The ‘Désilets Wireless Organ’. Georges Désilets, Canada, 1914.

A one-octave early Prototype of the Wireless Organ
A one-octave early Prototype of the Wireless Organ

Désilets “Wireless Organ’ was a unique instrument that was designed to create and transmit musical tones generated by electronic sparks. Désilets, the bishop of the small town of Nicolet in Quebec, Canada, had set up his own radio station to transmit religious music and required an organ to complete his choir. Using the standard, pre vacuum tube process of generating radio waves with a spark-gap alternator; Désilets mounted a series of spark-gap ‘studded’ disks on a rotating conical drum spinning at a fixed rate powered by an electrical motor . The ratio interval between the studs caused an approximate sinusoidal waveform to be created in a series of predetermined musical pitches. The instrument was designed to be audible over a wireless transmission – this being, in these pre-amplification days, the only way the instrument could be heard;

Patent diagram showing the arrangement of ‘spark studs’ on a conical drum connected to a radio transmitter.

The first version of the instrument was a  had a short drum that delivered a 1 1/2 octave range, Désilets later attached a 4 octave touch sensitive organ keyboard to a much longer spark-drum and attached a foot controlled rheostat to allow expression control. To produce higher and lower octaves (without the complexity and scale of creating a longer spark-drum) the motor speed could be varied to double or half the speed to deliver the required pitch change. Semitones were achieved by a gearing mechanism:

“…semitones are obtained in the preferred form by a set of rows exactly corresponding to the rows 27 30, 36, 40 and 45 traveling at a rate -of speed 1/20 less than the rotor 1. For example, if the rotor 1 is revolving at 500 r. p. m.,.the semitone rows must revolve at 47 5 r. p. m. The different speeds of rotation may be obtained by gearing”

Front view of the Wireless Organ
Front view of the Wireless Organ showing organ style manual and expression foot pedal.

The instrument was capable of playing polyphonically if the input charge was boosted to allow multiple spark generation:

“…Obviously, in order to produce chords, it is only necessary to supply a current of sufficient intensity to permit of a plurality of different sets of sparks at the same time consequent upon the pressure of the corresponding number of keys.”

Motor shaft and spar studs of the Wirless Organ

Désilets radio station was closed during the 19-14-18 war – the Canadian government closed all non-military radio stations for security reasons –and his wave-organ silenced. When the station reopened, the invention and popularity of the vacuum tube by Lee De Forest and others had made his spark-generating experiments obsolete.

“Those who have heard it agree that it is real music. Chords are produced by pressing two or three keys, and if the feeding transformer can supply the necessary power we have surprising results and pleasant effects. Obviously a more elaborate machine, constructed on the lines suggested, would give even better effects. Unhappily my station was closed las year on account of the war, and my organ is now silent. I hope to resume my experiments later on; meanwhile, I wish I could, for a time, live on the free soil of the United States, paradise of the wireless amateur.”

Georges Désilets. The Wireless Age Magazine. USA, September 1916

Biographical notes

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Georges Désilets was born in Nicolet, Quebec, Canada on November 29, 1866, the son of  Isaiah Désilets, farmer and Léocadie Belcourt. After studying classics and theology at the Seminaire de Nicolet (1880-1888), he was ordained as a priest on July 26, 1893.

Désilets began teaching at the seminary as a professor of physics, chemistry and astronomy (1893-1897) and then from 1900 to 1904  natural history and music. Désilets was then appointed chaplain of the ‘Hospital Sisters of St. Joseph’ in Arthabaska, Quebec, which he left four years later due to health problems.

Désilets became the resident Bishop of Nicolet, where he had his own amateur radio laboratory installed in the turret of the bishopric building. he created the radio station ‘9 AB’ which broadcast music for an hour every week performed by the orchestra of the Nicolet Seminary “Quartet 9-AB”.

In 1914, Désilets began experimenting with a way of creating musical tones using electronic sparks which led to the design of the ‘Wireless Organ’. He was also responsible for a number of patents in the field of wireless communications.

Father Desilets died in hospital of Christ the King of Nicolet, on 29 June 1954 at the age of 88. Buried in the cemetery of the Major Seminary.


The archives of the Seminaire Nicolet.

‘Radio Amateur News’. (Magazine) June 1920 Vol 673. USA.

