Apple Electronics: Inside the Beatles' eccentric technology subsidiary

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Apple Electronics: Inside the Beatles' eccentric technology subsidiary

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Say the word Apple today and we think of Steve Jobs’ multi-billion-dollar technology company that spawned the iPhone and the Mac computer.

But a decade before the California-based firm was even founded, Apple Electronics, a subsidiary of the Beatles’ record label Apple, was working on several pioneering inventions – some of which were precursors of commonly available products today. 

Apple Electronics was led by Alexis Mardas, a young electronics engineer and inventor originally from Athens in Greece, known to the Beatles as Magic Alex. 

He died on this day in 2017, aged 74, and was one of the most colourful and mysterious characters in the Beatles’ story.  

Dressed in a white lab coat in his London workshop, Mardas created prototypes of inventions that were set to be marketed and sold.

These included the ‘composing typewriter’ – powered by an early example of sound recognition – and a phone with advanced memory capacity. 

Also in development was a robotic assistant, about two feet tall, that would have scooted around the home on a track performing errands. 

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Alexis Mardas in his small workshop in Boston Place in Marylebone, central London. He was described by John Lennon as his 'guru'

Alexis Mardas in his small workshop in Boston Place in Marylebone, central London. He was described by John Lennon as his ‘guru’

He also created a small electronic camera for £50 that could be plugged directly into a TV screen to display photos, and an automatic light dimmer for use in cinemas and theatres. 

‘It must be remembered that none of these had even been thought about by others at the time, although most of them are now in common use,’ Mardas said in a statement published by the New York Times in 2010.  

‘For example, an electronic camera is now commonly used, as is the “memory phone'” and what was then called “the composing typewriter” and is now known as voice recognition. 

‘All these products were invented by me and we were in the process of patenting most of them in the United States.’  

The Beatles reportedly intended to donate all the profits made from the inventions to help the world’s handicapped and underprivileged people. 

Alex Mardas (Magic Alex), head of the electronics division of The Beatles' Apple business venture, pictured in 1968

Alex Mardas (Magic Alex), head of the electronics division of The Beatles’ Apple business venture, pictured in 1968

John Lennon was initially very taken with Mardas after meeting him through John Dunbar, owner of the trendy London Indica art gallery. 

Lennon introduced Mardas to the other members of the Beatles as his ‘guru’, and he joined the electronics division of their ambitious new record company in February 1968.  

Apple's logo still adorns Beatles products released today

Apple’s logo still adorns Beatles products released today

Mardas was given his own workshop – in Boston Place in Marylebone, London – to develop the devices to be patented and sold by Apple. 

By that November, the Beatles had spent £100,000 equipping the small laboratory, which would have cost £20,000 a year to run. 

At that time, the inventions were going through an international patenting process with the aim of marketing and selling them in shops around the world; a few Apple Electronics ideas are still listed on Google Patents today. 

But by the summer of 1969, Apple Corps was haemorrhaging money at an alarming rate and Apple Electronics was swiftly closed down by the band’s new manager, American businessman Allen Klein. 

As a result, Mardas’ inventions at Apple Electronics – many of which were demonstrated to a Daily Mail reporter in 1968 – never progressed past the prototype stage. 

Madras later returned to Greece and passed away in 2017, but his memorable ideas now epitomise the excitement of the late 1960s. 

The ‘memory phone’

Mardas appearing in a short promo video for Apple Electronics. The subsidiary had plans to patent devices, sell them in shops around the world and use the profits for social good

Mardas appearing in a short promo video for Apple Electronics. The subsidiary had plans to patent devices, sell them in shops around the world and use the profits for social good

Just like today’s smart speakers such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, the memory phone was voice-activated and never required a single handset to be lifted to make a call. 

It could remember up to 100,000 phone numbers and ring any of them up when asked, and, if the person called took their time to answer the phone, it played music or gave the caller the latest Stock Exchange figures.

The memory phone was allegedly able to identify who was calling and respond to its owner’s voice.  

Alex had kept a prototype of the memory phone in his office, using a few of its nifty features that are evocative of today’s personal assistants.  

Mardas told the Daily Mail in 1968: ‘It rings me up every morning from the office on its own. 

‘I tell it at night to ring me at a certain time and where I have to go – the next morning at home the phone rings me from the empty office and tells me to get up and where my first appointment is.’

The Bell Telephone Corporation of America offered Apple Electronics 1 million dollars (£416,000 at the time) for the device, according to Mardas.

Cynthia Lennon, John Lennon and George Harrison are pictured with others watching Pattie Harrison modelling at the Revolution club in Mayfair. Between Lennon and Harrison is Mardas

Cynthia Lennon, John Lennon and George Harrison are pictured with others watching Pattie Harrison modelling at the Revolution club in Mayfair. Between Lennon and Harrison is Mardas

Colour-changing paint 

Beatles guitarist George Harrison fondly remembered this invention, which had the capability of changing the colour of metal onto which it was painted. 

