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 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.

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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner