Electronic Music

One of the things I'm discovering about this is how cumulative the data points are. You'd think it would be easy to pin down a technical innovation like the vacuum tube or transistor, but in reality, it isn't that simple. Each innovation is actually a combination or refinement of several previous discoveries. A question like "Who invented the modular synthesizer?" decays down to semantic hair splitting fairly rapidly.


MUSIC, a program written by Max Mathews in 1957


Thaddeus Cahill develops the Teleharmonium, the first major electronic instrument. Before the 1920's there was no way to amplify electrical signals. So in order to hear sounds through the telephone, you had to put the receiver up to your ear. Cahill knew that if he could generate a large enough of an electrical signal, and if he stuck a cone on the telephone receiver (much like a gramophone cone) he could transmit music through the telephone that could be heard by an audience. Uses dynamos/tone wheels like the as yet un-invented Hammond. Each dynamo had to produce 12-15,000 watts of power. No surviving recordings. Weighed 200 tons. Touch sensitive keyboard. Cahil got the first patent for an electronic musical instrument entitled Art of and Apparatus for Generating and Distributing Music Electronically. 20 years before the amplifier. 1897 - patent 1898 - work began 1901 - inital fundting 1902 - leased a space in Holyoke MA 1904 - successful transmission 1906 - disassembled and moved to NYC 1908 - concerts stopped 1911 - new Telharmonium installed 1912 - new Telharmonium demoed 1914 - Telharmonic Company bankrupt

Hammond Organ

Laurens Hammond invents the Hammond Organ, the first commercially-successful electronic instrument. In this instrument a synchronous motor drives a series of 91 tone generators of diminutive size through gears and pinions. These generators have frequencies exactly at or near those of the tempered scale. The amount of agreement and departure from this tempered scale of frequencies found in the Hammond organ have been listed in his patent No. 1,956,350. For the sake of simplification the partials for complex tones are all obtained from this series of alternators. There is some sacrifice in the precision or exactness of harmony between some of the partials due to this simplification, but this is hardly noticeable.


Léon Theremin, patents the device in 1928

Ondes Martenot

invented in 1928

Switched On Bach

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Vacuum Tube

Although thermionic emission was originally reported in 1873 by Frederick Guthrie, it was Thomas Edison's 1884 investigation that spurred future research, the phenomenon thus becoming known as the "Edison effect". It wasn't until the early 20th century that the rectifying property of such a device was utilized, most notably by John Ambrose Fleming, who used the diode tube to detect (demodulate) radio signals.

Transistor ( bipolar point-contact)

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RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer

The RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer (nicknamed Victor) was the first programmable electronic music synthesizer and the flagship piece of equipment at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. Designed by Herbert Belar and Harry Olson at RCA, it was installed at Columbia University in 1957. Consisting of a room-sized array of interconnected sound synthesis components, much of the design of the machine was contributed by Vladimir Ussachevsky and Peter Mauzey. The synthesizer was funded with a large grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Voltage-Controlled Electronic Music Modules

Moog presents Voltage Controlled Electronic Music Modules at the AES convention.

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