Paul Voigt - pioneer in audio, 1901-1981

"High quality music in the home" - An appreciation by David Khan

Paul Voigt was a well-known personality in British audio in the 20's and 30's. He was educated at Dulwich College and University College London, receiving a BSc degree in electrical engineering in 1922. He was a prolific contributor to technical articles and an imaginative innovator.

Initially he lived with his parents, at Bowdon Mount, 121 Honour Oak Park, and joined JE Hough Ltd at their Edison Bell works in Peckham primarily to develop the radio side of the business. However, the trade was still using direct acoustic methods to record music and he soon became convinced that better recordings would result if the disc's groove could be engraved with the same accuracy that the then British Broadcasting Company modulated its broadcasts. Thus was born the idea in about 1922 of 'electrical recordings'. He designed a large and heavy moving coil cutting heads and feed-back circuits to this end. For some years, the 'Edibell' label was regarded as the best quality in recordings. His recording team were in demand in various European concert halls and he spent the best part of 1927 in Zagreb recording over 600 discs He went ahead to design and develop radio circuits, recording cutters, microphones, amplifiers, transformers, pickups and loudspeakers. Under an unusual agreement with the company he remained the owner of the 19 patents on his ideas which he was granted whilst with them. His British patent 238310, on moving coil loudspeakers was applied for in May 20th 1924; weeks after a similar patent in the US had been registered on March 27th 1924. So was laid the good fortune of the American radio industry that were thus able to claim world wide royalties for many years from all other manufacturers of equipment using moving coil loudspeakers. Voigt had been a few weeks away from a fortune for a life! The moving coil design is still universally in use in equipment involving many sound reproduction systems, televisions, radios computers, public address to name a few.

Edison Bell succumbed to the slump in 1933, and Voigt, with his valuable patents, set up in his own laboratory workshop, Voigt Patents Ltd in Sydenham, having purchased parts and specialised tooling which he had designed from the Official Receiver. He worked there until after the second war. Meanwhile he lived with his wife, Ida, at Spring Grove House, 56 Church Road, Upper Norwood from 1929. He claimed the view was the same as that from his parents' home but from a different angle! He was very innovative and was granted a further 13 patents and developed many other manufacturing methods and systems. His work on microphones for example was used by the BBC (unsuccessfully at first because of its susceptibility to damp) in the newly built and plastered Broadcasting House in central London. Its eventual results were way ahead of anything else at the time. However his most enduring work was on loudspeakers and he first proposed the theory and then the development of, the 'tractrix' contour for his horns. Even today his Domestic Corner Horn remains up with the best of British hi-fi. I myself use two of these connected in stereo in my home, where their excellent reproduction of modern digital recordings is a vindication of his approach and designs first suggested in 1924.

Paul Voigt was an eccentric boffin. During the war because of his parents' German origins, he was precluded by government officials from contributing to the various government research programmes where he would undoubtedly have been most innovative and effective. His contemporary Angier and his assistant Haddy at Decca (radar and quality recording of broadcasts) and Blumlein at EMI (who, pre-war, designed the first working moving coil stereo disc cutting lathe) benefited from regular professional Institute of Electrical Engineering discussions. Sadly Blumlein was killed in an air crash in Wales, testing his ground plotting H2S airborne radar in 1942. Voigt was even stopped from developing and testing his loudspeaker because it involved sound generating swoops and whistles which, it was claimed, could have been confused with air-raid sirens. Instead he worked (quietly!) on a moving coil pickup, which design even today is regarded as an ideal. After the war, his work continued to be frustrated because of the shortages of cement, plaster and wood; materials used in his loudspeakers but also desperately wanted for the top priority house-building needs of the war-torn nation. The very powerful magnets he needed for his drive units used strategic metals and they too were not forthcoming at any price. He was even denied by the local Council (Croydon) materials to repair his bomb damaged house, - vindictively he thought because of his German name He felt aggrieved and thwarted. Business recovery was slow, a bankrupt and rationed nation had no need for expensive consumer products and when he injured his back (his main loudspeaker weighed about 70lbs), he concluded that it was time to move on to Canada and set up his business where they didn't have a socialist government that would control and limit his top quality home entertainment products! He decided in 1950 to sell up (by a hand-shake agreement) to Lowther in Bromley, a trade partner, who continued to develop his loudspeakers and eventually market them successfully to an exclusive and very selective clientele. Unfortunately, because his back injury never improved and continued to deteriorate he was unable to set up and develop his business in Canada and earn valuable dollars from the affluent west coast of America as he had intended and after a teaching appointment joined the Canadian Federal Government in Radio Regulations.

He developed curious and interesting original theories on gravity and electro-magnetism which were not readily accepted by contemporary physicists. Nonetheless, his enduring early achievements, as recorded in many professional, trade and consumer publication over the decades as well as the obituaries they published, have assured him of a major and permanent place in audio history. He was the subject of an appreciation of his life's work by the BKSTS at the Royal Institution in 1969 and was awarded honorary membership of the American AES in 1974. Many have said that he was a leading pioneer in British audio when that was also a world-class achievement. Although simple comparisons are never fair, Voigt's importance to audio is much greater than Baird's is to television, yet as a contemporary, public recognition of this Norwood man has never been fully appreciated.

He died on February 9th 1981 at his home in Brighton, Ontario.

© David Khan, August 19th 2007

This article first appeared in the "Norwood Society Quarterly" in October 2007. We are indebted to David Khan for allowing us to re-produce his article here.