Dr. Lee De Forest, inventor son of an Iowa minister, experimenting with heated filaments, introduced a grid of fine wire mesh into a vacuum tube and the world of electrically amplified sound was born. The year was 1906. A few years earlier (1894) Thomas Edison had come up with the first motion picture - a peep-show device he called the kinetoscope. These developments, within about 10 years of one another speeded the evolution of two great new industries; radio broadcasting and motion pictures, and led, coincidentally, to the eventual birth of Altec – LTV’s California based subsidiary in the audio field.
But before this happy conjunction took place, radio was to become a giant that nearly destroyed its less rapidly developing sibling. While the silent movie industry was perfecting its techniques generating from successes like Ben Hur (1907) , "Quo Vadis" and “Birth of a Nation” (both 1913), radio swept ahead under the impetus of World War I. Within a decade, radio had become a necessity in practically every home. What followed then was to be repeated later with the advent of television - people, in large numbers, quit going to the movies. If the motion picture industry was to survive, it had to bring sound to its silent screens.
As far back as 1894, Mr. Edison had experimented with synchronizing his phonograph with the kinetoscope. And Dr. De Forest, by 1923, had invented the "phono-film” and made the first public showing of a "talking picture." These pioneering efforts did much to advance the art but much more was needed. And quickly. Bell Telephone Labs, deeply immersed in the needed research and development, had progressed far enough to enable Western Electric Co. to make movie sound commercially feasible by the mid 1920's. "Don Juan" a Warner Brothers production, was released in 1926 as the first truly sound picture. It featured a musical score synchronized on a disc. The following year, Warners' came out with "The Jazz Singer" starring Al Jolson and effectively employing spoken dialogue. With the “Jazz Singer", the talking picture was born. Western Electric, seeing a tremendous new market opening up, scouted the country in search of engineers who understood the workings of the vacuum tube.
A young electrical engineer, fresh out of Texas A&M, had gone to work for the Bell Telephone Co. in Houston the year the "Jazz Singer" was produced. Seeing his first sound movie in 1923, he applied for a transfer to Western Electric, eager to become a part of this exciting application of the science of sound. His name was Alvis A. Ward, president of Altec. Mr. Ward was one of a group of young engineers, many just out of college, who went with Western Electric to service the needs or the exploding .talking picture industry. Recalling that early period, Mr. Ward said he thinks he installed sound systems in every theatre in East Texas.
The movies, in sound, had found the answer to radio. But they did not find an easy answer to the massive depression that spread over the country in the 1930’s. While Eddie Cantor was singing, "Potatoes are cheaper, tomatoes are cheaper, now's the time to fall in love - former movie patrons couldn't dig up the price of a ticket. By 1936, Western Electric decided to dissolve its big motion picture service organization. Rather than see this happen, a group of ambitious young engineers, headed by the late George Carrington, Sr., and L. W. (Mike) Conrow, and including Alvis Ward, went into action. They founded Altec (for "all technical"), more from faith in their own abilities than from the economic facts of the situation, and moved ahead. Predictions were that Altec might last two years.
Organized in 1937, Altec acquired the domestic theatre sound service and maintenance business of Electrical Research Products, Inc., the Western Electric subsidiary with whom its founders were associated. (This original business formed the basis for the Altec Service Company as it still exists today.) Mr. Conrow was president; Mr. Carrington, vice president and H.M. Bessey, secretary-treasurer. The fledgling company, composed of most of the country's talking picture experts, began life with assets of $23,499.66, purchased from Western Electric. Altec’s greatest asset was its people - 295 of the best trained and most experienced in the audio industry - but it was solely a service company up to this point.
If it was to continue to grow it needed to develop a manufacturing capability. This required facilities. A nearly bankrupt west coast loudspeaker company, Lansing Manufacturing Co., provided the needed opportunity. Lansing was purchased for $50,000 cash in 1941. Altec now had its facility to develop a source of supply for theatre equipment. Alvis Ward came West from New York to manage the new Altec Lansing organization. Prospects must have seemed bleak. The quarters at 6900 McKinley in Los Angeles are today remembered as a "hole in the wall." Packing cases served for office desks.
Only 25 people were on the payroll. Mr. Ward, who had been working in diversification areas with Altec, found real opportunities to diversify with the onset of World War II. Altec Lansing soon was at work for the Navy on magnetic airborne detection equipment. (Much of the work in this period was done in association with GSI, the company from which Texas Instruments was to spring.) With war's end, Altec Lansing continued its steady growth pattern. The "talkies" now long taken for granted, had really represented a tremendous forward step in advancing the technology of electrically amplified sound .They had led to large scale development of public address systems and to a conscientiousness of acoustics that had never existed before.
