Man Behind the JBL on the Label


Martini, Shaken Not Stirred

Just like singer and actor Dean Martin had once called himself Dino Martini (after opera star Nino Martini), until bandleader Sammy Watkins told him to anglicize it, James Bullough Lansing was born a Martini, James Martini. This important date to his family and his audio fans was January 14, 1902. The event took place in Greenridge, Illinois named after the bright green painted houses for most of the workers in this coal mining town of 300 souls in Nilwood Township, Macoupin County, Illinois. The father, Henry, a coal mining engineer originally from Saint Louis, Missouri, married Margaret "Grace" Erbs of Central City, Illinois. James was the ninth of his 13 siblings (number 14 never survived infancy) and they did not stay put very long as the father frequently relocated due to career demands. Why James afterwards lived with the Bullough family in Litchfield is sketchy, some information comes from the last surviving brother, Bill Martin (I guess he and his other three brothers took Dean's route). He helped fill the gaps in a 1981 interview used by biographer John M. Eargle. He took the Bullough's name for his middle name and we will investigate reasons for his last name further along.

Current Fads

The lad James was a natural born tinkerer, motivated to awe and aggravate friends along with family. At ten years of age he had more than just a scientific purpose for building his own Leyden jar, a glass capacitor first devised in 1745 by Pieter van Musschenbroek and Ewald G. von Kleist from the University in the town from which it's named. This unusual toy that can store electricity, was literally quite shocking to his closest peers! Now, as a pre-adolescent, he was not content just to listen to the crystal radio set he had built, he built his own radio transmitter, not from a kit, but from various gathered and assembled parts. It turned out to strong enough to get the unwanted attention at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. Therefore they sent swabbies out to his house not to congratulate a technical genius, but to oversee the dismantling of the young pirate's station.

Singin' through you to me;
Thunderbolts caught easily,
Shouts the truth peacefully,
--Captain Beefhart

During all this extracurricular activity, James first made it through Springfield's Lawrence Middle and then on to be a Springfield High School grad. Afterwards he entered a business school there, (perhaps the one at the Lawrence Education Center, which had a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). His mechanical aptitude brought a paycheck with the need for servicing automobiles, and his talent was further aided with sponsorship by a local automobile dealer to take courses in Detroit, Michigan. While there, he obviously became familiar with Lansing 80 some miles north and east of him.

Latter Day Sounds

James Martini was still living at home up until the first day of November, 1924, but calamitously his mother, only 54 passed away, which became an impetus to leave home. For unknown reasons (other than maybe because the Baldwin Radio Company was headquartered there),  he relocated to East Mill Creek, now part of Salt Lake City, Utah. Nathaniel Baldwin, when not promoting a more fundamentalist stance of his LDS (Mormon) church (he was for polygamy), had seen a need for better amplification than afforded by what was currently used by telephones, especially the receiver. He had developed a compressed air system originally, but working with copper coiled wire and a mica diaphragm, he produced the first higher quality headphone: and only interested party in his patent was the Naval Department. He additionally started producing those horn type phonograph speakers.

