1876 Musical Telegraph
Elisha Gray 1835-1901

Elisha Gray (August 2, 1835 – January 21, 1901) was an American electrical engineer who co-founded the Western Electric Manufacturing Company. Gray is best known for his development of a telephone prototype in 1876 in Highland Park, Illinois and is considered by some writers to be the true inventor of the variable resistance telephone, despite losing out to Alexander Graham Bell for the telephone patent.

Gray is also considered to be the father of the modern music synthesizer, and was awarded over 70 patents for his inventions.

he first electric synthesizer was invented in 1876 by Elisha Gray. The “Musical Telegraph” was a chance by-product of his telephone technology when Gray accidentally discovered that he could control sound from a self-vibrating electromagnetic circuit and so invented a basic oscillator. The Musical Telegraph used steel reeds oscillated by electromagnets and transmitted over a telephone line. Gray also built a simple loudspeaker device into later models, which consisted of a diaphragm vibrating in a magnetic field.

The Telharmonium (also known as the Dynamophone) was an early electronic musical instrument, developed by Thaddeus Cahill in 1897. The electrical signal from the Telharmonium was transmitted over wires; it was heard on the receiving end by means of ‘horn’ speakers. Like the later Hammond organ, the Telharmonium used tonewheels to generate musical sounds as electrical signals by additive synthesis.

Cahill had tremendous ambitions for his invention; he wanted telharmonium music to be broadcast into hotels, restaurants, theaters, and even houses via the telephone line. At a starting weight of 7 tons (and up to 200 tons) and a price tag of $200,000 (approx. $5,514,000 today), only three telharmoniums were ever built, and Cahill's great vision was never fully implemented. His idea proved to be fruitful, nearly a century later, with the advent of streaming media.

As the inventor of an electric typewriter and an electronic organ, Thaddeus Cahill enjoyed a prolific career in electrical engineering. Born in a small town in Iowa, Cahill was raised in Oberlin, Ohio. The intellectual genius of Thaddeus was recognized early on by their father, who took it upon himself to educate them. Thaddeus never set foot in a school in his life until he entered the graduating class of his high school in 1883-84, when he graduated at the head of his class despite being the youngest member of the group. Later in life he often felt constrained by the academic regimen at Oberlin Academy, which he often left for inventive pursuits. Despite this impediment to his academic career, Cahill graduated from Columbian University (now George Washington University), obtaining a masters degree in law in 1893. Although admitted to the bar, Thaddeus never really made use of his legal training in favor of his inventive pursuits.

1897 Telharmonium

Additive Synthesis, Streaming Music 

Thaddeus Cahill



Nearly one Century ago creating electronic music took a lot more than a little creativity to make interesting songs. Electronic instruments were large enough to take up an entire gymnasium and only a select few had the ability to explore the electronic sounds they created.  As technology improved, inventors built off of the work of others and with each invention came a world of new sounds that had never been heard before.   


Today creative possiblities are expanded and nearly everyone with a computer is capable of creating their own electronic music.

To use these contemporary tools effectively, it helps to understand how they came to be.  As we look at a few of the key figures in the development of electronic musical instruments, we will attempt to tie the tools of today to the inventions of the past whenever possible. 


Assignment 1: 

Read, watch and take notes on the following material.

I have provided you with some of the greatest inventors and inventions... there are hundreds of others.


Consider engaging in addtional research on each device.


The Oscilator 

Leon Theremin 1896-1993
1920 Theremin

Influenced Robert Moog

Léon Theremin (born Lev Sergeyevich Termen, was a Russian and Soviet inventor. He is most famous for his invention of the theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments. He is also the inventor of interlace, a technique of improving the picture quality of a video signal, widely used in video and television technology. His invention of “The Thing”, an espionage tool, is considered a predecessor of RFID technology.


While adapting a high frequency oscillator to measure the dielectric constant of gases with high precision he added circuitry to generate an audio tone, Theremin noticed the pitch changed when his hand moved around. In October 1920 he first demonstrated this to Ioffe who called in other professors and students to hear. Theremin recalled trying to find the notes for tunes he remembered from when he played the cello, such as the Swan by Saint-Saëns. By November 1920 Theremin had given his first public concert with the instrument, now modified with a horizontal volume antenna replacing the earlier foot-operated volume control. He named it the “etherphone”;, to be known as the Терменвокс (Termenvox) in the Soviet Union, as the Thereminvox in Germany, and later as the “theremin” in the United States.

The Theremin  is an early electronic musical instrument controlled without physical contact by the thereminist (performer).  The instrument's controlling section usually consists of two metal antennas that sense the relative position of the thereminist's hands and control oscillators for frequency with one hand, and amplitude (volume) with the other. The electric signals from the theremin are amplified and sent to a loudspeaker.


Go to this resource to view videos of the Theremin. 

1928 Ondes Martenot

Vacuum Tubes, timbre controls

Maurice Martenot
Lee De Forest
1906  The Audion Tube


Lee De Forest was born August 26, 1873 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He invented the Audion vacuum tube, which made possible live radio broadcasting and became the key component of all radio, telephone, radar, television, and computer systems. Although bitter over the financial exploitation of his inventions by others, he was widely honored as the “father of radio” and the “grandfather of television.”

It had been known since the middle of the 19th century that gas flames were electrically conductive, and early wireless experimenters had noticed that this conductivity was affected by the presence of radio waves. De Forest found that gas in a partial vacuum heated by a conventional lamp filament behaved much the same way, and that if a wire was wrapped around the glass housing, the device could serve as a detector of radio signals. In his original design, a small metal plate was sealed into the lamp housing, and this was connected to the positive terminal of a 22 volt battery via a pair of headphones, the negative terminal being connected to one side of the lamp filament. When wireless signals were applied to the wire wrapped around the outside of the glass, they caused disturbances in the current which produced sounds in the headphones.


The ondes Martenot  French for “Martenot waves”, is an early electronic musical instrument that Maurice Martenot invented in 1928. The original design was similar in sound to the theremin. The sonic capabilities of the instrument were later expanded by the addition of timbral controls and switchable loudspeakers.


The instrument’s eerie wavering notes are produced by varying the frequency of oscillation in vacuum tubes. The production of the instrument stopped in 1988, but several conservatories in France still teach it. Since 2008, Jean-Loup Dierstein, with the support of Maurice Martenot’s son, has been building ondes Martenot instruments based on the model used when production stopped in 1988.


In 1997, the Ondéa project began designing an instrument based on the ondes Martenot. Since the Martenot name is still protected, the new instrument is called Ondéa, but has the playing and operational characteristics of the original ondes Martenot. In 2001, a completed prototype was first used in concerts. These instruments have been in regular use since 2005.



Martenot studied cello and composition at the Paris Conservatory and was a student of the French composer André Gédalge. He first demonstrated the ondes martenot at the Paris Opera in 1928. Leading composers such as Edgard Varèse, Pierre Boulez, André Jolivet, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, and Olivier Messiaen appreciated the capacity of the new instrument. Martenot and his sister Ginette scheduled a world tour of demonstration concerts (1931–32), and Martenot wrote studies on the instrument’s use and on music education, including Méthode Martenot (1952; “The Martenot Method”) and Principes fondamentaux de formation musicale et leur application (1970; “Fundamental Notions of Music Education and Their Application”). Martenot taught at the Paris Conservatory (1947–70) and established his own institution, the Martenot Art School at Neuilly. 

The Hammond organ is an electric organ invented by Laurens Hammond in 1934 and manufactured by the Hammond Organ Company. While the Hammond organ was originally sold to churches as a lower-cost alternative to the wind-driven pipe organ in the 1960s and 1970s, it became a standard keyboard instrument for jazz, blues, rock music, church and gospel music.

The original Hammond organ used additive synthesis of waveforms from harmonic series made by mechanical tonewheels that rotate in front of electromagnetic pickups. The component waveform ratios are mixed by sliding drawbars mounted above the two keyboards. Although many different models of Hammond organs were produced, the Hammond B-3 organ is most well-known. In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s the distinctive sound of the B-3 organ (often played through a Leslie speaker) was widely used in Blues, progressive rock bands and blues-rock groups. The last electromechanical Hammond organ came off the assembly line in the mid-1970s.


1934 Hammond Organ

Drawbars- patch changes

Laurens Hammond  


American businessman and inventor of the electronic keyboard instrument known as the Hammond Organ.

