Timeline: History of the Synthesizer
It may seem a strange thing to start the history of the synthesizer before the use of electricity. However, throughout the history of mechanical instrumental music (music made by machines) inventors have sought to discover new and creative ways to make musical sounds and play music. These seeds of invention reach back to the begining instrument design and eventually blossomed into the synthesizer/keyboard revolution that music has and is currently experiencing. You may notice that some very significant instrumental inventions (such as the pianoforte) are not mentioned here. This is mainly because of the vast amount of information already out there about these instruments. We have chosen instead to highlight the kinds of technical innovations which led to the development of modern synthesizers that may not be apparent to a synthesizer enthusiast.
Do you have any additions to this timeline? Please let us know.
|3rd century BC
|Hydraulos - Invented by Ktesibios (or Ctesibius), a Greek engineer, to solve the age-old question, "How can a person play more than one instrument at a time?" He created an air chamber in a tub of water that was filled by a hand pump. The pressure was regulated by the weight of water. Mechanical levers or switches would send the air to different pipes. Of course, the modern pipe organ was basically the same concept. By the 15th Century CE organs had grown to be the first additive synthesizers, using multiple pipes for each note, adding harmonic complexity as well as volume.
|The "hurdy-gurdy" - This is similar to an organ grinder in concept. By rotating the handle, wheels are set in motion and rub against different strings to create a melody. Other strings resonate to create a drone. Could this instrument be considered the first strap-on synthesizer with built in sequencer?
|Pascaline - At the age of 21, Blaise Pascal developed a calculating machine very similar to designs found (in 1997) in old manuscripts from Leonardo Da Vinci. Although these adding machines made no music, they are pre-cursors to the modern computer and, thus, digital synthesizers.
|The Nouvelle Invention de Lever - This was a hydraulic engine which produced musical sounds.
|Clavecin Electrique - The "electric harpsichord" invented by Jean-Baptiste de Laborde and built (in 1761) by Abbe Delaborde in Paris, France. Via a short harpsichord-like keyboard, clappers, charged with static electricity, were activated to ring bells.
|Panharmonicon - This was a mechanical keyboard instrument that automated the playing of flutes, clarinets, trumpets, violins, cellos, drums, cymbals, triangle, and other instruments (guns?). It was invented by Johann Maelzel who, at some point, convinced Ludwig Van Beethoven to compose for it. Beethoven wrote "Wellington's Victory" for it and started to write the battle symphony "The Battle of Victoria" for the Panharmonicon, but quarrels between him and Maelzel later changed his mind. Although the Panharmonicon was mechanical and not electrical, the spirit of the invention lives on in today's sampling instruments.
|The Music Box - Watchmaker A. Favre invented this early instrument in Geneva.
|Telegraph - Samuel Morse invented the telegraph which allowed rhythmic pulses to be broadcasted great distances. Unfortunately, to our knowledge, these rhythmic pulses were not musical in nature, but restricted to the Morse Code, also developed by Samuel Morse.
|The Difference Engine - Invented by Charles Babbage, a British scientist, this machine futhered the eventual development of the modern computer.
|David E. Hughes invented a typewriting telegraph utilizing a piano-like keyboard to activate the mechanism.
|Electromechanical Piano - Developed by Hipps (first name unknown) who was a director of the telegraph factory in Neuchatel, Switzerland. The keyboard activated electromagnets that activated dynamos (small electric generators) which produced sound. Dynamos where later to be used in Thaddeus Cahill's Dynamophone (also known as the Telharmonium).
|Telephone - Alexander Graham Bell invents a way to transmit the voice over a telegraph wire.
|Electroharmonic or Electromusical Telegraph - Elisha Gray (also an inventor of a telephone, but beaten to the patent office by Bell) invented this simple keyboard with oscillators for each key. That's right, oscillators. Mr. Gray found that he could create a self-vibrating electromagnetic circuit, basically a single frequency oscillator. He could transmit music over a telephone line. Later he built a simple speaker to make the sounds audible without a telephone line. This instrument transmitted musical tones over wires. Not to be done out by Gray, Alexander Bell developed a similar instrument he called the "Electric Harp."
|Phonograph - Invented by Thomas Edison, this early device used a diaphragm with an attached needle to record sound on a wax cylinder. The cylinders didn't last very long but Edison thought this device could be used for businesses. This invention, the same concept as Edison but using either a cylindrical system or a disc system, was simultaneously developed and patented by Emile Berliner.
