James Bullough Lansing (born James Martini, January 2, 1902 – September 29, 1949) was a pioneering American audio engineer and loudspeaker designer who was most notable for establishing two audio companies that bear his name, Altec Lansing and JBL, the latter taken from his initials, JBL.
James Bullough Lansing
January 2, 1902
Greenridge, Nilwood Township, Macoupin County, Illinois, US
September 29, 1949 (aged 47)
San Marcos, California, US
Engineer, inventor, designer
Lansing Manufacturing Company, Altec Lansing, JBL
In 1981, John Eargle, then JBL Vice President of Market Planning, developed a biography of James B. Lansing and a corporate history of JBL. It was based on historical documents, and most importantly, interviews with Lansing’s key associates and family members. It remains the definitive documentation of the subject of Lansing heritage.
Quite frankly, we are in no position to better John’s original work. Instead, we have taken the approach of attempting to augment his article with additional detail and supplemental information. What follows is John Eargle’s original article in six parts with illustrations and additional information linked to the appropriate references.
Early Years – The story of Jim Lansing’s formative years in the Midwest and move to California.
Lansing Manufacturing – A history of Jim Lansing’s first company from its inception to its merger with the All Technical Services Corporation (Altec)
Altec Lansing – A description of Jim Lansing’s involvement and accomplishments at Altec.
Founding JBL – A recounting of the formation of JBL and it’s early struggles.
JBL to 1981 – A history of the accomplishments of the company under the direction of Bill Thomas, and later, Harman International.
The Man – A retrospective of the personality and character of James B. Lansing.
JBL in the 70s
The 1970’s proved to be a defining period for JBL. The company entered the decade as a loudspeaker manufacturer with a reputation that was second to none in quality. However, its market focus was narrow, with emphasis on high-end home products. The Seventies saw radical changes in both the market and JBL’s response. The decade began with an explosion of interest in home hi-fi that spread to the mass market. Professional sound expanded from the traditional markets of movie and recorded sound to touring, musical instrument and fixed sound reinforcement. JBL aggressively pursued all of these market changes with unparalleled success. It would become the market leader in all of the above segments, and in the process, realize sales growth of an order of magnitude.
Initially overseeing this remarkable period of growth was Dr. Sidney Harman as President of parent company, Harman International. However, he would sell his interest in the corporation in 1977 to Beatrice Foods. Once constant throughout the decade was Arnold Wolf. He variously held the positions of President and Chairman of the Board during his tenure with the company from 1969 to 1979. Arnold has documented his experiences during this time into a unique history of JBL in the Seventies.
The history of Altec Lansing is in many ways the history of sound reproduction. It is a complex saga that has its beginnings with the rise of the movie sound industry in the 1930’s, dominance in the professional sound field by the 1940’s, helping to define the home hi-fi phenomenon in the 1950’s, market supremacy through the 1960’s and into the 70’s, but closing with a tragic and protracted fall through the 80’s and 90’s. By 2000, the original Altec Lansing would cease to exist with Telex Communications Incorporated’s closure of the Altec Lansing Professional Division. The name would live on as a brand of multimedia sound products having been sold to the former Sparkomatic Corporation in 1984.
On the bright side, 2002 marks a rebirth for Altec Lansing Professional. Altec Lansing Technologies (the former Sparkomatic) relaunched this division with staff and products from the last incarnation of Altec Lansing, when part of Telex Communications.
We are in the process of researching the background of this remarkable company with the hope of developing a comprehensive history. In the interim, we present a history article profiling the start of the company through to the early 1960’s and a timeline of the significant events associated with Altec Lansing.
JBL in the professional market.
The purpose of this section is to document the history of JBL in the professional market. JBL had it’s genesis in this market going back to Jim Lansing’s pivotal role in helping to define the movie sound industry. Five decades later, the current JBL Professional is the world’s largest professional sound company.
JBL Professional dominates the fields of broadcast, recording, cinema, touring and installed sound. However, it was not always this way. JBL started modestly in the professional market with a small product line targeted at the movie sound industry. Over the next two decades, JBL would expand its presence to a number of professional fields with a series of innovative products. However, during this time, the company remained in the shadow of its arch rival – Altec Lansing.
JBL’s march to preeminence in the professional market would begin in the 1970’s. Leading the way was explosive growth in the recording market. In a four year span of the mid seventies, JBL went from being a minor supplier of studio monitors to outselling all competing brands combined. The end of the decade saw JBL successfully attacking Altec Lansing’s long held command of the cinema market. Tour sound came of age during this decade with large scale arena and stadium concerts. JBL was there to provide the technology to make it possible.
JBL’s rise in the professional market can largely be described as astute observance of market changes combined with the ability to capitalize on them with innovative products. This section documents the pivotal industry developments and JBL’s response.
At a young age he built a Leyden jar to play pranks on his friends. He also built crystal sets and a radio transmitter which was apparently powerful enough for the signal to reach Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. Lansing’s transmitter was then dismantled when the Navy tracked the source down.
Lansing had worked as an automotive mechanic and attended an automotive school in Detroit courtesy of the dealer he worked for.
His mother died on November 1, 1924, when he was 22, he then left home and met his future wife, Glenna Peterson, in Salt Lake City in 1925. At the time he was working for a radio station as an engineer. He also worked for the Baldwin Radio Company and met his future business partner, Ken Decker in the city.
James Bullough Lansing Career
Lansing and Decker moved to Los Angeles where they set up a business manufacturing loudspeakers. It was called the Lansing Manufacturing Company. Just before the company was registered on March 9, 1927, Lansing changed his name from James Martini to James Bullough Lansing at the suggestion of his future wife, Glenna. Most of his brothers had adopted the surname Martin, two of which (Bill and George) came to LA to work with him.
Decker was killed in an airplane crash in 1939 and Lansing Manufacturing Company began to suffer financial difficulties without his business guidance. Altec Service Corporation bought Lansing Manufacturing Company in 1941, seeing the company as a valuable source for loudspeaker components. The combined company was named Altec Lansing. James B. Lansing was made VP of Engineering with a five-year contract.
In 1946, Lansing left the company on the day his contract expired and started a new company called “Lansing Sound, Incorporated”. Altec Lansing had a problem with that name’s similarity to trademarked brands they had developed, so James Bullough Lansing renamed his new company “James B. Lansing Sound, Incorporated”. Eventually, this became shortened to JBL on product branding and then officially as the company name.
James Lansing was noted as an innovative engineer, but a poor businessman. As a result of deteriorating business conditions and personal problems, he took his own life by hanging himself in his home in San Marcos on September 29, 1949, aged 47.
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