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The Golden Age of Hi-Fi - How It All Started

by Peter J. Benson July 28, 2005

"Winslow come here! I need you!"

Winslow appeared as he always did, silently. An indeterminate man of indeterminate age with an aura of superiority about him; he was the perfect gentleman's gentleman. It was well known in Society that Lord Peter Wellinbibe was no gentleman. Wellinbibe did, however have money.

"This thingy! This noisy maker, this gadget!"

"I believe it's called a Gramophone, Sir" said Winslow

"Whatever! It's not making sound! Music! Isn't that what it's supposed to do?"

"If you'll allow me, Sir, I believe that one is supposed to put the little thingy - the arm, I think they call it - upon the surface of the round plastic piece. I'm told that this revolves 78 times per minute. I'm not totally sure why, but I am assured it is of the highest order."

"Whatever. Does the contraption play music?"

"Yes, Sir"

And, indeed, wondrously it did. Lord Peter Wellinbibe was suddenly the talk of the town. People who barely acknowledged him in the clubs (and he wasn't about to forget that either) were now gathering together to discover ways to be invited to his door. The new magical music machine had them entranced. Wellinbibe was ecstatic until the grand party. A marvelous affair it was. Everybody who was anybody was there. Dons from Oxford and Cambridge with their ladies (and daughters), clergy from Kent and Somerset and their ladies (and some daughters from lesser families, but daughters were fine.) What Wellinbibe really wanted was respect from the big fellows - and here they were! Rugby men and Soccer players. Oarsmen and some Fellow from Harvard. All the types that had left him off the team for so many years were now at his door because of his Gramophone.

There was just a small problem.

"Winslow! Nobody can hear the thingy!"

"Do you have a sixpence Sir? I'm told if you stick a metal on top it holds down the 'needle' as they call it."

And so it went. Wellinbibe was the toast of the town. But eventually his parties got so large that nobody could hear his gramophone - which was the only reason they dealt with Wellinbibe to begin with.

"Louder, Winslow! I need it louder! Lady Chatterlip might leave if she can't hear the gramophone gadget. And I want her into my gadgets if you get my drift. See, that big chap! Number ten in the scrum and Chatterlip wouldn't look at me back then. Well I'll show 'em now. Louder, Winslow, louder!"

Winslow did his magic. He had a friend in Fleet Street who turned him on to a waitress in Bow that had a boyfriend with an interesting idea. Winslow bought another newfangled thing called an amplifier.

"Is it loud?" said Wellinbibe.

"I believe you'll find it sufficient to the task, Sir."

And it was. Very loud! Audaciously loud! That was marvelous until one evening. The crowd had left, most of them driven away by the loudness of Wellinbibe's machine; but Chatterlip was still there and Wellinbibe wasn't going to pass up his chance.

"Turn it down, Winslow"

"I don't think I can, Sir. I can turn it off."

"What? Are you saying that I can't control the music in my own house?"

"Well, frankly, Sir, I've heard about this new needle, I believe they make them from diamonds; and also the industry, well the people who record the music... Well, I'm told they've changed the speed to 33 revolutions per minute. I've also learned of new belts and that the revolving part is referred to as a turntable."

"Whatever, Winslow, just get me the sharper needle thingy and the other stuff. I need to make the blasted thing quiet!"

Of course it was too late by then. Lady Chatterlip had left and Hi-Fi was born.

The story would have ended here had it not been for Purkeyns.

Purkeyns was the under-footman for Sir Howard Tweeter. Sir Howard had never forgiven Wellinbibe for besting him in a game of croquet at the Ascot gathering a year ago and was determined to undermine Wellinbibe's new found celebrity with a music machine of his own. Purkeyns, as it happened, was also acquainted with the waitress in Bow (rather more intimately than Winslow, actually) and she told him about another dealer in amplifiers that lived just off the Strand. The battle was declared the moment the news broke. Tweeter had found a bigger noisemaker than Wellinbibe and Society now flocked to his door. This was not to be countenanced and Winslow was summoned to the drawing room.

"Tweeter has a better music thingy than I do," roared Wellinbibe.

"I see, Sir. I shall attend to the matter."

Winslow cared nothing for the machine but he absolutely refused to be outdone by a footman from, of all places, Shropshire. He made his enquiries.

"I'm given to understand, Sir, that there are new developments. Instead of one speaker it's now possible to have two. They say it replicates the placement of the instruments as they would be on stage."

"Who cares, I have season tickets if I want to hear the instruments on stage! Is it better than Tweeter's?

"It's newer, Sir."

"If it's newer, then buy it!"

Purkeyns was also industrious. With a better connection to the waitress, he had inside information.

"Ohms, Guv." He reported. "We need more ohms. Maybe better wires"

"Stop grunting" snapped Tweeter "Say what you mean so I can hear it clearly."

Business had never been so good for the tradesmen. Due to the sound battle between Wellinbibe and Tweeter, carpenters were building cabinets and designing walls. Miles of wire were being rolled out to the delight of unions in the North. Houses were being designed and then built to accommodate every whim from each antagonist, while none knew who the real movers of the new paradigm were.

"Subwoofer, Sir, is not a low canine experience."

"Monster cable, Guv. We needs monster cable."

"Surround sound! Winslow! I need to be surrounded by sound! Bet Tweeter can't top that!

"Bass! Purkeyns! There must be something lower than Wellinbibe!"

It was the beginning of the end of "music" and the beginning of the era of "sound." The feud came to an end in a spectacular fashion. Winslow was entering an establishment suggested by the by now widow from Bow, only to discover Purkeyns also attempting to purchase the first quadraphonic system. A tussle ensued, and much would have been written in Society papers had not the store manager intervened.

"Gentlemen!" he wailed, "I'll get one for each of you." He reached in his pocket. "Look here, I have tickets for the Philharmonic in Hyde Park tonight."

Purkeyns and Winslow regarded each other.

"Sounds all right to me, Guv."

"Purkeyns, I may have misread you. Let us both go enjoy true music."

Peter Benson was born and raised in Yorkshire, England, and moved to the U.S. in 1981. He has trained for the preisthood, driven buses on two continents and is a successful singer-songwriter and confirmed optimist. He currently lives in Columbia MD with his wife and best friend Karen, two cats and a kitten; Magic Nemesis & Mystere. Rumours of Mystere's demise are all unfounded but well based.

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