Accelerated work with vacuum tubes, spearheaded by radio, but also by the demands for better sound systems had opened up an exciting new market in huge auditoriums, churches and other public gathering places. Electronics, virtually unheard of in its modern-day sense when Altec was formed, was making its impact felt in every area or the country. Altec moved quickly to meet the demand for high-quality, life-like sound for which the movies had created the appetite. In 1946, the company acquired Peerless and entered the transformer field. The secret of an amplifier lies largely in its transformer, and Peerless gave Altec the exacting quality it demanded and the market expected.
The period between 1945 and mid-1963 is graphic evidence of the steady Altec growth LTV has come to look for in this important segment of its corporate team. In that period, Altec:
• Began manufacturing audio amplifiers.
From the initial group of 295 that came out of Western Electric to form Altec, the company has grown to a total of more than 600 today in Altec Lansing, Altec Service and Gonset. Merged in 1960 with Ling Electronics, Inc., parent company of LTV , Altec stands today as a well-balanced company, diversified, but well-established in the general audio field. In the area of quality audience sound it dominates the market.
In reviewing Altec's present position for Image magazine, Mr. Ward said the company's business is basically in seven baskets: Telephone repeaters, commercial sound, hi-fi components, transformers, recording and broadcasting, Altec Service and theatre equipment manufacturing, and two-way radio. "They are seven good baskets,” he said, "representing a nice, even diversification, and all concentrated in a field we know. When the theatre business is down, as it has been until recently, the other baskets provide built in insurance.
When the theatre business was badly crippled by the onslaught of television, Altec survived the storm by growing in other areas. But rather than abandon the movies altogether, the company used its unique skills and experience to give the industry a badly needed boost through its work in the development of stereophonic sound. The fabulous growth of the telephone market (80 million subscribers by current count) has displaced the motion picture business as Altec's biggest single source of sales. Transistorized telephone repeater sales have jumped phenomenally thus far this year, mostly through a marketing effort directed toward the independent telephone companies. Pointing out that Altec has only an infinitesimal part of this huge market, Mr. Ward is confident of continued growth.
With the purchase or the Gonset Electronics Division of Young Spring and Wire, LTV's Altec subsidiary is now entering the $135,000,000 commercial mobile radio equipment market. Expected to grow to $300,000,000 by 1967, the market is currently dominated by two companies, who have 88 percent of the sales. With two-way radios going into all types of mobile equipment, from laundry trucks to inter-urban passenger vehicles. Alvis Ward feels the prospects for growth are substantial.
Alvis Ward is confident that the communications business will continue to grow at a rapid pace, and that Altec will grow with it. When the company built its modern headquarters plant in Anaheim, Disneyland was just getting started. The land then cost $10,500 an acre. Today it probably would bring $65,000 an acre. Even Altec's real estate has shown solid growth. Of the original group of men who left Western Electric to form Altec, many are still with the company. In addition to Mr. Ward, the Altec Lansing management group of Western Electric originals, includes Mr. Morris, Andy Fiore, C. R. Rininsland, Ed Seeley, Jack Gregory, Al Davis, Bob Quinn, Martin Bender, Milt Thomas, Ed Lyman , and J. J. McKeon. Altec Service Company men in management who comprised the original group include: R.E. (Red) Pierce, Marty Wolf, Art Rademacher, Merv Scott, Doug McLean, F. B. Mewbom, Ed Lyman and Mac Neumann. "These men are the main force behind Altec's growth and each of them shares equally in our success,” Mr. Ward said.
The Altec Service Company, long wedded to the theatre sound business, diversified itself in recent years in a way that makes the "all technical" connotation of the company name particularly apt. Based in every big city in the nation, Altec Service engineers and technicians provide service for practically every kind of technical apparatus: Ultrasonic cleaners, automatic parking machines, camera equipped safes (that photograph burglars at work) , hospital equipment and a battery of other types or equipment where the user did not have the technical knowledge and resources to install it and keep it operating.
The word quality" is spoken with a kind of religious fervor at LTV's Altec. So much so, that the company’s name has become synonymous with the word. During a recent national television appearance, Shelly Berman was having microphone trouble. He knew how to solve his problem immediately. "Give me my Altec," he shouted.
Altec Lansing Technologies