November 2017 : Some 70km North of Copenhagen during the ETF meeting of 2017 my good friend « B » decided to host a small lecture on Western Electric and some of their amazing technology and testing gear at Bell Laboratories. Amazing stuff indeed! During this small lecture we watched a short film in which you can see a Western Electric horn being rolled into the test room, see here https://youtu.be/fyMaqS_rN3s go to minute 2:48.
B is fully aware of my passionate endeavours to recreate the large western electric horns….he faced me, smiled, and said: « You see Tim, this is how they tested the we12a horn, the very same one you make today.’’ Immediately I spotted that this was no we12a! Handcrafting we12a, as I do, makes me very familiar with every detail of that horn. So with total confidence, I said to B, “No that’s no we12a.” B knows how well I know these horns so he didn’t doubt me one second. We watched the film frame by frame, time and time again….indeed no we12a at all…so we agreed this was a remarkable discovery. We ascertained very quickly that it was in fact a solid wood WE15a!
Later research led us to images of this never heard of horn taken by Western Electric for their documentation purposes. Detailed plans helped us understand the history of this very special horn. This is the very 1st 15a made by the same company that made the we12a and the 13a the very same construction method : the joinery work, the wood finish, the wooden brackets. That company is the Talking Machine Company renowned for its gramophones and the all famous credenza. Now these guys actually used the brackets cast for the 12a they made for Western Electric as the serial numbers confirm! It’s pretty certain that only one solid wood 15a is know to have been built, yes, one! Okay the we12a were made in small numbers, but were actually installed in theatres, but only one! And one that we can bet was never installed in any theatre. So actually the only ears that ever heard it were at Bell Labs…the greater public heard the plywood version. A prototype horn indeed!
So what happened ? Why did they revert to making the we15a in flimsy plywood given that the solid wood has far better acoustical properties? You know… ”money”, cost, the never fading focus on the profit and loss account. But also the daunting perspective of mass production. Yes the cinema industry with the talkies was rapidly expanding. Production capacities were central to the commercial success, fail to supply would leave a void. And that void would be filled by the competitors. So the talking machine company just couldn’t pump them out fast enough. This was most certainly the thing that crossed the minds at Western Electric. Yes making this horn in plywood costs much less and makes total sense in that world. Material come off the shelf, no planing planks straight and squared, ply can be pre-cut to shape at a rapid rate, no hand made individual small pieces of wood all individually matched…and so on. To build we15a in plywood will take me about 2 days but in solid wood ? More time than that!