How The Magneplanar Was Born
An industrial engineer by training, Jim had veered toward methods engineering early in his career and was one of the people who did conceptual development on 3M projects. It seemed he had a knack for cutting his way through the brambles that often clutter creative ground and discovering the best solution for a given problem.
Not all the projects tossed his way were orthodox. At 3M he designed a machine to assemble a chow mein container consisting of two separate cans taped together to form a single package. (The tape explains the company’s sponsorship of the project.)
Coincidentally, his interest in loudspeaker development was kickstarted by a fellow Minnesota music lover who would also go on to start an extremely important high end audio company: Audio Research founder William Z. Johnson. Bill was a hi-fi retailer back in the 1960s, and Jim, a customer of his, stopped by one day to find a wall of prototype electrostatic panels set up in the store.
When he auditioned the array, Jim was staggered. “It was the closest thing to a live performance I had ever heard,” he recounted in a 2003 Stereophilemagazine interview. “I flipped. It put the seed in my mind, and I decided to apply myself to electrostatics. I started acquiring all the literature and patents.”
An Inventor’s Epiphany
But early on in his quest for a better electrostatic, an epiphany of sorts caused Jim to turn his back on the landmarks of that complex, often problematic technology and venture into uncharted territory. As he reminisced many years later, he was just sitting there one day when he “looked up and saw some perforated ceiling tiles, and the light bulb went on.” The genesis of the Magneplanar loudspeaker was “as simple as that,” he said.
“At 3M, I happened to be working on an application that involved laminating tape to flexible magnets,” Jim elaborated. “I must have been sitting there, thinking about [that] as well as my electrostatic project. What [the panels] reminded me of was acoustic transparency. Somehow, that thought must have combined with the flexible magnetic strips I had been working with.”
“Anyway, the light bulb went on, and I saw it,” he continued. “I went home that night. I had a single piece of this magnetic material about two feet long, just enough to make a kind of voice coil that consisted of a piece of tape, adhesive side up, strung over a couple of pencils mounted on each end of a board — like frets on the neck of a guitar. Then I laid copper wire on the tape adhesive to form a voice coil. I hooked that up to one channel of my Dyna 75 amp, and it played music.”
“Three o’clock in the morning, I had my wife come down to the basement to hear it. It had no bass, but I recognized a purity of sound. So I dropped the electrostatic thing then and there [and] worked on and off: evenings, weekends, vacations, whenever I could from about 1966.”
Finally, Jim reached a point where he just had to take his pet project to the next level. In 1969, he left his job at 3M and began to work more intensely on what would soon become a commercially-viable yet utterly unique speaker known for exceptional musicality. Maybe his mother had moved the hand of fate when she named him James Melton Winey, after a popular tenor of the time who sang on radio and in films and who was a great favorite of hers.