He Went the Distance

Bernie LechnerThere is no formula for being great, and there is no formula for the Lechner Distance. Bernie Lechner was the former and came up with the latter. He died on April 11.

He was an engineer’s engineer. Engineers need to figure out problems, so Bernie was a listener. Engineers need to know what was tried before that didn’t work, so Bernie was a historian. Engineers need to work with others, so Bernie was a diplomat. Engineers need to be cost-effective, so Bernie was an economist. Engineers need to know what customers want, so Bernie was a psychologist. And engineers need to solve problems, so Bernie was an engineer par excellence.

He worked at RCA Laboratories, where even the librarian had a doctorate, but he wasn’t Dr. Lechner, just Bernie, the engineer to whom the doctors turned when they needed problems solved. When he left after 30 years to do his own consulting, Bernie was staff vice president, advanced television systems.

Consider those advanced television systems. They’re important if we can see more detail than traditional television transmissions deliver. The doctors discussed retinal angles. Bernie was practical. He surveyed the distances between TV screens and the places where the people watching them sit.  He came up with roughly nine feet, with little deviation, regardless of screen size. Today it’s called the Lechner distance (though Bernie chided me last year for calling it that; he said he never gave it that name, which is true). When the European Broadcasting Union conducts viewer measurements at a viewing distance of 2.7 meters, they’re paying homage to Bernie’s work.

He did much more, of course. I loved working with him in standards groups, even when he represented the other side; he always had good reasons for his positions, and he articulated them superbly. He received the first ATSC Outstanding Contributor Award; today it, too, is named for him.

Never mind awards. If you watch HDTV at home or if you look at an LCD screen, you’re probably benefiting from Bernie’s work. He wouldn’t have wanted you to thank him; that’s just what he did.

His funeral will be at Trinity Episcopal Church in Princeton, NJ at noon on May 3.

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