James B. Lansing is one of the most recognized names in the world of professional and consumer audio products today. However, the first company bearing that name nearly passed into oblivion, narrowly avoiding bankruptcy as a corporate casualty of America’s protracted Great Depression. Lansing’s ability to surround himself with skilled engineers, his vision, persistence, and unshakable belief in his products resulted in two companies that continue to carry on a proud tradition of technical innovation and audio excellence. Those companies are Altec Lansing and JBL.
Lansing’s story of eventual corporate success is one of countless examples of American free enterprise during the twentieth century. What marked entrepreneurs then, as now, was the ability to see new technological trends and see the commercial possibilities of harnessing them. This is a cornerstone of American capitalism, which invariably results in job creation where there was none before and new products to meet the needs of other companies and the desires of consumers.
Born in Illinois in 1902, James Martini developed a fascination with the emerging field of radio and broadcasting as a youth. He attended school in Springfield, Illinois, and Detroit, Michigan. There is no record of his going to college; his father had been a coal miner, and higher education was not in the cards. In 1925 Martini moved to Salt Lake City.
It was during this period that Martini changed his name to James Bullough Lansing. For years, the choice of that name was a mystery, but a future business associate, John Edwards, recalled that the young James Martini had worked in Lansing, Michigan. Lansing had told Edwards this was where he had received the inspiration for his new last name. Lansing took the middle name Bullough from a family he had briefly lived with in Litchfield, Illinois. The Lansing Manufacturing Company started business in Salt Lake City, but Lansing moved to Los Angeles in 1927, where he could supply speakers to a number of radio manufacturers.
The company manufactured loudspeakers primarily for the booming radio and radio consoles market. To keep overhead low at first, the cones and voice coils were made at home during the evenings and all the speaker components assembled at the small manufacturing facility the next day. Business grew slowly for the next several years. A new development in motion pictures would alter the course of Lansing’s small company. That new development was the advent of sound.
A number of companies were working on adding sound to the silent film, but Western Electric paved the way. By 1924 the company was ready to pitch its system to Hollywood. Warner Bros, was the first company to step up to the plate. A joint venture was formed, the Vitaphone Corporation, to work on the development of sound motion pictures. Within four months, the first motion picture with synchronized music and sound effects, Don Juan, made its premier at Warner’s Theater in New York City in 1926. However, it was Warner Bros.’ The Jazz Singer of 1927, starring Al Jolson, that really put talking pictures on the map.
Western Electric formed a subsidiary to handle nontelephone-related business, Electrical Research Products, Inc. (ERPI). This new division developed and distributed studio recording equipment and theater sound systems, and by 1929 ERPI had equipped over 2,300 theaters. Western Electric became a powerhouse in the field of film sound, from sound recording during filming to playback in theaters across the country.
Douglas Shearer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s sound department, did not like the Western Electric system, in part because audio quality needed perfecting. Shearer called in John Hilliard, with degrees in physics and electrical engineering, to tackle the problem. At United Artists, Hilliard had been in charge of recording, monitoring, and sound editing for several years before being lured to MGM to work for Shearer in 1933. Hilliard met with Western Electric engineers to recommend changes to improve the system, but discussions proved fruitless.
Systems Needed Improvement
Hilliard met a brilliant young engineer, John Blackburn, who held a doctorate in physics from the California Institute of Technology. At Hilliard’s urging, Blackburn went to work for Lansing in 1934. After attending a show of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, both men believed the sound systems they observed could stand serious improvement. Discussions took place between Lansing and Blackburn at Lansing’s company, and Hilliard and Shearer at MGM. This collaborative effort and final design became known later as the Shearer Horn.
The prototype that emerged used four Lansing 15-inch cone woofers with a multicell horn designed by Robert Stephens of MGM, using a Lansing compression driver. Tests in actual theaters were so successful that 150 units were ordered, to be installed in MGM’s Loew’s Theater Circuit. RCA and Western Electric received contracts to build 75 units each. Although Lansing did not receive a contract to build the systems, his company did supply RCA with the speaker components for its system, and he was free to build and market units of his own. He chose to name it the Shearer Horn System — RCA and Western Electric did not — and this proved a brilliant marketing move. The Shearer Horn put Lansing’s company on the map, and many movie moguls felt Lansing’s system was superior.
In 1937, Lansing introduced the Iconic. The knowledge gleaned from the Shearer Horn System inspired Lansing and Blackburn to design a compact speaker enclosure using one 15-inch woofer and a smaller multi-cell horn. The Iconic earned such a reputation in the field of recording and playback that music greats including Les Paul selected it for their personal studios. Lansing established the standard for studio monitors, and it is a reputation the company holds to this day.
In 1937 Western Electric was forced by the U.S. Supreme Court to divest itself of its movie theater service division, ERPI. Three engineers of the division, led by George Carrington, formed the All Technical Services Company and bought the assets and service contracts. That company became known as Altec. It continued to perform service work but needed a manufacturing source for parts and large components. Hilliard knew the principals at Altec and suggested the purchase of Lansing’s company. James Lansing agreed to the offer, and the Altec Lansing Company was formed in 1941.
