Thursday, January 22, 2015

Western Electric and Jaeger LeCoultre

Western Electric was the manufacturing arm for AT&T during the 1920s and 30s, producing some of the finest, most authentic sound gear for cinemas and recording use. W.E. was AT&T’s “Black op” equivalent for the CIA, they manned hundreds of top-graduate engineers in discrete teams with the goal to produce the highest quality audio reproduction systems. Their laboratories were said to be the most advanced in the world at that time. W.E.’s golden years, the same years that Henry Ford invented the production line and optical and disk tapes were becoming popularised in cinema audio, are widely acknowledged to be the peak in research and development for audio gear. Western Electric developed incredible horn-based drivers and low frequency bass drivers, but sadly the effort was not recognised until nearly 80 years later.

It is a sad story, one of massive waste and disappointment. To set the scene. Early cinemas had just experienced their first taste of music in film, and consumer demand for sound in motion pictures was very high. Everyone wanted to hear the latest jazz standard alongside the lead actor’s usually silent performance. Cinema owners jumped at the opportunity to advertise their theatres as being: “equipped in-exhaustible live band”, or “Phono-ready!” These early systems were developed by telephone engineers who used earpiece technologies that were enlarged. These systems had poor frequency response and lacked clarity, but to the casual cinema goer and business savvy theatre owner, that did not matter. They had SOUND!

The story develops. By 1926 the first Western Electric speaker systems, labelled as the Westrex (Western Electric Export), were released to the public. Years of research and development went into creating hi fidelity drivers, amplifiers and horns. Very high quality audio reproduction. And no one bought them.

The already existing systems in cinemas were performing to everyone’s expectations and the new, vastly improved, systems were far too expensive to be justifiable replacements. People were content with mediocrity, yet audio nirvana was just around the corner. However, W.E.’s speakers were not a complete failure. They released nearly 6 more publicly available systems, the most notable ones being the Mirrophonic 1, 2 and 3. By the mid 1940’s AT&T realised the massive research, development costs and low consumer expectations for audio systems meant that the market for hi-fidelity audio gear was not profitable. W.E. stopped producing the cinema systems on large scales by 1941 and stopped all audio production by the mid-1950s.

The crux. Audiophiles are a strange breed, not unlike watch collectors. Both are crazy, irrational creatures who thrive on scarcity and the idea of being unique. Both love the idea of being separate from the masses, having something no one else has. Both have a very keen eye in regards to quality and accuracy. The small production runs, combined with the fact that many systems were destroyed or irreversibly damaged over the decades, means that W.E. cinema speakers are extremely rare to the point where complete systems stretch far into the six figure range. The speakers are rare, unique, no one has them and are widely regarded to lie on top of the pile in terms of quality. In a paradoxical shift in supply and demand, rare objects like our aforementioned W.E. speakers or a vintage time-piece experience massive jumps in price because they are good. Simply good.

If there is one horological timepiece wherein we can draw a parallel to the W.E. story, it would the Atmos clock, engineered and developed by Jaeger Le Coultre.

The beauty of an Atmos clock is that it runs on minimal external energy input. Unlike many clocks, which need to be wound by hand, the Atmos clock uses the idea that changes in barometric pressure affect how much space a gas occupies. A gas is hermetically sealed in a chamber with a set of “bellows” on one end, and as it expands and contracts due to changes in ambient pressure, it winds a mainspring via a small mechanism. The real genius lies in how little energy the clock uses to operate. Instead of 18,000 or 28,800 beats per hour (normally associated with wrist watch mechanisms), the Atmos averages around 120 bph! It is an incredible feat of engineering to have such little energy consumption and such accurate time keeping.

The Atmos clock as we see it today is not quite the original design. A barometrically operated clock was developed by a Dutch inventor, Cornelis Drebel, in the early 1600s. The design developed over the next 300 years, ultimately culminating into a very close prototype to the clock we see today. Jean Leon Reutter, a Swiss engineer developed the first “Atmos” prototype, and started to commercially produce the mechanism under a French company, Compagnie Générale de Radio. Jaeger-LeCoultre overtook production on 27 July 1935. Simultaneously JLC developed a far more efficient design, using ethyl chloride as a substitute for mercury and ammonia vapour, which made the Atmos clock one of the finest horological instruments of its time.

Over the next five decades the Atmos clock was not a commercial success as simpler , more reliable mechanisms existed, and high quality, scientifically accurate devices were not necessarily desired. Much like the W.E. cinema speakers, the Atmos clock was by no means a failure (over 500,000 were manufactured), but its true brilliance and raw potential as an incredible instrument simply flew under the radar. People were content with mediocrity.

Of course both the cinema speakers and the Atmos have their draw-backs: they are both very difficult to service and maintain, they are very expensive and have been superseded by cheaper alternatives, yet for a true a collector and for someone who appreciates fine engineering and intricate mechanics, there is no substitute. We do not settle for mediocrity.

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