The paint, which was initially blank and looked like a thick enamel, covered a thin piece of metal with two wires coming out of it.

When it was connected to a power source, it lit up a bright, luminous green, according to Harrison, who wanted to coat his Ferrari in it so it would light up whenever he pressed down on the brake pedal. 

‘We asked, “Can you do other colours too?” – “Sure, whatever you want”,’ Harrison remembered in an interview in the 1990s for The Beatles Anthology book. 

‘The back of the car would be red, but only when you stepped on the brake.

‘The rest of the time the whole car would be connected to the revs on the gearbox – so the car would start off quite dull and as you shifted through the gears it would become brighter. 

‘You could go down the A3 and pass somebody and it would look like a flying saucer.’  

George Harrison had plans to use Mardas' colour-changing paint on his yellow Ferrari (pictured) while driving down the motorway

George Harrison had plans to use Mardas’ colour-changing paint on his yellow Ferrari (pictured) while driving down the motorway

The record jammer

The record jammer, which took six days and £10 to produce, was able to prevent any vinyl record being recorded onto tape.

Apple Corps had worked out that for each vinyl record sold, as many as eight people taped pirate copies for free.  

Mardas reportedly developed the system to transmit a high-frequency signal onto a vinyl record when it was being cut. 

This would mean that when anyone bought the record and tried to copy it, all they would hear on the tape was a weird grinding noise. 

The record jammer was set to be given free to 200 world firms where vinyl records were manufactured.

Apple Electronics would have charged a small royalty for every record played using the jammer – estimated to have been more than 100 million records a year.  

'Magic Alex' in his studio. Alexcompany, Apple Corps

‘Magic Alex’ in his studio in Boston Place, London. Alex was the Beatles’ personal inventor and head of the electronics division of the company, Apple Corps

The hot-cold plate 

The hot-cold plate had started as a way to cool transistors but developed into what would have been a revolutionary device for the home kitchen.

It consisted of plate, around one-sixteenth-of-an-inch thick, powered by the mains or a battery. 

It was able to suddenly heat itself to 250 degrees Celsius in 20 seconds and cool to 28 degrees below zero in another 20 seconds – effectively intended to be a two-in-one device for storing or serving foods usually served at different temperatures.  

The Daily Mail’s Denis Holmes tested the invention in a tour of the lab in 1968, calling it ‘so refined that it will open a new era in kitchen cookers, refrigeration and air conditioning’. 

Watch this historical Apple Electronics promo 

Holmes said: ‘I put my hand on the plate and Alex pressed a switch – I counted five and had to snatch my hand away. 

‘I put my hand back, the switch was pressed in the opposite direction and my hand started to stick to the ice-cold metal.’

Mardas said that some companies had offered to buy the device to make sure it never saw the light of day.

He told Holmes: ‘Offers are pouring in from firms who want to buy it and drop it in the river with our promise never to make one again, because every cooker and refrigerator will be out of date overnight.’  

The composing typewriter

Mardas took two months and £400 to invent this automated machine, which looked just like a standard typewriter. 

But the prototype device, designed for people in the music publishing industry, featured an early example of sound recognition. 

The silent automatic typewriter would listen as someone played music on an instrument or sang to it. 

As he or she did so, the typewriter wrote out music and lyrics it heard ready for the publisher to take to print. 

Mardas and the Beatles were always fairly tight-lipped on how such devices actually worked on the basis of secrecy. 

John Lennon said in 1968: ‘We’ve learnt in this happy business world that spies in brown raincoats and sunglasses go around, and so you can’t say anything about a product until it’s out.’  

The robotic housewife 

An idea for a robotic housewife was in development but never created – described as a long-term project that needed more time and money. 

The subservient device was two feet tall and shaped like two huge tennis balls, one on top of the other. 

The upper sphere had eyes, nose and mouth ‘just for fun’, while the lower sphere could be affixed to a system of rubber tracks placed around the home. 

This would allow the robot, which would have been sold for £50, to zip around the house, cleaning, polishing and making tea.  

The Beatles at manager Brian Epstein's house on May 19, 1967 for the launch party of their eighth album Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The band founded Apple Corps the following year

The Beatles at manager Brian Epstein’s house on May 19, 1967 for the launch party of their eighth album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The band founded Apple Corps the following year

The ‘nothing box’ – an Apple Electronics invention?

Mardas is often said to have given Lennon a ‘nothing box’ – a small black box with eight lights in various colours that flashed in a random sequence.

Lennon, who kept it in the living room of his six-bedroom house in Weybridge, Surrey, used it to complement the effects of an LSD trip – namely the flashing colours, which were reminiscent of hallucinations.  

