Persistence of Memory

Written by Bill Leebens

Uncle Jim was a chemist who worked for General Mills for over forty years, developing food products (I know, I know—the organic-eating Coloradan in me shudders a bit at that idea, but let’s move on).  I recall my professorial-looking unk ranting about “the kids”—probably PhDs in their 30’s and 40’s—who came up with brilliant ideas that, surprise, surprise, he had investigated and rejected decades before. And of course, “kids” being kids, they wouldn’t believe him, wouldn’t listen to “the Old Man”, couldn’t conceive that they weren’t the first to arrive at a particular insight.

As I was in my twenties when I heard Uncle Jim’s rant, I smiled and nodded sympathetically, and tried not to smirk while I secretly sided with “the kids”.

One of the countless corollaries of Leebens’ Law of Life (“Things Change”, in case you’ve forgotten) is, “Be careful what thou smirketh at, for yea verily, it shall return to biteth thou in thine behind.” —Okay, it isn’t normally stated in Shakespeare-speak. It’s just more fun that way.

Fast forward to a white-haired Leebs: sure enough, I’m in Uncle Jim’s spot. Those damn kids just won’t listen. Again, I smile— ruefully this time, amused by the arrogance that made me think that I would never be like that.

This came home to roost at CES a couple years back, when I found myself berating a potential client for pitching their product as the FIRST self-energizing electrostatic speaker….and I of course simply had to set the record straight, listing the lineage of such things back to the ’20’s in Germany and the Koss ‘stat speakers, and…and…

Is that twenty-something giving me the same fixed, tolerant smile I wore when Uncle Jim was ranting?


No surprise then that I didn’t pick up a client that day. I’d like to think that I learned from that event, and that I now gently point out such historical missteps with patience, and not pit bull ferocity. It’s a work in progress, like all of life.

The truth is,  audio is a field with a truly lousy sense of its own history, more interested in advancement of the latest and greatest than in introspection or preservation of its past. The history is largely preserved in the minds and memories of those who have been involved in designing or selling the gear…and when those souls pass on, those memories are lost.

The AES has some historical archives, but much of the material available from them pertains more to the history of the society itself, than to the anecdotal and technical history of audio in general. Few biographies or autobios of audio notables are available, aside from the occasional oral history like this one from audio pioneer Harry F. Olson which makes books like those from The Absolute Sound and Ken Kessler even more valuable (a real cynic would point to the triple digit prices of those books, but I understand the issues of small-scale, research-intensive publishing).

I’ve attempted to do a tiny bit to preserve the history of a few innovators in the field with my Vintage Whine columns, but there’s an awful lot more to be done. I don’t know what to say about that, other than to encourage industry veterans to record their memories while they can: audio, video, on paper. Just do it.

This will probably result in me being involved in even more projects in the future. I’m okay with that—although  I suspect that statement will likely come back to biteth me in my behind. ;->

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