Archives of ‘Phonothèque québécoise / Musée du son’

‘Histoire de la radio au Québec: information, éducation, culture’. Pierre Pagé. Les Editions Fides, 2007

Wireless age; an illustrated monthly magazine … v.3 (1915-16).

Minshall Organs. Burton Minshall, Canada/USA. 1946

Minshall Organ
‘Mt Vernon’ Minshall Organ

The Minshall range of electronic Organs were designed by the ex-radio repairman Burton Minshall (Born; Dereham Township, Oxford, Ontario, Canada 9th aug 1907 . Died; 10 Feb 1957 aged 49 ).  These electronic tube organs were an early post war design – targeting a new and affluent US middle class and competing with tone wheel, pipe and reed based organs. Numerous electronic organs were produced during the 1950s in what became a fiercely competitive market, eventually dominated by companies such as Hammond, Conn and Gulbranson (who in turn were forced out by heavy competition from Japanese integrated circuit designs in the 1960s).

minshall_01 copy

Minshall’s design was originally intended  as a home build project. This first amateur design eventually lead to the establishment of a successful organ manufacturing company selling mainly to churches and funeral parlours as well as the home organ market.

Minshall’s original plant in Ontario Canada moved in 1946 to Brattleboro, Vermont USA due to the proximity of Estey Organ Co – a well known and established manufacturer of reed organs. In 1947 Minshall’s company merged with Estey to form ‘Minshall-Estey Organ Inc’ where they continued to produce electronic organs based ion Minshall’s designs until 1954 when Minshall severed ties with Estey.

The Minshall company finally came to an end in 1955; Burton Minshall became ill, sold all of his shares in the company and eventually died in 1957.

Vacuum tubes of the MNinshall OPrgan
Tone generator cabinet showing the vacuum tubes and speakers of the Minshall Organ (image copyright Swartko)

The Instruments produced sound using 52 vacuum tubes mostly 12AU7s or 12AX7s – using 3 tubes per tone generator, one as a phase shift oscillator and five sections as RC frequency dividers. The Minshall Organs, which were considerably cheaper than similar competing models, had a reputation for unreliability and problems with pitch drifting of the overheating tubes.

 Minshall Sales Brochure

Article from ‘Mechanix Illustrated’. May 1954.


‘Manufacturing the Muse: Estey Organs and Consumer Culture in Victorian America’. By Dennis G. Waring

‘Mechanix Illustrated’ Magazine. May 1954. H.W.Kellick

The ‘Beauchamp Synthesiser’ or ‘Harmonic Tone Generator’ James Beauchamp, USA, 1964

Beauchamp Synthesiser or Harmonic Tone Generator at the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. USA
Beauchamp Synthesiser or Harmonic Tone Generator at the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. USA

James Beauchamp invented the Harmonic Tone Generator in 1964, one of the first additive electronic voltage-controlled synthesisers, under the direction of Lejaren Hiller at the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“The instrument synthesised six exact harmonics with variable fundamental frequency from 0 to 2000 Hz. The amplitudes of the six harmonics, the fundamental frequency, and the phase of the second harmonic were programmed by voltage control. The fundamental frequency (pitch) was controlled by an external keyboard or generators to provide vibrato and other effects. Control of amplitude was provided by special envelope generators or external generators or even by microphone or prerecorded sounds.

The harmonics were derived by generating pairs of ultrasonic frequencies which were nonlinearly mixed to produce audio difference frequencies. That is to say, one set of frequencies, 50 KHz, 100 KHz, …, 300 KHz, was fixed. Another set, 50-52 KHz, 100-104 KHz, …, 300-312 KHz, was variable. When 50 and 50-52 KHz, etc., was mixed, the sine tones 0-2 KHz, … was derived. Harmonics were generated by full-wave rectification (even harmonics) and square wave chopping (odd harmonics), followed by band pass filtering to separate the harmonics.

The envelope generators consisted of variable delays and attack/decay circuits. In response to a trigger signal from the keyboard, after a programmed delay, the envelope generator would either rise and then go into an immediate decay while the key is depressed or it would rise and decay after the key is depressed. Having the upper harmonics delayed with respect to the lower ones gave an interesting effect.

Because the amplitude controls were “bipolar” (i.e., either positive or negative controls were effective), the instrument could serve as a multi-frequency “ring modulator”, which was especially useful when the controls were derived from a voice or musical instrument. The frequency control was also bipolar and was capable of producing rich sound spectra when the control was taken from a sine generator operating at frequencies ranging from 20 Hz through several hundred Hz. This FM effect was very popular for producing sounds useful in electronic music compositions.”