‘Often he would stare at the blinking nothing box Alex had presented to him or at the walls and shadows until the drugs wore off,’ said Peter Brown, board member at Apple Corps, in his 1983 book The Love You Make.

However, Mardas was not the device’s inventor. It was actually invented by US retail company Hammacher Schlemmer and released to the market in time for Christmas 1962. 

Hammacher Schlemmer’s ad for the nothing box described the lights as blinking continuously ‘in no recognisable pattern and for no apparent reason for nearly a year’ until the battery ran dry. 

The novelty captured the fancy of the Beatles, who purchased hundreds of them as gifts, according to the firm’s website. 

The 'nothing box' as it appeared in an ad. Its eight lights flashed continuously 'in no recognisable pattern for nearly a year' until the battery ran dry. It's often described mistakenly as an Alexis Mardas invention

The ‘nothing box’ as it appeared in an ad. Its eight lights flashed continuously ‘in no recognisable pattern for nearly a year’ until the battery ran dry. It’s often described mistakenly as an Alexis Mardas invention 

Other concepts that were attributed to Magic Alex he later denied he had ever tried to invent, including an X-ray camera that could see through walls and paint that would make objects invisible.

Another alleged idea was to build a force field around Ringo Starr’s drums that would have isolated drum sounds from the rest of the microphones in the studio. 

Mardas said in his 2010 statement: ‘I once had a discussion with John Lennon about this topic. I said that it was possible, theoretically, to create an ultrasonic barrier generated by ultrasonic transfusers. 

‘This would prevent sound travelling over a certain field [but] I never suggested I would make such a barrier.’ 

Paul McCartney also remembered an idea Magic Alex had – using wallpaper that would act as loudspeakers – that never materialised. 

Despite his efforts, Magic Alex was allegedly paid only a normal salary.

He said in 1968: ‘Companies in America and Japan are offering me astronomical salaries to join them. Here I just take a few pounds a week.’

Mardras left Apple Corps shortly after being tasked to kit out the Beatles’ new recording studio in Savile Row – a job that he was never able to complete, he later claimed.  

‘I was designing and had actually finished a mock-up studio in Boston Place which, when ready, would be moved into the Savile Row premises [but] this was destroyed and the equipment taken away,’ he said in 2010.

As for Apple Corps, the company had a famous ongoing legal battle over rights to the name ‘Apple’ from 1978, which finally reached a settlement in 2007. 

Apple Corps still exists and oversees the Beatles’ empire, but its fascinating subsidiaries – which also included Apple Retail and Apple Films – are now sadly no longer operational.  

APPLE CORPS VS APPLE COMPUTERS 

Apple Corps was founded by the Beatles in 1968. Its main purpose was to act as a record label, under its chief division Apple Records, but other ambitious subsidiaries were Apple Films, Apple Electronics and the Apple Boutique, a retail store at 94 Baker Street in London.

Meanwhile, Americans Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne founded Apple Computers in April 1976 and started selling the Apple II computer the following year.

In 1978, the Beatles’ company Apple Corps filed a lawsuit against Apple Computer for trademark infringement.

This was settled three years later in 1981 for $80,000.

The agreement the two companies settled upon was that Apple Computer would never enter into the music business and in return Apple Corps would never enter into the computer business.

In 1991, Apple Corps sued Apple Computer again, alleging that by adding sound to its computers, the computer company was in violation of the 1981 agreement.

This time Apple Computer paid $26.5 million and agreed that although it may be involved in digital music, it would not package, sell or distribute any physical music materials, such as CDs.

The climax of this dispute came after Apple unveiled iTunes in September 2003 and Apple Corps once again sued Apple Computer for breach of contract. 

Apple Corps alleged the online iTunes music store violated the contractual agreement that the two companies had where Apple Computer would not enter into the music business.

The main question that the court had to decide was whether Apple’s iTunes online music store distributed physical copies of music, such as CDs.

This case was heard in the High Court of London in 2006 in front of single judge, who eventually ruled in favour of Apple Computer.

iTunes’ distribution format was strictly digital, meaning it sold music that could be played on digital devices such as personal computers and iPods.

Finally, in February 2007, Apple Inc (as it had been rechristened the previous month) and Apple Corps reached a settlement of their trademark dispute.

Under this settlement, Apple Inc owns all trademarks related to ‘Apple’ and licenses certain trademarks back to Apple Corps for its continued use.   

Apple Corps is still operational, but the American company effectively clawed the name ‘Apple’ from the London firm over the course of the legal battle. 

Apple Corps is still operational and oversees the Beatles’ business, however.

According to the Mirror, company accounts filed to Apple Records Limited for the year until January 2019 show that the Beatles made £50,244,899 over a year. 

 

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