Bowers & Wilkins is 50 years old in 2016. As part of the celebrations of these five decades in the world of high-performance audio, we are running a series of blogs that investigate our history, our people, our technologies and our products. Here we look at the life of our founder, John Bowers.
John Bowers’ name may make up only half of ‘Bowers & Wilkins’, but in a very real sense the company was all his. He was the brains and the drive behind the company that still bears his name fifty years after he started it. A company that has grown from humble beginnings to become a global leader in sound reproduction.
A stalled start
Like many people of his generation, John Bowers’ creative life started a little bit later than would normally have been the case, because of World War II. Bowers was just 17 at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939, and after he joined the Royal Corps of Signals he served as a special operations executive, maintaining clandestine radio contact with allied resistance operatives in occupied Europe. As a member of the SIS based at Whaddon Hall, he was deployed overseas following D-Day and it was during his time with the armed forces that he met Roy Wilkins, who would later become his business partner and give his name to one half of the business they would start together.
After the war, Bowers left the army and studied Telecommunications Engineering in Brighton, before teaming up with his former army colleague Wilkins. In August 1946 they opened a retail shop – Bowers & Wilkins – in Bowers’ home town of Worthing, on the south coast of England. The business specialised in radios and televisions and grew over the next two decades, with several more stores opening in the local area.
However, although business was good John Bowers’ first love was classical music, and he found himself a dissatisfied customer of the loudspeakers that were available for him to indulge his pleasure. Bowers felt no system he could buy could come close to reproducing the live experience of a concert – or indeed, even listening to a single musical instrument such as a piano. So he set about improving his own experience by modifying existing loudspeakers in his spare time.
His experiments soon made him realise that he had an aptitude for loudspeaker design, and the process began taking up more and more of his time in the converted garages at the rear of the main Bowers & Wilkins shop – a store that is still there today. One of his local customers, a Miss Knight, was so impressed with the product and Bowers’ obvious enthusiasm, that in 1966 she bequeathed him a considerable amount of money in her will. So it was that as word of mouth increased and demand grew, Bowers was able to set up B&W Electronics in 1966, specifically to design and build loudspeakers.
Roy Wilkins decided to continue with the retail business and Bowers’ got himself a new business partner in the form of his close friend, Peter Hayward, a man who had joined the Bowers & Wilkins team in the 1950s. Peter was as passionate about recording music as John was about listening to it and it was Peter’s contacts in the recording world that would eventually help John Bowers see his speakers working in many of the world’s finest studios.
From the very start, Bowers had a singular belief when it came to loudspeaker design. It was a belief that remains at the heart of Bowers & Wilkins today: a high-fidelity loudspeaker should be to the ear what a flawless pane of glass is to the eye; allowing the clear passage of a sensory image, uncorrupted and faithful in every last nuance to the original. Or, put more simply, True Sound.
The company’s first loudspeaker, the P1, was a success. Bowers took the profit he made from this and purchased a collection of audio test equipment, including a radiometer oscillator and pen recorder. This new equipment let him further expand upon his theories of what makes the ideal loudspeaker. This more scientific approach quickly saw the P1 updated to become the P2 – the first Bowers & Wilkins product that came with its own calibration certificate, a practise that was maintained throughout the early years of the company.
Bowers was so passionate about measuring and technology that the local representative of the best acoustic testing equipment always made sure he dropped in, as Steve Roe (who started with Bowers & Wilkins in the early 1970s) remembers: “John always wanted the best measuring equipment. Possibly more than he really should have done, to be honest! The Brüel & Kjær rep used to pop into us with the latest bit of kit, and John would usually say: ‘yep, I’ll have that, leave it here’.”
The end of the decade
While he was certainly passionate about speakers, Bowers also had a head for business. He quickly realised that his fledgling company had potential; it just needed to expand. So, just as the company’s customer base had grown from a corner of West Sussex to span the whole country, 1968 saw the appointment of the brand’s first overseas distributor in the Netherlands. The expansion overseas had begun – and this trend would continue over the coming years.
Bowers believed that the only way that he could create the high-performance loudspeakers he wanted to was to have complete control over them, and the DM70 was the first loudspeaker where he achieved that. This legendary loudspeaker was the company’s first ever completely in-house design (until this point drive units had been sourced from a variety of suppliers) and it set in motion a philosophy that remains in place to this day. It gave Bowers the control he needed over every performance-related element of the loudspeaker and let him make improvements that went far beyond simply tweaking what was available on the open market.