James Beauchamp.

James Beauchamp working on the Harmo
James Beauchamp working on the Harmonic Tone Generator c1964

Several electronic music compositions utilised the Harmonic Tone Generator as their main source of electronic sounds. Among them are:

Herbert Brun, “Futility, 1964”

Lejaren Hiller, “Machine Music” and “A Triptych for Hieronymus”

Salvatore Martirano, “Underworld”

Kenneth Gaburo, “Antiphonics III”, “Lemon Drops”, “Hydrogen Jukebox”, and “For Harry”


‘The Experimental Music Studio at UIUC, 1958-68: Environment, People, Activities’  by Emanuele Battisti (pdf)

Hiller, Lejaren, and James Beauchamps, .Research in Music with Electronics., Science, New Series, Vol. 150, No. 3693 (Oct. 8, 1965): 161-169.

The ‘PIPER’ System James Gabura & Gustav Ciamaga, Canada, 1965

Charles Hamm, Lejaren Hiller, Salvatore Martirano, Herbert Brün, Kenneth  Gaburo at the EMS, Toronto, 1965
Charles Hamm, Lejaren Hiller, Salvatore Martirano, Herbert Brün, James Gaburo at the EMS, Toronto, 1965

PIPER was one of the earliest hybrid performance system allowing composers and musicians to write and edit music in real time using computers and analogue synthesisers. The system was developed by  James Gabura & Gustav Ciamaga Who also collaborated with Hugh Le Caine on the ‘Sonde’) at the University of Toronto (UTEMS) in 1965. With computing technology in 1965 being to weak to synthesise and control sounds in real-time a work-around was to leave the scoring and parameter control to the computer and the audio generation to an external analogue synthesiser. The PIPER system consisted two Moog oscillators and a custom built amplitude regulator to generate the sound and an IBM 6120 to store parameter input and to score the music. The computer would read and store the musicians input; keyboard notes, filter changes, note duration and so-on and allow the user to play this back and edit in real-time.

By the 1980’s such large hybrid analogue-digital performance systems like PIPER and Max Mathew’s GROOVE were obsolete due to the advent of affordable, microcomputers and analogue/digital sequencer technology.



The ‘Wave Organ’. Frank Morse Robb. Canada. 1927


The 1937 version of the Robb Wave Organ. Image; National Music Centre,© 2016 National Music Centre, Calgary.AB.
The 1937 version of the Robb Wave Organ. Image; National Music Centre,© 2016 National Music Centre, Calgary.AB.

The Robb Wave Organ designed by Morse Robb in Belleville, Ontario was an early pre-cursor, and said to be  musically superior, to the Hammond Organ. The instrument attempted to reproduce the sound of a cathedral pipe organ by amplifying sounds generated by a similar tone-wheel mechanism. Robb based his tone-wheel design on that of Melvin Severy’s ‘Choralcello’ but with the addition of amplification – which wasn’t available to Severy at the time.

Frank Morse Robb
Frank Morse Robb

“…Such an instrument as his, (Severy’s ‘Choralcello’) however, is both practically and theoretically impossible, as without amplification, far greater than the microphone type he suggests, nothing but the faintest trace of tones could be heard. The mere addition of amplification to his instrument would not be invention. If this were done, moreover, the instrument could not be made to function musically as the circuit and wiring arrangement set forth in his patent-would preclude that possibility due to internal resistance in the magnets. Every impulse generated by the tone disc would be absorbed in the circuits to such an extent that amplification would be impossible.”

Morse Robb's miniaturised tone wheels of the Wave Organ. From the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ottowa, Ontarion Canada.
Morse Robb’s miniaturised tone wheels of the Wave Organ. From the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ottowa, Ontario Canada.

Robb’s aim was to miniaturise elements of previous huge tone-wheel designs (‘Coralcello‘ of 1909 and ‘Telharmonium‘ 1897-1917) to create a practical, easy to maintain and affordable electronic organ. This was done by reducing the size and number of the tone wheels by adding a system of gears and increasing the number of notes on each wheel by  ‘doubling and redoubling the wave forms on the discs on one shaft’ . The instrument was equipped with twelve tone wheels representing each note, the ‘character’ or timbre of note – corresponding to organ stops and photographed from a cathode ray oscillograph – plus the harmonics of each fundamental note. The variation in pitch of each note was achieved by changing the speed of the tone wheel’s rotation giving the Wave Organ a total of five octaves. The tone wheels spinning within a magnetic field generated a voltage output of each note which was made audible by being passed to a valve amplifier and loudspeaker.