Love, Sound, Radio Waves, and Money are in the Air

Meanwhile, by 1925, Jim had  worked for a Salt Lake radio station as an engineer, where he met Glenna Peterson, two years his junior, and they got to know each other better at a dance. He left the station to be employed with Felts Auto Parts as his day job, while he worked in a workshop provided by them so he could continue fiddling with electronics, mostly radios and loudspeakers, along with Fred Peterson, his girlfriend's 17 year old brother. They began to augment this technology to the point on which he could brag to almost having the best speakers around.  In 1926 James Martini sat down with Nathaniel asking to work for Baldwin, largest in the U.S., but was turned down.  That was a blessing in disguise allowing Jim, as his associates called him, to leave Felts and start the Lansing Manufacturing Company, setting up assembly in a basement whose access was by elevator. His girlfriend gave him the idea to change his name to Lansing, and now Jim would be the James Bullough Lansing we are all more familiar with. Andrew Peterson joined the two of them for a while and after a bit the fame of his product became known as radio manufacturers were buying his product.     Hearing these accolades, Nathaniel Baldwin made an offer to buy the company thus giving James the opportunity to turn the tables with a no. The Baldwin entrepreneur had started having some financial and legal problems, partly to mismanagement and patent issues. He eventually served two years of a five year sentence for mail fraud in 1930.  Andrew Peterson had a Provo, Utah friend, Feramorz Decker,  and he introduced his boy Ken, and 8 years Jim's senior, brought mature stability to the crew. It was at this time that they knew that Salt Lake City would not be the best marketing locale. California Dreaming became a reality but Fred Peterson declined the invitation to join them, though he remained in contact with his friends and family.

Coming Into Los Angeles ... Don't Touch My Bags If You Please

L.A. is my lady,
She's always there for me.
L.A. is my lady,
She knows how to care for me.
She's good to me, yeah, she's good to me,

And that's why:
L.A. is my lady, L.A. is my lady.
And you're lookin' at a man who doesn't ever plan to...
Kiss his lady bye-bye.

Yeah, I think I'll unpack my bags,
And hang around here a little while longer.
  --Sung by Frank Sinatra written by Quincy Jones and others

On March 9, 1927 they were officially incorporated in California and they set up initially in Los Angeles close to Figueroa Street at Santa Barbara Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd) . I guess Lansing thought he was established enough by this time, so he made an honest woman out of Glenna Peterson by marrying her in 1928. By 1929 when they needed expanded facilities, and moved to 6626 McKinley Avenue, they called Fred when they needed another hand. They evolved from the armature method to field coils and permanent magnets. They actually had sent samples of their speaker prototypes to him in Salt Lake City, one being a novel idea: a wall-hung loudspeaker. He would be part of a workforce that boomed to 40. Located conveniently close to them was one of the largest clients for his radio speakers, Jackson Bell Co. Ltd.; and also on the same block was another radio parts manufacturer, the Peerless Transformer Company.  In 1930 brother Bill Martin joined the entourage, (the other brother, George Martin, came a bit later), to make the mostly standard 6 to 8 inch speakers, while less demand was for the expensive and larger ones. (Sometimes elements like wound coils and cones were done at home). Don McRitchie learned from Fred about how the dedication of the extremely bright Jim was in his endeavors, even to the point of overnights at the factory, had a downside. Turning into a Mister Hyde sometimes resulted in angry outbursts and harsh debates. Ironically it was probably a conflict of ideas, which Jim would want his relative Fred's input on, that caused the young Peterson to leave in 1934. Their permanent headquarters would be a building built in 1926 at 6900 McKinley Avenue.  (Currently, as of this writing, the 13,050sq ft edifice is for sale for around 640 thousand USD.)

Hooray for Hollywood

You oughta be in pictures,
You're wonderful to see,
You oughta be in pictures,
Oh what a hit you would be!
Your voice would thrill a nation,

A fan worshiping at your throne.
You oughta shine as brightly
As Jupiter and Mars;
You oughta be in pictures,
My star of stars.
--sung by Al Bowlly

Movies were big in the early 20th Century, not stopped even by the Great Depression.  It especially took off when sound was introduced in 1929 in cinematographic marvel called the "talkies." The first successful feature was with singer Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, and there would be no turning back to the silent screen. However AT & T's manufacturing sector, Western Electric had the main technological background for recording and copying with tremendous infrastructure including distribution via their Electrical Research Products Incorporated. But by the beginning of the 1930s Metro Goldwyn Meyer's sound department head, Douglas Shearer was wondering if there was a better way than the current system of Western Electrics, which was still better than RCA's offering. This comprised of a system that used a straight horn. Western Electric used their 555 drivers in large re-entrant type exponential horns (they were 'folded'). They had a range of only 100 Hz to about 5,000 Hz, so by 1931 their one way system became three way when they added Jensen 18" woofers in open-back enclosures to push the bass, and for the high end, they implemented the Bostwick tweeter. There was a problem with the mid range being a bit behind the other two devices and lack of presence, so Shearer went about bringing in experts to make his own.

Tooting Your Own Horn

John Kenneth Hilliard, went to work for United Artists before finishing his Masters in Electrical Engineering and was instrumental in having UA compete with Warner Brothers' Jazz Singer that used the Vitaphone technique. He did every bit of recording, monitoring and sound editing for their addition to talkies, The Coquette. Interestingly, while he used Western Electric equipment, he made many improvements and tweaks which became the canon for others later. Western Electric did not at first take advantage of his advice. That same year, 1933, Hilliard came over to MGM to review their recording amplifiers, especially a 1500 degrees phase shift in the recording circuit that distorted speech. E.B. Harrison of James B. Lansing Manufacturing began making transformers with very high self inductance and relatively large coupling capacities. James Lansing would be further involved after Cal Tech grad John F. Blackburn suggested they have them design and make the drivers. Hilliard became the team leader, and they produced the Shearer Horn system, which used a two-way system borrowed from Bell Labs' Fletcher system. It was debuted in 1936 and won an award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for technical excellence. RCA and Western Electric would finally adapt this Shearer system, which used high-frequency multicellular horns driven by a driver with an annular slit phasing plug, but could not use the name. The large W-horn with fifteen-inch woofers operated in an open back setup. The woofers utilized round wire, and the flat wired high-frequency drivers, and both had three inch voice coils. Lansing's big competitor was Robert Stevens who left the MGM and started his own, Tru-Sonic. But there was some Big Brother activity on the horizon that was to change Lansing's life and career shortly.

Look What They Done to My Song, Ma

1939 was a bad year for James B. Lansing, his partner Ken Decker, a Reservist, perished piloting an Army Air Corps plane crash, at a time when his business needed him most. Enter George Carrington and E. L. Conrow, who had taken advantage of the Fed's 1938 anti-trust settlement against the Western Electric monopoly and left the broken up AT & T subsidiary, Electrical Research Products, Incorporated to form their own company, All Technical shortened to Altec, now Altec Service Corporation would pick up the contracts to fill any vacuum. But their old inventory would need supplementing, so three days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, they also took advantage of the Lansing Manufacturing Company's poor situation and acquired them: the assets, goodwill, trade names, and their 19 employees for 50K USD, changing the name to the Altec-Lansing Corporation. James Lansing, who was contracted to not put out his own 'shingle' for five years, was now Vice-President of Engineering, and the company was able to use Western Electric proprietary designs royalty free. Lansing, free from money troubles got back to the shop and work on components that would become obligatory in the industry such as: hydraulic forming of high-frequency aluminum diaphragms and high-speed wound flat wired  voice coils on metal mandrels (the first time used).

Here's health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we've fought for life
And never lost our nerve.

Hilliard worked at Altec-Lansing in 1942 working on radar for the Marine Airborne Detection program, with MIT's Dr. John F.Blackburn. Jim Lansing, during the wartime, concentrated with transducer and systems engineering, but eventually he found time for his own interests. James Lansing's 1943 hit was 604 coaxial loudspeaker that put together a diminutive multicellular horn and
mounted concentrically with a 15-inch woofer.  In 1944 James and John developed the two way system improving on the widespread Shearer one. The product developed was the 8 feet tall A4/A2 Altec Voice of the Theater speakers introduced in 1945 to much accolade with their wonderful deep end. They implemented an Alnico V permanent magnets an the VOTT eliminated phase discrepancies completely. The Alinco, which was also an economical solution, was a direct result of work done for the military. Chicagoan Robert Arnold had developed the Alinco at his Arnold Engineering Company, making a never before achieved precision on a big four-inch voice coil with its 4 in. diameter gap with a field strength of about 12,000 gauss.  Blackburn was the one that got around Western Electric's patent legal grumbling about their patented annular slits in the high-frequency model 288 phasing plug and stopped the former technology's acoustic errors by enclosing the flared horns in ported cabinets, and the The A4 utilized a single 210, the name for these sound boxes with attached wing walls to reinforce the bass response. Their product gave a 2-8db efficiency boost than their predecessors and others in the field. The A2  was also winged and used 2-210's, side-by-side. By 1955 the VOTTs were the standard in all large movie theaters, until the 90s.

JBL = James Better Get a Lawyer

The year I was born, 1946, James B. Lansing was reborn, of a business sort, that is, he was now free to set out on his own. Chauncey Snow, and Chester L. Noble were also principals that 1 October beginning of Lansing Sound, Incorporated. But, just like Old MacDonald and his farm expanding to cook and sell food with that name, Altec-Lansing took offense at the use of, well, his name in the company nomenclature. Fortunately, James Lansing and George Carrington worked it amicably out that he could change the name to James B. Lansing Sound, Incorporated. His LA headquarters was at 510 South Spring Street, but he also gave an address for his small plant at an Oceanside suburb, San Marcos, in San Diego County where he had his other hobby, an avocado and citrus ranch. Here he further developed his Iconic model D101 fifteen-inch loudspeaker. The only problem it was basically identical to Altec-Lansing's 515 theater woofer with an aluminum dome and with venting through the back of the magnet structure. But the real issue was the Iconic name, James had forgotten he lost the rights to it, therefore Altec filed a cease and desist order. Back to the drawing board, James still made theater speakers to compete with his former employers, and his D175 driver is still for sale. The four-inch voice coils in for low-frequency transducers, invented by him was initially used in D130 loudspeakers of 1947. Along with 15 inch models there was the twelve-inch D131 and eight-inch D208 using those Arnold Alincos mentioned aforehand.

Business As Usual, Bad

You better take care of business, Mr. Businessman,
What's your plan?
If you can,
Before it's too late and you throw your life away.
--Ray Stevens

By the end of 1947 he made loan arrangements with Roy Marquardt of the Marquardt Aviation Company to furnish manufacturing facilites, which at first were at the Marquardt plant at 4221 Lincoln Boulevard in Venice, California, until they moved at the end of 1948 to 7801 Hayvenhurst Avenue in Van Nuys. The deal, overseen by Board of Directors representative William H. Thomas, who had been with Lansing since 1946, and friend of Noble, was 10% of net sales, 40%  stock options, and they would front more cash if it was not detrimental:  They could also tap accounts receivable to collect debts. By the end of 1948's fiscal year he had lost $2,500 in operating costs and was in hock to Marquardt close to the tune of 15,000 bucks. His other partners, Snow and Noble, sold their shares to James Lansing, and he was now the main negotiator with Marquardt. 1949 brought more change, as the automobile related industry came back to haunt James, General Tire Company bought the Marquardt Aviation Company, which owned 70% of Lansing, but wanted nothing to do with audio related items. So, William Thomas left Marquardt to run James B. Lansing Sound,which was now 20 thousand in the hole, and they set up at 2439 Fletcher Drive in Los Angeles for yet another relocation. The Arnold company helped keep them afloat for several years, a loyalty going back years.

By September of 1949, after taking out an insurance policy on himself for 10 thousand dollars (that was a bit in those days), to paid to the company, then on the 24th he committed suicide. Glenna, who would go on to live until 2001, sold her inherited one third share to Thomas, who, with that money and another 10K of his own, continued running the business quite well from then on (at least until 1969), affixing the identification "Jim Lansing Signature Sound" on the pots. But the legal beagles sniffed them out, and Carringon and Thomas worked it out to label them with what we see today, JBL. The origin of the exclamation point on them later is a mystery. His tombstone has that icon on it.


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