The Founder: JBL started with J.B.L. – James Bullough Lansing. An obsessed and possibly manic-depressive genius, Lansing invented practically everything he could – even his own name.
He was born James Martini on January 14, 1902, in Macoupin County, Illinois, to Henry Martini and Grace Erbs Martini. Macoupin County, located north of St. Louis, was farming and mining country, and Henry Martini was a mining engineer.
His son (the ninth of the Martinis’ fourteen children) took after him. Engineering and machinery fascinated young James. It’s said that around age 12, he built a small transmitter that put out a signal strong enough to disrupt a local radio station.
James attended middle school and high school in Springfield, Illinois, and took courses at a small business college there, but he never got a formal degree in engineering. At some point in his young adulthood, he added the middle name of Bullough (after a family he knew in his late teens) and – for reasons that seem lost in the past – changed his last name to Lansing.
He spent the early 1920s as an auto mechanic. After his mother died in late 1924, Lansing moved to Salt Lake City. The town apparently had work for an ambitious, driven young man who knew and liked electrical machinery, and Lansing became an engineer at a local radio station.
But he wanted more. Not long after arriving in Salt Lake City, he founded Lansing Manufacturing Company to build radio loudspeakers. Soon thereafter, he found a businessman named Ken Decker to run the financial and marketing side of the business, and Lansing settled in to concentrate on technology.
The south-western United States’ centre of electronics manufacturing wasn’t Salt Lake City, though. It was Los Angeles. Lansing moved his company there in early 1927.
His timing was perfect. On October 6, Warner Brothers premiered the first talking feature film, The Jazz Singer. The film was such a sensation that every studio in Hollywood suddenly demanded sound equipment for their sound stages and for the networks of cinemas that they owned.
Unfortunately, the new talking film technology was crude. In particular, it was too weak and rough for Douglas Shearer, chief sound engineer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM, Hollywood’s biggest and most prestigious studio, specialized in lavish musicals and other films that needed great sound reproduction.
Shearer consulted experts who said that the best man to improve movie sound was Jim Lansing. From 1933 through 1935, Shearer and Lansing developed a system of horn-shaped speakers to improve cinema sound. The Shearer-Lansing system worked so well that in 1936, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave it an award for technical excellence.
Lansing Manufacturing was flying high until Ken Decker crashed – literally. A reserve officer with the Army Air Corps, Decker was killed during aerial manoeuvres in 1939.
Without Decker’s talent for business, Lansing Manufacturing suffered. By 1941, the only way its founder could keep it going was to sell it.
Altec Service Corporation, which handled maintenance and repairs for cinema sound systems, needed a source of parts. In December of 1941, Altec bought Lansing Manufacturing for a reported $50,000 (about $730,000 in 2009 dollars).
As the newly renamed Altec Lansing Corporation’s Vice-President of Engineering, Jim Lansing was free to focus on developing new technology. He and his engineering team invented, among other things, the A-4 speaker system, which became a standard for cinemas.
But Lansing had gotten used to running his operations his own way, and he clashed with Altec Lansing’s management. His contract ran for five years. When its term was up, he quit.
On October 1, 1946, he founded Lansing Sound, Incorporated. Altec Lansing complained that using the name Lansing so prominently impinged on Altec Lansing’s rights to the word. LSI soon tucked its founder’s name snugly inside a new identity: James B. Lansing Sound, Incorporated.
Lansing soon developed speakers for cinemas. His first components were virtual copies – right down to the model names – of the speakers that he had created at Altec Lansing.
Lansing was a brilliant engineer with an eye for innovative designs and materials, but he was a poor businessman. His company lost money and by late 1949 was about $20,000 (roughly $180,000 in 2009 dollars) in debt.
Lansing had always suffered from bouts of depression. On September 24, 1949, apparently upset over the decline of his beloved business, the founder of JBL took his own life.
Lansing had had a $10,000 life insurance policy, one third of which went to his wife and the remaining two thirds to the company. Using the company’s share, about $60,000 in 2009 dollars, corporate treasurer William Thomas began to pull the firm out of debt. In the early 1950s, Thomas bought out the share of the company that Mrs. Lansing had inherited and became the sole owner.
Thomas knew that he had a great asset: Jim Lansing’s name. Despite Lansing’s financial agonies, he still had a tall reputation for creating top-quality audio electronics. Thomas launched the Jim Lansing Signature series of loudspeakers, devoted to superb quality in design and manufacturing.