Significantly the Wave Organ was unique in that it tried to replicate real organ sounds by cutting the tone wheels to the shape of a photographic image of the waveform of a church organ – rather than mechanically reproducing and combining ‘pure’ tones and overtones like the Telharmonium and Hammond Organ. In this way the Wave organ can be seen as one of the earliest analog sampling

The 1937 version of the Robb Wave Organ. Image; National Music Centre,© 2016 National Music Centre, Calgary.AB.
Tone Wheel housing of the 1937 version of the Robb Wave Organ. Image; National Music Centre,© 2016 National Music Centre, Calgary.AB.

The prototype Wave Organ was built in 1927 and premiered in November of the same year at the Toronto Daily Star’s CFCA radio studio in Belleville and patented in 1928 (1930 in the USA). Robb planned to market the instrument by arranging a production contract with the General Electric Company in Schenectady, NY and later, organ builders Casavant Frères in Canada, however the worsening economic troubles of the 1930s depression permanently stalled the agreements in the spring of 1931 .

Undaunted by the commercial  failure of his first prototype, Robb produced a new, two manual, 32 note version of the Wave Organ in April 1934 and launched the ‘ Robb Wave Organ Company’- incorporated on 21 September 1934 – to market and sell the instrument. The first productions models became available in July 1936 and was publicly demonstrated at Eaton’s department stores in Toronto and Montréal. Despite an initial positive reaction Robb was unable to obtain funding for further production and in 1938 he abandoned the project – Only thirteen models were ever sold and the Wave Organ was taken off the market in 1941.

The 1937 version of the Robb Wave Organ. Image; National Music Centre,© 2016 National Music Centre, Calgary.AB.
The 1937 version of the Robb Wave Organ. Image; National Music Centre,© 2016 National Music Centre, Calgary.AB.

The Robb Wave Organ was more expensive than other electronic organs of the period – notably the American Hammond Organ, which used an almost identical tone-wheel technology – and sales suffered because of World War II. The last remaining Wave Organ prototype is preserved at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ontario.

Second version of Morse Robb’s ‘Wave Organ’ c1936

Michael J. Murphy professor RTA School of Media talks about the Robb Wave Organ

Frank Morse Robb

(born 28 January 1902 in Belleville, ON; died 5 August 1992 in Belleville)

Robb studied at McGill University from 1921 to 1924 and then returned to Belleville where in 1926 began research on the Robb Wave Organ. After the commercial failure of the Wave Organ, Robb applied his talent as an inventor to devices for the packing of guns during the Second World War. He became vice-president of his brother’s packing company and won acclaim as a silversmith. He also wrote a Sci-Fi -post nuclear holocaust novel Tan Ming (1955) under the pseudonym Lan Stormont (“An amusing fantasy in which a department store window dresser falls in love with a robot mannequin and manages to conjure into its body the soul of a princess named Tan Ming from a postholocaust future.”).

'Tan Ming' by
‘Tan Ming’ by Lan Stormont/Morse Robb 1955


‘Frank Morse Robb’s Wave Organ’ by Michael Murphy and Max Cotter. eContact! 17.3 — TIES 2014: The 8th Toronto International Electroacoustic Symposium

Canada Science and Technology Museum.

‘Encyclopedia of Music in Canada’.

‘New worlds of sound; electronics and the evolution of music in Canada’ Katharine Wright.Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation Société des musées de sciences et technologies du Canada Ottawa, Canada

The ‘Composer-tron’ Osmond Kendall. Canada, 1951

Osmond Kendall Composer-tron
‘This how the Composer-tron would look in your home – it may cost less than a piano’ Osmond Kendall’s ‘Composer-tron’ c1953 at the Film Board of Canada promoted as a domestic instrument (photo: Maclean’s, Canada’s National Magazine, June 11, 1955)