|Loudspeaker - The idea was first expressed independently in the patents of Ernst Wermer of Siemens, Germany who filed his patent on Dec. 14, 1877, and Sir Oliver Lodge of the UK who secured a patent on April 27, 1898 in the UK. However, music had yet to be converted into electrical signals in order to be played on these speakers.
|Bell Laboratories - This laboratory (at American Bell Telephone Company first called the Electrical and Patent Department and later, in 1884, refered to as the Mechanical Department) was established by Alexander Graham Bell, who financed it with his own money. This lab was later to contribute significantly to recording and transmitting sound. Research here also led to the development of the GDS/Synergy instruments.
|Player Piano - Invented in the US, this instrument could record a performance on a paper roll. This roll could be copied and manufactured and distributed to people with player pianos to reproduce the performance, much like MIDI files are traded today.
|Choralcello ("Heavenly Voices") - This instrument was developed by Melvin Severy and his brother-in-law, George B. Sinclair, in Arlington Heights, Massachusetts, USA from 1888 to 1909 when it was debuted in Boston, Massachusetts.
The Choralcello was manufactured by the Choralcello Manufacturing Co. It was sold as an expensive home organ for social music recitals. The company was taken over by Farrington C. Donahue and A. Hoffman. As far as we know, at least 6 were sold.
Much like the Telharmonium, the Choralcello used an electromagnetic tone wheel to generate organ sounds. However the Choralcello went a step further and also had piano-like strings that were either struck with piano-type hammers or vibrated electromagnetically.
The Choralcello had two keyboards, an upper 64-note keyboard played the strings like a piano, and the lower 88-note keyboard played the tone wheels and activated electromagnets to vibrate the strings, having organ style stops to control the timbre by passing the sound through cardboard, hardwood, softwood, glass, steel, or "bass-buggy" spring resonators.
The Choralcello eventually incorporated into the instrument a player-piano styled paper roll device for recording and playing back performances, as well as a 32-note pedal board system. The entire machine was very large, taking up "two basements" with only the keyboards and speakers publicly visible.
|Telharmonium or Dynamophone - Thadeus Cahill applied for and was granted patent number 580,035 entitled Art of and Apparatus for Generating and Distributing Music Electronically. His idea was to create an electric machine on which music could be played and distributed through the phone lines to businesses, hotels and private homes. He would do this by using dynamos which produces an alternating current, a sine wave (in this case the dynamo is also called an "alternator"). He did this with electromagnets and very large tone wheels. In 1898 Cahill began working on his machine in Washington D.C. (see 1901)
|Telegraphone - This, the first magnetic recording machine was patented by Valdemar Poulson. The theory behind this machine was worked out theoretically by Oberlin Smith of the UK in 1888. Poulson's machine recorded by passing a thin wire across an electromagnet. Each minute section of the wire would retain its electromagnetic charge, thus recording the sound. Sound could be both recorded and played back. Unfortunately, because the machine's output wasn't very loud and there was no way to amplify the signal, the Telegraphone was not much of a success.
|Stereo Phonograph - developed by Edison.
|Singing Arc - This was arguably the first fully electronic instrument. It was developed by William Duddell from the technology used in the carbon arc lamp, an electric precursor to the light bulb used in England and throughout Europe. The problem with the carbon arc lamp was that it made a lot of noise, from a low hum to an annoying high pitched whistle. Mr. Duddell, an English physicist was commissioned to investigate the sound that these lamps made. He found that the more electricity was applied to the lamp, the higher the resulting pitch. To demonstrate this phenomenon, he hooked up a keyboard to the lamp and called it the Singing Arc. The Singing Arc could be heard without the benefit of an amplifier or speaker. At a lecture to the London Institute of Electrical Engineers, the keyboard was hooked up to the building's arc lamps and it was found that no only did they all sing but those in the other buildings on the same circuit sang also. Although this demonstrated a method of transmitting music over a distance, it was never developed further. Duddell never even applied for a patent for his machine. However he did tour the country and show off his Singing Arc, which never became more than a novelty.
An interesting side story to all this: A few years earlier, in 1887, a Dutch inventor discovered that a sound waves could be used to modulate the intensity of a flame produced by gas under pressure (a manometric flame).
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