But one series of speakers wasn’t enough to keep the company going – especially after Altec Lansing objected to Thomas’ use of the valuable Lansing name. After long negotiations, Thomas agreed to stop using the word. From then on, James B. Lansing Sound, Incorporated, would refer to itself and its products as JBL.
Thomas kept his company moving with the times. As cinemas added stereophonic sound, Thomas signed contracts for JBL to design new components for cinema audio manufacturers Ampex and Westrex.
The early 1950s saw the birth of high-quality consumer audio. The phrase “hi-fi” (high fidelity) entered the American vocabulary, and popular magazines presented photo spreads on new record players. To take advantage of the new market, Thomas hired industrial designer William Hartsfield, who produced a loudspeaker named, naturally, the Hartsfield. The speaker was a hit, and JBL was suddenly a power player in home audio.
In 1957, engineer Richard Ranger and designer Arnold Wolf created the striking sound system Paragon. Housed in an elegant hardwood cabinet, the Paragon appealed to consumers as both a superb record player and a stylish piece of living-room furniture. It proved so popular that JBL continued to make and sell the Paragon for a good 25 years.
Even while it was growing strong in speakers and other components for the home, JBL was also spreading into what is now called pro audio. In the 1950s, electric-guitar pioneer Leo Fender called JBL’s model D130 the ideal loudspeaker for his creations. Guitarists everywhere started plugging their axes into D130 speakers.
A few years later, in the early 1960s, JBL worked with Capitol Records (home of the Beatles and the Beach Boys) to develop monitors for recording studios. The resulting system, the 4320, was so successful that to this day, JBL’s professional division develops components for recording studios worldwide.
Encouraged by these successes, William Thomas formally established JBL Professional as a separate division of the company in the late 1960s. The consumer division continued on, known simply as JBL.
Sidney Harman was the founder (with Bernard Kardon) of the audio company Harman Kardon. The company was as innovative as JBL; Harman Kardon had, among other things, created the stereo receiver.
But Harman wanted to grow stronger in the audio business. Harman Kardon had made him so prosperous that he could and did acquire the Jervis Corporation, a small conglomerate based in New York. Jervis made an offer for JBL.
After twenty years building one of the biggest successes in audio, William Thomas was willing to sell him JBL. In 1969, the deal was done. JBL now belonged to Jervis, which would eventually be renamed Harman International Industries, Incorporated. Arnold Wolf, designer of the Paragon (and the JBL logo), became JBL’s president.
Under Harman, JBL grew into something close to what it is today: an audio maker that takes its expertise in theatrical and recording-studio sound systems and applies it to the home. In 1969, the company installed the technology of its model 4310 and 4311 monitors (very popular in recording studios) in the L100 speaker for home systems. The L100 became an enormous success, selling more than 100,000 units over the 1970s.
In addition to using its existing technology, JBL spent the 1970s and 1980s developing new bursts of innovation. In the middle 1970s, for instance, JBL engineers developed Symmetrical Field Geometry™, a speaker assembly that reduces sonic distortion. A few years later, the company’s engineers created Bi-Radial® horn technology, which improves sonic performance over a range of frequencies.
Meanwhile, Harman International’s worldwide reach helped JBL serve people who might otherwise never buy JBL products. The company has made particularly strong inroads in Japan. Since the 1980s, for instance, ultra-high-end loudspeakers such as the prestigious K2 and the powerful, room-dominating Everest DD6600 have earned raves in Japanese audio magazines and high sales in Japanese stores.
For decades, Sidney Harman continued to lead Harman International Industries. In May of 2007, as he approached his 88th birthday, he hired Dinesh Paliwal as the company’s chief executive officer.
Paliwal, an engineer with degrees from the Indian Institute of Technology and Miami University of Ohio, came to Harman having previously headed up global power and automation technology leader ABB Ltd. About a year after coming to Harman International, he succeeded Sidney Harman as the company’s chairman.
The engineers, executives, and other employees of JBL watched these changes with considerable interest, but none of the changes swayed them from their usual concern: making great audio products. They’ve been setting new trends in fashion by partnering with sportswear company Roxy for a line of colourful headphones. They’ve been devising speakers and players for fresh sources of entertainment such as high-definition television, Blu-ray Disc™ technology and Apple’s latest iPod and iPhone models. And they’ve been keeping an eye on every other new opportunity coming down the road.
What exactly are those opportunities? Well, we can’t say what they are (we have to have some corporate secrets, after all), but we can say one thing. As JBL’s people continue the traditions of high-quality craftsmanship and technological innovation that have always marked the company, we’re sure that Jim Lansing would be proud of us.