JBL TO 1981

Muticell Horn Construction at 6900 McKinley Ave.
© Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle


Lansing and Decker formed a business partnership and in 1927 moved to Los Angeles to establish Lansing Manufacturing Company. The company built 6 and 8-inch cone loudspeakers of both dynamic and armature design intended primarily for radio sets and consoles. Just prior to the founding of the company, Jim legally changed his name to James Bullough Lansing, and a new birth certificate was issued in that name.

James Lansing Business Card for 6900 McKinley
© and Courtesy Lois K. O'Neil

Bill Martin, a younger brother, moved to California to join Lansing’s new venture, and another brother, George, joined them later. The company operated partly as a "cottage industry," with family members making cones and winding voice coils in the evenings at home, and assembling them into finished loudspeakers at the factory the next day. In 1933 the company established its permanent headquarters at 6900 McKinley Avenue in South Los Angeles.

In the late 1920s the success of "The Jazz Singer" inaugurated the sound era for motion pictures, and Western Electric, the manufacturing arm of AT&T, quickly became the dominant force in making equipment for the fledgling industry. The vast resources of Bell Laboratories were brought to bear on problems in recording, reproducing and the allied arts, and as a result they were able to mobilize the technology for manufacturing in fairly short order. Electrical Research Products Incorporated (ERPI) was organized as a manufacturing and distributing company by Western Electric specifically for servicing the motion picture industry at both creative and exhibition levels.

WE 555 Driver on WE 15a Horn
© and courtesy Jean-Michel Le Cleac'h

The early Western Electric theater loudspeakers were basically one-way designs, consisting of a large curved ("snail shaped") exponential horn. The Western Electric model 555 driver was used with these horns, and frequency response was band-limited to the range from about 100 Hz to 5000 Hz. In time, Western Electric added a high frequency unit as well as a set of low frequency 18-inch drivers to augment the response of these systems. Jensen 18-inch woofers in a large open-back baffle were coupled with a horn tweeter, which extended the response of the basic system downward to about 50 Hz and upward to about 8 kHz. These modifications to the basic Western Electric one-way system were introduced in 1931 and represented a major step forward in exhibition sound quality.

The sound department at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios was not satisfied with the augmented Western Electric system. Specifically, they objected to the 12-foot path length of the midrange portion and its inordinate transit delay time, relative to the low and high frequency sections. Neither were they satisfied with the RCA systems of the day, which consisted of a single 8-inch cone mounted on a straight horn..

In 1933, a frustrated Douglas Shearer, brother of movie star Norma Shearer and head of the MGM sound department, came to the conclusion that he could build a better system than either Western Electric or RCA. With the help of a young electrical engineer named John Hilliard, he assembled a team of experts that included Robert Stephens (who later founded Stephens TruSonic) and John Blackburn, a physics graduate of California Institute of Technology. Among them, they identified Lansing Manufacturing Company as a logical, and local, source for both electrical and loudspeaker components.

Lansing Manufacturing Version of Shearer Horn
© Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle

Over the next two years the so-called Shearer-MGM system was defined and perfected. It was a large two-way system consisting of a high frequency multicellular horn (manufactured by the MGM set department) and a W-type low frequency enclosure. Lansing designed the loudspeaker components for the system; the high frequency driver had a flat wire 3-inch diameter diaphragm and was modeled after the basic Western Electric multiple annular slit type that had been designed earlier by Wente and Thuras. The low frequency drivers had round wire 2-inch voice coils and operated in an open-back configuration in the W-horn. Both high and low frequency drivers used externally powered magnetic field coils. In 1937 the Shearer MGM system won an award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for technical excellence.

The Shearer-MGM system set new standards for sound reproduction in the motion picture theater, and the basic design was widely copied by other manufacturers around the world. Western Electric and RCA both "borrowed" the system concept in their later systems.

Lansing Manufacturing 284 Driver
© Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle

When the Shearer system was introduced, Western Electric objected to Lansing’s use of an annular slit model 284 high frequency driver, since they had already been issued a patent on that basic design. As a result of this John Blackburn and Lansing designed a radial slit high frequency driver, the model 285, as an interim step in the evolution of the Shearer system. While reviewing the patent literature, Blackburn later discovered prior art for the annular slit design in the work of Bell and Tainter, dating from their work on the acoustical phonograph in the early years of the 20th century, so Lansing was able to reintroduce the traditional phasing plug in the high frequency driver.

Lansing Manufacturing Iconic
© Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle

It was also during the latter 1930s that Lansing developed the Iconic system, a small two-way system using a 15-inch low frequency driver and a small format high frequency compression driver, model 801, that fed a small multicellular horn. The Iconic system attained wide popularity throughout the motion picture industry as a monitor, and the basic system configuration, with only minor improvements, is in use today. The model 801 driver was the precursor of the Altec Lansing model 802, which many readers know very well.

A watershed event in the history of professional sound took place in 1938 when the United States government undertook to undo the virtual monopoly that Western Electric held in the field of motion picture sound. Western Electric was forced to divest itself of certain holdings in the sound reproducing field including loudspeakers and their associated amplifiers.

In 1938 Western Electric signed a consent decree, and all of the manufactured stock holdings affected were sold for one dollar to a group of engineers working for them at the time. These engineers formed a new company, Altec Service Corporation, independent of Western Electric. The name Altec is a contraction of "all technical," signifying the new company’s primary directions. The principals of the new company were George Carrington and E. L. Conrow.

Altec Service Corporation maintained service contracts with motion picture chains across the country and went about business as before. After about two years the company was running low on its basic stock of replacement parts which had been inherited from the spin-off, and it became apparent to Carrington and Conrow that they would have to develop a source for new manufactured items if they were to remain a viable force in the service business. In 1939, Ken Decker, Lansing’s business partner and a reserve officer in the Army Air Force, was killed in an airplane crash. Without Decker’s business and management skills Lansing’s business suffered, and it had become apparent by 1941 that the sale of Lansing Manufacturing Company was the only way to keep the company afloat. Carrington and Conrow were very aware of Lansing’s predicament and approached him regarding a merger of Altec Service and Lansing Manufacturing.

According to Alvis Ward, a former President of Altec Lansing Corporation, Altec Service Corporation purchased Lansing Manufacturing Company on 4 December 1941 for $50,000, and the company was renamed Altec Lansing Corporation. At that time there were nineteen employees in the organization. Lansing signed a 5-year contract with the new company and assumed the position of Vice President of Engineering.

Western Electric agreed to license to the Altec Lansing Corporation rights to manufacture any and all of the proprietary designs that were covered by the consent decree. Royalties were never charged by Western Electric for items manufactured.

© 1981 John Eargle
(updated 2003)