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History of Synthesizers: 19th Century to 1950

Submitted by on June 10, 2013 – 8:27 am One Comment

It may surprise some to know that the synthesizers we have today actually started off nearly 120 years ago. At the end of the 19th century, around 1896 a businessman and inventor going by the name of Thaddeus Cahill was going around door-to-door asking patrons to contribute to a new creation of his that would later become to be known as the Telharmonium (others may know it as the Dynamophone). In 1897 he was granted the patent for the machine that, once created, weighed an astonishing 400,000 pounds.

The Telharmonium worked by using a series of electromagnets and huge tone wheels to create dynamos for alternating currents. The signal created with the primitive synthesizer was then directed to people’s homes where people could listen to the sound by connecting a large cone to the phone lines. By 1906 a series of concerts was conducted with the machine as far away as 35 miles.

13 years later one of the creepiest-sounding synthesizers of all time was created by Leon Theremin. The invention, named after the Russian creator, was known as the Theremin and took a revolutionary approach to creating music. The machine had two bars on each end, one controlled pitch and the other controlled volume. Extremely difficult to play, what made the instrument so different is the fact that it took a hands-off approach to synth music. The player would wave his hands to change the note and volume as if conducting magic.

You can see a video of the Theremin in action below:

About a decade from the time the Theremin was brought into the world, two inventors in Germany created a synthesizer that appears more to what you think of a synth device looking like compared to radical creations like the aforementioned Theremin. Named the Trautonium, the original design was used in a way that the player could press a piece of steel wire against a bar within the machine and create tone. Using this system to make music, the player could make an infinite amount of pitch changes (think of a single-stringed guitar without any frets) or, if preferred, use it more like an early-day keyboard for incremental pitch changes.

One of the co-creators of the Trautonium also created a different device in the early 1950s that added oscillators to the device. It was then named the Mixtur-trautonium because players could generate and switch between and mix (hence the name) different harmonics over the same pitch.

The Trautonium and Mixtur-trautonium were both used often in Hollywood movie scores between the 1930s and 50s; one of the most significant examples is the music (and sound effects) in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.

One Comment »

  • Marit says:

    I was doing a paper on synth history for my intro to music class and found this article and really like it….one problem though i think in the beginning you meant 1896 and not 1986…other than that thanks for this…i am new to your site but i cant find the rest of this…is there a part 2 or something?

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