A.C. Nielsen Biography

Engineer (1897–1980)
A.C. Nielsen was an engineer and entrepreneur who developed forms of measuring radio-listening and television viewership that became the industry standard.


Born on September 5, 1897, in Chicago, Illinois, A.C. Nielsen went on to start his own company that first specialized in machinery assessment and food sales, but moved on to measuring radio-listening trends. His Nielsen ratings later became the standard for detailing television-viewing habits. He turned over reign of his company to his son, A.C. Nielsen Jr. The senior Nielsen died in Chicago on June 1, 1980.


Arthur Charles Nielsen was born on September 5, 1897, in Chicago, Illinois. He later attended the University of Wisconsin, graduating valedictorian and earning a degree in electrical engineering while serving as captain of the tennis team.

Starts A.C. Nielsen Company

Nielsen worked in his field of study for a time before opening his own business, using money borrowed from members of his college fraternity. The A.C. Nielsen Company debuted in 1923 and was a success, initially focusing on machinery performance assessments. The business suffered greatly during the Great Depression, however, but Nielsen was able to turn the tides, reinventing the company and creating the Nielsen Food and Drug Index, which measured food and drug sales via a sample of stores.

Measures Radio Listening

In the mid-1930s, A.C. Nielsen purchased an invention known as the Audimeter from two Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors, Robert Elder and Louis Woodruff. Nielsen patented and tested the device for some years before launching the Nielsen Radio Index, which used the Audimeter to record which stations a sample set of listeners were tuning into and for how long, serving as a resource for advertisers.

Turns to TV

Nielsen's methods of tracking radio listening caught on hugely, and by the beginning of the 1950s Audimeters were utilized across the country in more than 1,000 homes. Nielsen then turned to the small screen, using devices placed on television sets to measure what a sample of viewers were watching. Utilizing a subset of viewing diaries as well, the company was able to provide viewing percentages to advertisers and broadcasters coupled with key demographic information.

Though there have been critiques over the methodology used, the Nielsen form of measuring TV viewership became the industry standard, and the company has refined its technology over the decades to adapt to different forms of media and programming. The Nielsen Company, which was purchased by Dun and Bradstreet in the mid-1980s, had also grown from a Chicago startup with a handful of employees to an international business with thousands of staff members.

Accolades and Honors

Nielsen had retired in 1957, with his son, A.C. Nielsen Jr., taking over the business. The senior Nielsen turned to philanthropic activities and over his lifetime received an array of awards and accolades, including Man of the Year recognition from the International Advertising Association and being knighted by Denmark's King Frederick IX. (Nielsen's father was Danish.)

A.C. Nielsen died on June 1, 1980, in the city of his birth.

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