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Laurens Hammond, True Synth-Pop Sire, Would Be 115 Today

Today we celebrate the birthday of one Laurens Hammond, who basically invented everything that Edison and Tesla didn't. For instance, he designed an automatic transmission at age 14 in 1909, but French carmaker Renault rejected it.

No matter; he went on to develop the basis for guided missile controls, infrared detecting technology, new types of clocks, and of course the famous organ that you've probably heard about while being hung over in church.

In addition to that eponymous organ, now popular across the pop-music spectrum (and perhaps better known as the B-3), Hammond built what was arguably the first real synthesizer decades before Dr. Robert Moog hit the scene.

Back in 1933, when America was learning that to keep a close eye on wild investment banking - a lesson we have learned so well - Hammond picked up an upright piano and ripped out all the pesky "piano" parts, leaving him with a keyboard and the striking mechanisms. Using the keyboard as a controller, Hammond developed the tonewheel sound generator, a design that is still in use in many modern synths.

The result was the novachord, the first commercial polyphonic synthesizer.

The guts of a Novachord.
The guts of a Novachord.

The assistant treasurer of the Hammond Clock Company in New York was a friend of Hammond's named W. L. Lahey. Lahey was the organist at St. Christopher's Episcopalian Church, and the two men began using Hammond's design to test out tones and basically streamline the novachord for common use.

Those of us used to the lightweight controllers would've cried for roadies upon seeing this monstrosity. It weighed over 500 pounds, was the size of two spinet pianos and contained 163 vacuum tubes, and more than 1,000 custom capacitors.

When someone gets around to doing a steampunk version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the novachord is what Captain Nemo will play. Aside from the vacuum-tube technology and being the size of a minor Transformer, the novachord was basically the same as most pre-MIDI synths. It had seven attack, sustain and delay settings, all controlled by rotary knobs, and a bunch of other things that we have no idea what they do... just like modern synths!

The U.S. Patent office, desperate to generate work during the Great Depression, fast-forwarded Hammond's patent so that the inventor could get to work developing and selling the instrument. It debuted at the 1939 World's Fair, and the first novachord to roll out of the factory was delivered to Franklin Roosevelt as a gift.

 

Max Steiner used the Novachord in his score for Gone With the Wind; famed film composer Jerry Goldsmith (Patton, Chinatown, Alien) was also a fan. Unfortunately, despite the instrument's historical significance in paving the way to modern synthpop, it was more or less a commercial failure. Mostly because, and we cannot stress this enough, the thing was a huge, complicated beast that required the perfect care of hundreds of parts.

This is not a good combo for musicians, as we have actually watched a guitarist try to plug a quarter-inch input into an electrical outlet. At least the novachord didn't suffer from vacuum-tube failure like the early computers, probably because it only used about five volts.

Like theremins, the novachord was good at generating otherworldy sounds, and this made it popular in science-fiction and horror-movie scores after World War II, particularly with films from Universal Studios. Still, today there are less than 200 novachords still in existence, and probably less than 30 are still in working order.

Though Hammond can be credited for creating the basis for all modern synths, he did not invent the idea. That honor actually belongs to Elisha Gray, whose main claim to fame is that Alexander Graham Bell's lawyers bribed an alcoholic patent clerk to give them a copy of Gray's telephone design.

Gray was another brilliant inventor who was obsessed with telegraph technology in the late 19th century, developing many new devices for Western Union. Seriously, the man loved electrifying wires, steel and basically anything else that could carry a current and not yell, "That hurts me."

In 1874, Gray gave a demonstration of a "Musical Telegraph" at his Presbyterian church in Highland Park, Ill. Using a two-octave keyboard, Gray transmitted an electrical current through wires to electromagnets that vibrated steel reeds.

Basically, Gray used a telegraph to play hymns, which means that he is responsible for God's first ringtone!

Jef With One F is the author of The Bible Spelled Backwards Does Not Change the Fact That You Cannot Kill David Arquette and Other Things I Learned In the Black Math Experiment, available now.


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