John Bowers was born in 1922, and during the Second World War he joined the Royal Corps of Signals where he served as a special operations executive in clandestine radio contact with allied resistance operatives in occupied Europe. He was based at the world-famous Bletchley Park, and spent time behind enemy lines as well. It was during his time with the armed forces that he met Roy Wilkins, who would later lend his name to one half of Bowers & Wilkins.
After the war, he studied at Brighton Technical College, and qualified in Telecommunications Engineering. He took this knowledge and teamed up with former army colleague Wilkins and opened a retail shop in Worthing called Bowers & Wilkins Ltd. It specialised in radio and televisions.
However, John Bowers was a passionate classical music fan, so it wasn’t long before the shop always worked with high-fidelity equipment. An avid concert-goer, he was disappointed by the sound reproduction that the best equipment of the day offered and set about improving the quality by modifying existing loudspeakers. His experiments made him realise that he had an aptitude for loudspeaker design.
As a result, he began designing and building loudspeakers in some garages at the rear of the shop, which had been modified to design, assemble and stock the fruits of his new company, B&W Loudspeakers Ltd. The first of these new products was the P1. It was a four-feet high wooden loudspeaker featuring drive units from EMI and Celestion.
From the start, John's company set out to design, develop and perfect a brand that would sit with any of the world's most famous. Where acoustic engineering and style would be equal partners and the result would be products of matchless quality. Bowers & Wilkins’ core belief remains unchanged: that 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.
The P1 was a success, and John Bowers took the profits from this and purchased a collection of audio test equipment: a Radiometer oscillator and pen recorder. Once this equipment was in place, every loudspeaker that B&W Loudspeakers Ltd manufactured came with its own calibration certificate.
Following the P1 was the P2, which looked similar, but utilised different drive unit. But John Bowers’ true aim was to design and build a loudspeaker wholly in house. That desire came to pass in 1969, with the DM70 – a major landmark in the history of Bowers & Wilkins. The DM70 had a highly distinctive curved body, with an electrostatic tweeter. The reviews were highly positive, which spurred Bowers on to even great things, and also opened up Bowers & Wilkins’ market to Europe and the rest of the world. By 1973, some 60 percent of Bowers & Wilkins production was exported, leading to the receipt of the company’s first Queen’s Award for Industry.
Throughout his career John enjoyed a close relationship with recording engineers who provided vital feedback on how loudspeakers could be improved. As a result of this relationship, B&W’s famous 801 was launched in 1979 and soon became the reference speaker in nearly all of the world’s classical recording studios, including EMI Abbey Road, Decca and Deutsche Grammophon.
In the 1980’s Bowers immersed himself more deeply in the research and development work of the company, and was instrumental in setting up and developing the Steyning Research Establishment.
This separation of research and production allowed a freedom of thought and experimentation that would later lead to some of Bowers & Wilkins’ most innovative technologies and iconic, and popular products. It was a major tenet of John Bowers, and remains at the core values of Bowers & Wilkins to this day.
Bowers also remained an avid fan of classical music. Keeping the focus of Bowers & Wilkins on the importance of loudspeakers bringing the listener as close as possible to the sound that the recording artists and engineers heard in the studio. John Bowers passed away in 1987, but this vision remains at the heart of the company that he founded. The Steyning Research Establishment continues to innovate and the legacy of Bowers’ passion for technological experimentation can be seen in the likes of Nautilus, and other current Bowers & Wilkins products.
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