JBL TO 1981

James B. Lansing Sound Headquarters Circa 1949
2439 Fletcher Drive, Los Angeles
© Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle


The company that is presently known as JBL was first called Lansing Sound, Incorporated, and dated from 1 October 1946. The principals of the company were James B. Lansing, Chauncy Snow, and financial consultant Chester L. Noble. Since the name Lansing had been identified for so many years as a product trade name, Altec Lansing Corporation took issue with the name of Lansing’s new company early on. By out-of-court agreement with Carrington, Lansing Sound, Incorporated, changed its name to James B. Lansing Sound, Incorporated, a change that satisfied all concerned since it drew attention to Lansing the man himself rather than to specific products.

The earliest letterhead of the new company gave the corporate address as 510 South Spring Street in Los Angeles, which was the office of Chester Noble. The letterhead also indicated the factory location in San Marcos, a small town fairly close to Oceanside in San Diego County, near an avocado and citrus ranch that Lansing owned. Lansing maintained a complete machine shop on the premises, and it was here where he actually began his new loudspeaker manufacturing efforts.

D101 - JBL's First Product
© Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle

The first product introduced by James B. Lansing Sound, Incorporated, was the model D101 15-inch loudspeaker, a near copy of the earlier Altec Lansing model 515 with an aluminum dome and with back venting through the voice coil former. Also, with some temerity, Lansing used the designation of Iconic for this model. Right out of the gate, so to speak, Lansing was flying in the face of his previous employers, and he was asked to cease and desist in the use of the trademarked Iconic name.

Lansing soon developed a series of components that enabled him to put together a virtual copy of the original Iconic loudspeaker system, including a 15-inch woofer, a high frequency driver of the 802 class, and a small multicellular horn. The high frequency driver, known as D175, remained in the JBL catalog through the 1970s.

Lansing pioneered the use of 4-inch ribbon wire voice coils for low frequency drivers, and the D130 was the first 15-inch model to incorporate this. When the D130 was introduced in 1948, the D101 was discontinued.

© Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle

The development of Alnico V during the war years made the new 4-inch voice coil designs possible. Working with Robert Arnold of Arnold Engineering Company in Chicago, Lansing was able to procure a magnet of reasonable size that could saturate a 4-inch diameter gap with a field strength of about 12,000 gauss. Such a gap obviously had to be quite narrow, and the relatively large voice coil had to be manufactured with a degree of precision heretofore unknown in the loudspeaker industry. Other products designed by Lansing during this same period included the 12-inch D131 and 8-inch D208 cone drivers.

The company had been formed during the economic slump immediately following World War II. As we have noted earlier, Lansing was never focused on business affairs, and financial problems surfaced almost immediately. In November of 1947 Lansing secured additional funding from aviation pioneer Roy Marquardt. With this agreement, Marquardt Aviation Company agreed to provide manufacturing space for a cost to Lansing of 10% of net sales, with the Marquardt corporation retaining the right to take assignment of accounts receivable to satisfy at any time the amount due. Marquardt further agreed to lend money to Lansing for working capital in such amounts as would not be a burden on the Marquardt corporation itself. The Marquardt corporation was further given an option on 40% of the stock of the Lansing company.

William H. Thomas
© Harman International, Courtesy Mark Gander and John Eargle

The Marquardt corporation was represented on Lansing’s Board of Directors by its treasurer, William H. Thomas. With the new financial arrangements in place, Lansing moved his offices and manufacturing facilities to the Marquardt plant located at 4221 Lincoln Boulevard in Venice, California. In late 1948, the company moved into the Marquardt facility at 7801 Hayvenhurst Avenue in Van Nuys, California.

At the end of its second fiscal year in 1948, James B. Lansing Sound, Incorporated, showed an operating loss of $2500 – and this with most of the tooling investment costs still in the process of being capitalized. By December of 1948 Lansing’s debt to Marquardt had reached almost $14,000, and it was inevitable that the company would have to be taken over by Marquardt, with Lansing continuing on as an employee. Lansing further bought up the company interests held by Messrs. Snow and Noble so that he became sole spokesman for his company.

In early 1949, Marquardt was purchased by General Tire Company, who were not interested in maintaining the relationship with Lansing, and the tie was thus severed. William Thomas, having developed a flair for the loudspeaker business, chose to leave Marquardt and became a vice president in the Lansing company. James B. Lansing, Incorporated, vacated the Marquardt facility and moved to its fourth location in three years, 2439 Fletcher Drive, Los Angeles.

During Lansing’s final three years he had developed a close business relationship with Robert Arnold of Arnold Engineering, the primary supplier of Alnico V material for the domestic loudspeaker industry. At various points in this relationship Lansing accrued large debts to Arnold – but somehow Arnold always extended his most generous terms to the company. In reading the Lansing correspondence file with Arnold Engineering, it is clear that there was high mutual respect between these two men. It was also apparent that Arnold considered Lansing the most influential manufacturer in an industry that was slow to adopt new methods and materials. He must have seen in Lansing the leadership required to convince the rest of the industry to move to Alnico V.

As we read through the Arnold correspondence we can see the physical and emotional toll that hard times had on Lansing. The constant moving of the company was not without its adverse effects on production, and there were never enough funds to pay all suppliers. Perhaps Lansing’s growing depression came from the realization that history was about to repeat itself. He may finally have been struck by the similarity of events with those of eight years earlier. By late 1949 the company had amassed a debt of $20,000, and there were no signs of improvements in the business climate.

James B. Lansing Gravesite
Inglewood California
© Don McRitchie

Lansing usually stopped by Bill Martin’s house on his way to San Marcos for weekends. While George Martin had joined Lansing’s latest venture, Bill had chosen to remain at Altec Lansing, and the weekly visits were a way of keeping in touch. On Thursday, 24 September 1949, Lansing stopped by for the last time. He drove to San Marcos, and, despondent over the course of business, took his own life later that evening. He is buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery in South Los Angeles.

A few years earlier Lansing had been wise enough to secure a life insurance policy in the name of the company. The policy was for $10,000, and it was the payment on this policy that enabled Bill Thomas to secure the future of the company.

Lansing had left his one-third share of the company to his wife. During the early fifties Thomas negotiated the purchase of this amount from Mrs. Lansing and thus became the sole owner of the company.

© 1981 John Eargle
(updated 2003)