Hammond’s early education took place in Europe, where the family had moved in 1898. Returning to the United States, Hammond attended Cornell University where he received a degree (1916) in mechanical engineering. In 1920, while employed as an engineer for a Detroit automobile concern, he worked privately on a variety of original devices, eventually inventing a soundless clock by enclosing the spring motor in a soundproof box. Selling the marketing rights for his clock, Hammond quit his job and devoted all his efforts to experimentation. He soon developed a synchronous motor that revolved in phase with the 60-cycle electric alternating current then becoming standard. It became the heart of both the Hammond clock and the Hammond organ.

The Mellotron is an electro-mechanical, polyphonic keyboard originally developed and built in Birmingham, England in the early 1960s. It superseded the Chamberlin, which was the world’s first sample-playback keyboard. The heart of the instrument is a bank of parallel linear magnetic audio tape strips. Playback heads underneath each key enable the playing of pre-recorded sounds. Each of the tape strips has a playing time of approximately eight seconds, after which the tape comes to a dead stop and rewinds to the start position.

A major advantage of using tape strips, as opposed to tape loops or cassettes (cf. the Birotron) is that the Mellotron can reproduce the attack and decay of the instruments recorded on the tape.

A consequence of the eight second limit on the duration of each note is that if one wants to play chords that last longer than eight seconds, one must release different notes in sequence in a process that has been compared to a spider crawling across the keyboard.

Harry Chamberlin's idea for inventing the Chamberlin, later named the Mellotron came from his recording himself playing an organ. He formed the idea of playback music coming from an organ as a source of entertainment. He soon set about designing the first Chamberlin instruments as early as 1949. The intention was for the instrument to function as a home entertainment device for family sing-alongs, playing the Big Band standards of the day.  The Chamberlin's use as a commercial instrument in rock (or rock and roll) music was never given consideration, as Harry Chamberlin generally resented rock music and rock musicians.  You can hear the Mellotron on almost every song on the main seven Moody Blues albums, on The Beatles'Strawberry Fields, and on many albums by Genesis, King Crimson, the Strawbs and Yes.  The instrument was, and still is, a centerpiece of the progressive rock movement.

Harry Chamberlin 
1948  Mellotron

First Sampler

In the 1950s, Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was one of the largest manufacturers of consumer entertainment devices and military electronics. For a brief time, RCA was also the site of cutting-edge research in musical instruments, thanks to engineer Harry F. Olson, RCA’s leading expert in the field of acoustics. In the 1940s Olson became interested in making electronic music, and he, along with fellow RCA engineer Herbert Belar, designed a massive electronic music synthesizer called the Mark I.

While electronic musical instruments, such as the Theremin, had been created before, the RCA Mark I was much more complex. It used a bank of 12 oscillator circuits, which used electron tubes to generate the 12 basic tones of a musical “scale.” These basic sounds could be shaped in virtually limitless ways by passing them through other electronic circuits, including high-pass filters, low-pass filters, envelope filters, frequency dividers, modulators and resonators. Never mind the details of how all these circuits work—the end result was that the Mark I could take those 12 basic notes and reshape them into any imaginable sound. At least in theory. In practice, it was easy to create weird, unearthly sounds, and to imitate certain kinds of existing musical instruments but almost impossible to imitate other sounds like human voices or the smooth transitions between notes on a violin or trombone. Still, the Mark I, demonstrated in 1955, was impressive. It was “played” by laboriously programming a sequence of notes to be played, along with information about how the sound of each note was to be shaped, by punching holes into a long roll of paper, similar to the kind used on a player piano. When all that was prepared, the roll was fed into the machine, the holes read, and music produced.

The success of the Mark I led to the creation of the Mark II, which had twice as many tone oscillators and gave the composer more flexibility. In 1957, RCA provided the Mark II to a new consortium between Princeton and Columbia Universities to create the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center. This Center would remain a gathering point for musicians and composers interested in synthesizers for many years. One of the most famous works composed for the RCA Mark II was Charles Wuorinen’s “Time Enconium,” of 1968. The Mark II is still in existence, and is located at the Computer Music Center (successor to the Columbia-Princeton center) in New York.


1957 RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer

First Programmable Synthesizer

Herbert Belar and Harry Olson at RCA

“Moog synthesizer (pronounced /ˈmoʊɡ/, mohg) may refer to any number of analog synthesizers designed by Dr. Robert Moog or manufactured by Moog Music, and is commonly used as a generic term for analog and digital music synthesizers.