The fact that the DM70 was quickly followed by the DM70 Continental, which introduced a subtly curved cabinet and an even more radical design, is a testament to Bowers’ desire to deliver on his promise of re-writing the rules of loudspeaker design. It is a clear example of just how rapidly his knowledge was expanding at this time.
Brilliant by design
John Bowers took another bold step in the early 1970s that still has an impact on the way Bowers & Wilkins produces speakers today. He realised that people who were investing large sums in audiophile-quality equipment would quite possibly want a loudspeaker that went some way towards looking as good as it sounded. So in 1974, John Bowers brought one of the world’s leading industrial designers on board – Kenneth (now Sir Kenneth) Grange of the world-famous Pentagram design consultancy. Sir Kenneth, introduced to Bowers by Lord Snowdon, a friend of both men, is the man behind many classic pieces of industrial design including the silhouette of the InterCity 125 train, razors for Wilkinson Sword and Kodak’s Instamatic camera.
The first product Sir Kenneth worked on with John Bowers was the much-loved DM6, also known affectionately as the ‘Pregnant Penguin’. Bowers and Grange combined to create a product that was a million miles away from the competition in terms of appearance and, because of John Bowers’ desire that form should always follow function, it performed better than its rivals as well. It was also the first loudspeaker to benefit from another aspect of Bowers’ pioneering spirit – his passion for pushing the perceived limits of audio technology through the exploration of new and increasingly better materials. In this case, it was the first speaker to feature what would become a Bowers & Wilkins signature for the next 40-plus years; something can still be seen on the 600 and CM Series loudspeakers – a midrange cone made from Kevlar®.
The 800 Series
1979 saw the launch of what is possibly John Bowers’ greatest achievement – the Model 801, a loudspeaker that rapidly became used as the reference monitor in the world’s greatest recording studios, including Abbey Road, Skywalker Sound, Decca and Deutsche Grammophon. As a fan of classical music, it gave John Bowers an immense sense of pride that his loudspeakers quickly became the de facto monitor of the classical recording world, with the majority of classical recordings at that time bearing the legend: Mastered on B&W Loudspeakers.
Following the triumph of the 801, John Bowers continued with his ethos of reinvesting profits to fund research and development. The 800 Series was soon improved upon and expanded, with a more compact 802 joining the range for the second iteration. Sales of the 800 Series continued to grow, showing the truth of John Bowers’ mantra that “If you can make a better product, then you will sell it.”
The university of sound
However, what is possibly John Bowers’ most lasting legacy was still to come: the foundation of the Steyning Research Establishment. Bowers strongly believed that to truly innovate in design and continue to push the performance of an increasing number of products, research and development needed to be separated from the more rigid confines of sales and production.
As a result of John Bowers’ friendship with the broadcaster Peter King, he got an invitation to Kingswood Warren, which between 1948 and 2010 was the BBC’s Research and Development department. Bowers was very impressed that the BBC had a separate R&D facility, and he decided that was what he wanted from then on in. The perfect facility became available not long afterwards, and in 1981 John Bowers moved his entire research department lock, stock and barrel to the small village of Steyning in the South Downs where it still resides today.
A new audience
During the last years of John Bowers’ life, the decision was made to create a new range of loudspeakers for the more affordable end of the market. It was a major leap; until this point Bowers had focused his attention on producing the best speaker possible regardless of price.
“John Bowers didn’t get too involved in some of the new products – such as the DM110,” Steve Roe recalls. “He wasn’t into pop music and that was a speaker for younger people – pop music fans. So that was left to me and my team.” The DM Series proved to be incredibly successful. Not only did these speakers sell well and open up new markets such as the Far East for the first time, but they also sounded fantastic considering their price. This was vital, as it meant that John Bowers’ ethos to always produce the best speaker possible was now directed at the more affordable end of the market.
In this way and others, John Bowers constantly drove his team to stretch the limits of their understanding, and to develop increasingly better-performing loudspeakers. He worked tirelessly until his untimely death from cancer in 1987, but even on his death bed, Bowers set in motion the project that would ultimately end with Nautilus.
His legacy continues on at Bowers & Wilkins today, and you can read more about how his vision, drive and commitment still plays a key role in the company he founded some 30 years after his death here.