Altec Lansing and JIL
At the time of the merger, there were nearly 300 Altec employees and fewer than 50 Lansing employees. James Lansing became vice president of engineering. Product emphasis was focused on theater sound systems until the outbreak of World War II. The company worked on an airborne submarine detection system, but wisely did not abandon new sound-product development. In the early 1940s, Altec Lansing introduced the 601 and 604 Duplex, loudspeakers, which incorporated a small multi-cell highfrequency driver with a large cone woofer. The 604 gained such a reputation it remained in the product line for decades and was the basis of other designs. John Hilliard joined Altec Lansing in 1943 to work on the airborne detection system for the Navy. He later collaborated with James Lansing on a vastly improved theater sound system. The Voice of the Theater was launched in 1945 and over the years earned a reputation worldwide as the finest in movie theater sound systems.
As part of the original buyout agreement with Altec, Lansing had to remain with the company for five years before going out on his own. This Lansing did, and those loyal to him went along. He founded Lansing Sound, Inc., in 1946. Carrington at Altec Lansing objected to the company name, so it was changed to James B. Lansing Sound, Inc. Lansing drew on his years of experience to design new 15-inch, 12-inch, and 8-inch woofers, and a new horn-loaded driver, the D175. The D130 15-inch woofer, introduced in 1948, was so well engineered it remained in production for decades, and continues today, with only subtle refinements, as the E l 30. The company produced its own version of the Iconic, but was barred from using the name. Lansing’s reputation succeeded in landing the contract to outfit the west-coast chain of Fox movie theaters with his Shearer Horn system.
Nevertheless, Lansing struggled to keep his company afloat in the sluggish post-war economy. He secured additional funds through the Marquart Aircraft Company, but Lansing lost majority ownership in 1948 because of outstanding debts covered by Marquart. General Tire bought Marquart in 1949, but didn’t want to shoulder the sound company’s debts. One of the directors of Marquart overseeing Lansing, William Thomas, left the aircraft company to keep James B. Lansing Sound going. Thomas became majority stakeholder.
Lansing despaired over the failing fortunes of his company, the numerous moves that disrupted business, and his loss of control. The company he once owned was drowning in red ink, and he saw no way out. On September 24, 1949, Lansing took his life.
Despite the shock, Thomas moved quickly to secure the company. A life insurance policy Lansing had taken out saved the company and permitted Thomas to get additional financing. He implemented a new business plan to increase sales and reduce manufacturing costs. In the early 1950s he implemented a marketing plan to make JBL a prestigious name among loudspeaker manufacturers and tap into the new audio world of consumer high fidelity. He brought in industrial designers and engineering consultants to produce new speakers for the highend market. The first of these speakers, the Hartsfield, used the finest components in the JBL inventory, wrapped in a striking cabinet designed to be placed in the corner of a room. The Hartsfield garnered accolades from audio editors and discriminating consumers for its superb musical reproduction. The advent of stereophonic sound resulted in the Paragon, an even more visually striking console design introduced in 1957, which became a legend. It was so coveted it remained in JBL’s lineup for more than 25 years. These speakers established a tradition at JBL of offering a top-of-the-line “statement speaker” that continues to this day. Thomas also changed the corporate name of the company to JBL to avoid further name conflict with Altec Lansing.
Altec Lansing was also producing outstanding designs of its own. It introduced a new Voice of the Theater home system in 1955 and offered other speaker designs for home-stereo use. Its professional line of speaker designs grew for indoor as well as outdoor concert venues. With the advent of stereophonic movie soundtracks, Altec Lansing had new systems to install in theaters around the world.
The 1960s and ’70s were decades of tremendous growth for both JBL and Altec Lansing. During the 1970s, the companies fought for dominance of the recordingstudio monitor market, with both claiming victory. In 1970 Altec Lansing dominated the studio monitor market, but by the late ’70s, JBL was the most frequently chosen brand for studio recording and playback. Each company offered commercial home versions of its professional monitors.
In the decade following, both companies competed in specific markets of theater sound systems, live concert sound reinforcement, and the high-end home-speaker market. The 1990s were a tumultuous time for Altec Lansing, and at the start of the new millennium, it was JBL that had the strongest and broadest product line.
James B. Lansing pioneered many new and lasting speaker designs. Few products are so closely tied to the name of a company’s founder. It is a name that continues to be associated with design excellence, quality, and product innovation. Lansing believed in his products that enriched the lives of countless people, surrounded himself with some of the best minds in audio to help him realize his vision, and cared about those who worked for him — traits that were also a part of those who succeeded him. Sadly, they are traits forgotten by a number of corporate leaders today. Those entrepreneurs who embrace them will find the greatest financial and personal success.