Book Review: A Pair of Wharfedales
IM Publications LLP, 2012. ú50.00 ($75.00). Hardcover, 359 pp. Available from www.apairofwharfedales.com, www.musicdirect.com.
This business biography of hi-fi pioneer Gilbert Briggs and his company, Wharfedale, is an exhaustively researched labor of love on the part of his grand-nephew David Briggs. In a sense, the book is a prequel to Ken Kessler's KEF: 50 Years of Innovation in Sound (2011). That's because KEF's founder, Raymond Cooke, worked for Gilbert Briggs at Wharfedale from the early 1950s through mid-1961. But that is getting ahead of ourselves.
The story told in A Pair of Wharfedales begins in 1890, when Gilbert Briggs was born, in Clayton Village in Bradford, West Yorkshire, in the north of England. The full flowering of the industrial revolution, especially automated weaving, had brought both unprecedented prosperity and unprecedented grinding labor to Victorian-era British cities. Briggs's father, supervisor of a textile mill, died when Briggs was nine. It was only through the benevolence of well-off men who recognized the boy's potential that he received the education, at an orphans' boarding school, that saved him from a life of factory labor.
Lingering over seemingly inconsequential details, the book seems to start slowlyespecially if you want to jump right into the wires-and-pliers stuffbut David Briggs is justified in doing so. His great-uncle Gilbert's formative experiencesnot only his love of classical music, but also his affability and good manners, his participation in Edwardian-era amateur entertainments, and most of all, his willingness to speak in public about things he passionately cared aboutwere, much later in his life, tremendously important in setting the standard of how hi-fi could be made comprehensible and desirable to people who cared about music, but not so much about technology, and especially not about technology for its own sake. That is the true legacy of Gilbert Briggs.
It takes some effort to imagine the texture of life during Briggs's early years. In 1890, with the exception of the Crimean War, England had been at peace for almost 80 years. The prevailing outlook was optimistic, perhaps even complacently so. The scale of daily life was, for most, determined by how far one could walk. Hearth, home, and church were the centers of family life, and there was an involuntary aspect to a great deal of family closeness: Quarters were cramped. Apart from music boxes, player pianos, all music was live music.
It was at Crossley and Porter's Orphan's School where Briggs first regularly heard classical music. The music teacher, an accomplished German pianist, would often play into the night, and Briggs would listen through his open window. Captivated, the young Briggs resolved that one day he would buy a good piano. Early in his working life, Briggs acquired a new Broadwood; during WWII, he shared his Wharfedale Wireless Works office space with a Steinway grand.
Briggs completed his education and entered the office-and-sales end of the textile industry, where he would spend the first 27 years of his working life. He traveled on business, first to the Continent, and then to India and Asia. Flunking his entrance physical exam kept Briggs out of World War I.
While the Great War had provided much business for England's textile manufacturers, the postwar period required adjustments to difficult changed circumstances, including foreign tariffs, foreign competition, and evolving fashion styles. By 1932, Briggs had married, become a father, and bought his way into a textile enterprise that was doomed to fail. In a last-ditch cost-saving effort he was let go, losing not only his investment but his house, and only narrowly avoiding bankruptcy.
At that point, Briggs cast his fate to the winds. He took stock of what he loved most other than his family, and took a chance on combining his love of music and his critical instinctsespecially about sound qualitywith his hobby of building drive-units and loudspeakers. He founded the Wharfedale Wireless Works. Perhaps Briggs feared failure; for some time, the business was in the name of only his wife, Edna. As it was, it took Wharfedale seven years to find a solid footing for his new business.
Briggs's connections in the textile world would later prove important. After WWII, with rationing still in effect, he sought to increase treble extension and to reduce distortion in his drivers by offering cloth surrounds, and was able to buy up nonrationed khaki cloth that had been improperly dyed.
Briggs truly came into his own in the 1950s and '60s. He was the first to commercialize WWII-era innovations in magnet technology, which resulted in superior sound from much smaller magnet structures. As much concerned with mechanical resonances and overall loudspeaker distortion as he was with magnetic flux, he pioneered first brick- and then sand-filled enclosures. He was among the firstif not the firstmanufacturers of consumer loudspeakers to offer dividing networks (crossovers), and was among the first British audio manufacturers to make a serious effort to export to America (he later built speakers in Port Washington, New York). He was the first audio manufacturer to write readable books about speakers and audio components for the general public rather than for specialists, and contributed articles to the US magazine High Fidelity. And he was among the earliest in the modern era to present public demonstrations of his audio products in large venues, and, later, public demonstrations of live vs recorded music, as later emulated by many others, including Acoustic Research and John Marks Records.
In one of his books about loudspeakers (footnote 1), Gilbert Briggs wrote: "My qualifications for writing this are not very extensive, as I am neither a scientist nor a mathematician, but I have been making loudspeakers for more than fifteen years, and all my life I have been fascinated by sound. In my search for the perfect piano, more than three dozen uprights and grands have darkened my doors during the last 30 years. My hobby is music and I make a practise of attending concerts and playing the piano regularly in order to keep my hearing fresh, as I think that the tonal quality of music is quite as important as its melodic and harmonic structure. My approach to the subject is, therefore, as much from the musical angle as the technical."
We owe a lot to Gilbert Briggs, and today's audio manufacturers would do well to ponder his legacy. A Pair of Wharfedales is neither a lavish, color-filled coffee-table book nor a quick read, but still: highly recommended.John Marks
Footnote 1: No fewer than 8 of Gilbert Briggs' books are still available from amazon.com.