncle Julian was famous. I started understanding his fame (and some would say notoriety) when young men whom I met as friends or dates noticed my last name. They would comment, “Oh, Hirsch … I’m familiar with a Julian Hirsch.”
“He’s my uncle,” I would reply. They would immediately act very impressed or excited and say how they followed every word of his column. Apparently Uncle Julian had a lot of fanboys (they were all males back then) and some detractors.
Uncle Julian continued to grow his career along with the audio industry. By the time he retired I had been in California for decades, but did see him and my aunt at weddings (including my own) and other family events for relatives on the west coast.
By the year 2000, Uncle Julian started to have complications related to surgery to remove a benign brain tumor, and was dealing with dementia. When my dad became ill, they were able to talk, but when my dad died at the end of 2001, in consultation with my Aunt Ruth, we decided not to tell Uncle Julian. We knew he’d be sad and upset, but then would forget, and we didn’t want to have him grieve over and over as if for the first time. Uncle Julian passed away in 2003.
I’ve respected Uncle Julian as a model for my career in scientific, technical, and marketing writing. In researching an image for this story, I realized I had underestimated the degree of fame he achieved. Besides the tributes to him in technical magazines, there was an obituary in the New York Times, and a current Wikipedia page. He is referenced in Wikipedia as ” … one of the most influential writers ever in consumer electronics.” This is a moving tribute to add to the memories of my Uncle Julian.
*Back issues of the magazine from the 1950s and subsequent decades are available online.
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.