Jim Winey: Maggies Man

The Pennsylvania Gazette documented an early connection between music and an American named Winey when, in 1759, it listed for sale as part of an estate "a middle sized organ, having eight stops." Interested parties were directed to one Jacob Winey, a Philadelphia merchant.

It's not known whether there's a familial link between the aforementioned Jacob, who appears to have been childless, and James Melton Winey, who, two centuries later, invented the Magneplanar speaker. (Family research indicates that Jim Winey's roots lead directly back to another Pennsylvania Jacob Winey, born in 1764.) Nevertheless, Magnepan's founder and president finds the old newspaper notice intriguing, since he's certain he inherited a family affinity for music so pronounced that it led his parents to name him after the popular radio tenor James Melton, who went on to sing at the Metropolitan Opera and in movies.

Music's pull was so strong that, by the time he entered his teens, Jim Winey insisted on experiencing it viscerally. "I was probably 13, 14 years old," he recalls. "I'd come home from school for lunch, and there was a program on every day that had classical music on it. After I had my lunch, I would sit with this portable radio of my sister's in my lap, kind of pressed to my body so I could feel it as well as hear it."

By the time Jim Winey was born, on April 18, 1934, his branch of the family had migrated westward. For the first 13 years of Jim's life, his father, Eldridge, was employed as a cat skinner—a heavy equipment operator—and helped build roads and airfields. Eldridge Winey eventually tired of the job's nomadic nature, which in one year alone resulted in Jim's attending six different schools, so he brought his wife, Virgil, their two sons, and their two daughters back home to Deloit, in western Iowa, and worked with his father on the 300-acre family farm, raising corn, soybeans, feeder cattle, and hogs.

During his early teens, Jim Winey spent substantial time there as well, both working and playing. "Two rivers ran through," he reminisces. "My brother, Kay, and I spent a lot of time building dams and fishing. Later, I trapped muskrat and mink and sold the pelts. The rule of thumb on a mink in those days was about a dollar per inch, so if you caught a mink that measured 36 inches on the stretching frame, that was a lot of money." The reward for catching a skunk, he recounts from experience, was getting sent home from school for detoxification.

Winey played basketball and baseball at Deloit High School, and he was valedictorian of the class of 1953, which he readily admits included just seven people. He then enlisted in the army and, at his request, was assigned to Korea. Fortunately, the conflict there was winding down, and he never saw combat. There followed study at Iowa State in Ames, where he earned an engineering degree in 1960, and a subsequent job at John Deere in Des Moines. In the fall of 1961, Winey accepted a position at Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing, aka 3M, and moved to Minnesota with his wife, Karen, a nurse, and their first child. Jim and Karen Winey have lived there ever since.

David Lander: You've been building things since you were a teenager back in western Iowa, haven't you?

Jim Winey: I've never had a problem with ideas, ways to do things. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and that's very pertinent to farming. You've got to be innovative. My grandfather built his own first tractor with an old Ford engine, and he found a way to build an improved corn-picking machine. He applied for a patent on it. My father and my uncle—my uncle, George Newcom, had the first Ford franchise in Crawford County—claimed to have invented the hydraulic brake. We had a real nice machine shop with all the equipment, the forge and the drills, everything. I grew up around that, and I started messing around. Photography's always been a hobby of mine, and I built my own first flash attachment. A friend and I built our own first enlarger out of an old Eastman Kodak bellows camera.

Lander: You studied industrial engineering in college. What did that prepare you for?

Winey: Generally, people think of industrial engineering as time study, setting standards, stuff like that. I never did any of that; I didn't like it. At John Deere, I immediately became what they call a methods engineer. I just had a very good knack of coming up with the best ways of doing something. I was not a nuts-and-bolts designer. I did the conceptual development.

Lander: You've said one of your biggest 3M projects involved designing a machine for assembling a chow mein container that consisted of two cans, one on top of the other. First the cans had to be rotated to align their labels, and then they were taped together.

Winey: One of those machines replaced six people—and worked far more accurately. It would do 200 sets of cans per minute. 3M was in it for the tape; it was a big tape application, 13 inches of tape per set of those cans. We'd do the conceptual design, sell it to whoever the customer was—the first one was La Choy—then go to this machine builder in St. Paul and say, "Okay, this is what we've sold them on." It turned out to be a very lucrative business for the machine builder. I think the first machine cost around $150,000.

Lander: For the tape supplier, too, I'm sure.

Winey: That machine used tape so fast! About the most you could get on a roll of tape was 120 yards, so one of the guys in the tape lab—he was a fisherman, obviously—said, "Let's see if we can level-wind it on a spool like line on a casting reel." They came up with these huge spools with 6000 yards of tape. On one spool.

Lander: Like a lot of hi-fi hobbyists of your generation, you were a fan of electrostatic speakers. You originally owned a pair of Janszen Z-600s, which you bought at the Minneapolis audio store then owned by Bill Johnson, who went on to found Audio Research and who also became your first distributor. You later traded them for KLH Nines, which you still own. Then, one day, you had an epiphany at Bill's store. You heard a whole wall of prototype electrostatic panels built by Ron Toews [pronounced Tayvs], co-founder of RTR.

Winey: Bill played them for me, and my God! It was the closest thing to a live performance I had ever heard. 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.

Lander: How did you get the idea for your planar magnetic speaker?

Winey: At 3M, I happened to be working on an application that involved laminating tape to flexible magnets. I must have been sitting there, thinking about the project as well as my electrostatic project. I looked up and saw some perforated ceiling tiles, and the light bulb went on. It's as simple as that.

Lander: Did the tiles remind you of speaker grilles?

Winey: What they 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. I went home that night. I had a single piece of this magnetic material about 2' 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.

Lander: It sounds as if you were back on the farm, working with the materials you happened to have on hand. In fact, you've pointed out that the flexible magnet material you employed at the time was so commonplace it was used to make refrigerator-door gaskets. How much time did you spend on your speaker then?

Winey: I worked on and off—evenings, weekends, vacations, whenever I could—from about 1966. Finally, in 1968, I reached a point where I had to do something with it.