The Moog company pioneered the commercial manufacture of modular voltage-controlled analog synthesizer systems in the early 1950s. The technological development that led to the creation of the Moog synthesizer was the invention of the transistor, which enabled researchers like Moog to build electronic music systems that were considerably smaller, cheaper and far more reliable than earlier vacuum tube-based systems.

The Moog synthesizer began to gain wider attention in the music industry after it was demonstrated at the Monterey International Pop Festival in 1967. The commercial breakthrough of a Moog recording was made by Wendy Carlos in the 1968 record Switched-On Bach, which became one of the highest-selling classical music recordings of its era.[2] The success of Switched-On Bach sparked a slew of other synthesizer records in the late 1960s to mid 1970s. In 1974 the German electronic group Kraftwerk further popularized the sound of the synthesizer with their landmark album Autobahn, which used several types of synthesizer including a Minimoog. German-based Italian producer-composer Giorgio Moroder helped to shape the development of disco music.

Later Moog modular systems featured improvements, such as a scaled-down, simplified, self-contained musical instrument designed for use in live performance. The Minimoog became the most popular monophonic synthesizer of the 1970s, and it was quickly taken up by leading rock and electronic music groups such as Yes and Tangerine Dream.


1962 MOOG Synthesizer

Modular Synthesis/Polyphony


Robert Arthur Moog, born on May 23, 1934, in Queens, New York, was intelligent but something of a geek. His mother gave him piano lessons, but his interests were more like his father's, in electrical engineering. At age 14, young Bob built a theremin, an electronic instrument developed in the 1920s by Russian inventor Leon Theremin.  


Before Moog graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1952, he formed the R.A. Moog Company, with the help of his father, and sold theremin kits by mail order. He made enough money to put himself through Queens College, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1957. He later got his master's degree in electrical engineering from Columbia University and a Ph.D. in engineering physics from Cornell University in 1965.


Versatile and inexpensive, Moog's instruments became popular among rock musicians in the mid-1960s, among them the Beach Boys and the Monkees. Then, in 1968, the groundbreaking classical album Switched-On Bach was released, featuring electronic versions of Bach classics. The album sold millions of copies and brought worldwide recognition to Moog's synthesizer. In 1969, the Beatles released their seminal album Abbey Road, featuring a Moog synthesizer. In 1971, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick produced the dark, futuristic A Clockwork Orange, featuring several Beethoven pieces played on a Moog synthesizer.


A complete course could be built around the contributions of this innovator!

Other Innovations:


The Sampler:  1969 A sampler is an electronic musical instrument similar in some respects to a synthesizer but, instead of generating sounds, it uses recordings (or “samples”) of sounds that are loaded or recorded into it by the user and then played back by means of a keyboard, sequencer or other triggering device to perform or compose music. Because these samples are nowadays usually stored in digital memory the information can be quickly accessed. A single sample may often be pitch-shifted to produce musical scales and chords.

















The Yamaha DX7 is an FM (frequency modulation) based digital synthesizer manufactured by the Yamaha Corporation from 1983 to 1989. It was the first commercially successful digital synthesizer.  Its distinctive sound can be heard on many recordings, especially pop music from the 1980s. This synth was a monotimbral, 16-note polyphonic DX7  Over 200,000 of the original DX7 were made,[4][5][6] and it remains one of the best-selling synthesizers of all time.  


1983 was a pivotal year for technology:


  1. MIDI was invented

  2. The Yamaha DX7 Synthesizer was unveiled.

  3. The first mobile phones are introduced to the public

  4. Microsoft WORD is released

  5. The Police release the Album "Syncronicity"

  6. Apple Macintosh came out at the end of the year.

  7. I graduated high school







"Moore's law" is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years. The observation is named after Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel and Fairchild Semiconductor, whose 1965 paper described a doubling every year in the number of components per integrated circuit.  The rate of growth of technology is unprecedented, essentially doubling in capacity every two years.


Our study thus far has brought us to a turning point in the development of electronic music.  Your assignment is to take part of one class period to research the major developments in Electronic Music Technology.  What has been invented since the 80's in music technology?


Provide any pictures or audio samples when possible similar to what I have done for you above.


Post the information in your ePortfolio.



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