Developed as early as 1944 by Osmond ‘Ken’ Kendall, an electronic engineer at the National Film Board of Canada (NFBC) (and colleague of the animator Norman McLaren) the ‘Compositron’ and later the ‘Composer-Tron’ was an analogue synthesis and composition apparatus that utilised an innovative and unique control system. The Composer-Tron had a cathode ray tube input device that could ‘read’ patterns or shapes hand drawn on it’s surface with a grease pencil. The drawn shape could be defined as the timbre of the note or as the envelope shape of the sound, rhythmical sequences could be written by marking a cue sheet type strip of film:

“The Composer-tron is an electronic device that enables a composer or arranger of music to create his composition directly as he conceives it. The conventional aeries of intermediate steps—sheet music—musicians—musical instruments—room acoustics—microphones—are all eliminated. The composer produces his musical record for instant audition and he may do it in nearly the same time that he would take to compose and write a conventional musical score. The musical sounds he may use are limited only by his imagination since they may be like familiar musical instruments or completely unique.

The Composer-tron is not a musical instrument and it cannot he “played” in any sense at all. It’s designed to make records and it may be used for recording from a microphone. However, the Composer-tron is fitted with a new kind of electronic musical tone generator that may he adjusted by the composer to provide sound waves of any pitch, having overtones of any degree of complexity The tones may be made to match those of any known musical instrument or the wave structure may be set to tone qualities that could never be duplicated by any conceivable mechanical musical instrument whatever. The complex tones thus generated are shown to the composer in greatly enlarged form on a television tube screen. The composer then draws a design or pattern on a second screen. These designs may be original or they may be copied from the designs presented by recorded musical playings. Such designs often contain the elements of the “‘touch” of the musician and they can be made visible on the TV tube screen. This facility provides for the first timer means whereby the nuances of a musician’s touch may be superimposed on an electronic sound source. The design is transferred by methods similar to television. The resulting combined visible tone designs are converted into waves which are recorded and instantly auditioned over a loud-speaker.

The machine has a capacity for memorising op to 80-component instrument notes which may be finally recorded in any desired sequence. Other, facilities, such as a means for precisely timing the advent of each note, a means for developing chords directly (not necessarily derived from component notes), and a means for erasing faulty sections in a recording, etc., are all provided in the Composer-tron.”

Osmond  Kendall quoted in ‘Canadian Film Technology, 1896-198’ (Gerald G. Graham, Ontario Film Institute University of Delaware Press, 1989)

Osmond Kendall Composer-tron
” The compositron contains an oscilloscope to analyze sound patterns and a series of tapes or film on reels to record sound. Every sound has a pattern and when these patterns are played in a certain order on the films and then are played together, the required effect will be produced”
Osmond Kendall at the Composer-tron/Compositron in Maclean’s  Magazine, June 11, 1955

The purpose of the Composer-Tron, like that of the ‘Hanert Electrical Orchestra‘, was to provide a synthesis and composition tool that closed the gap between composer and performer allowing the composer to define all the aspects of the music in one session:

“At present, the composer writes his mental symphonies as black symbols on white paper. He has no way of knowing wether they’re just what he had in mind. Months or years may pass before he hears them played by a symphony orchestra. Not uncommonly he never hears his best work……with Kendal’s grease pencil, the composer can, in effect, draw the grooves in the record. Working with a Composert-Tron….he can walk out of his study with his recorded composition under his arm.”
Maclean’s  Magazine, June 11, 1955
Osmond Kendall Composer-tron
Osmond Kendall (L) and Louis Applebaum (R) at a photoshoot for Macleans Magazine analysing sound for the Composer-tron. “with the magic of electrons this inventive Canadian composes piano concertos and turns doodles into the sounds of an eighty-piece orchestra” (Maclean’s, Canada’s National Magazine, June 11, 1955)
The Composer-tron was designed primarily to provide synthesised soundtracks for films produced by the National Film Board of Canada during the post-war period of interest in hand-drawn audio soundtracks and experimental techniques (see the works of Norman McLaren and others). However with limited funding and scepticism from the NFBC the Composer-tron project ran into financial difficulties – An attempt during the early 1950’s to develop a commercial model aimed at amateur composers with funding from the Marconi Company proved unsuccessful. In desperation, Kendall and his mentor Louis Applebaum tried to keep the project alive by seeking funding from the Canadian military and the Bell Telephone Company which were ultimately also unsuccessful. The project was mothballed sometime in the late 1950’s.


‘The Art Of Electronic Music’ p46 Rhea,Tom.L. Edited by Darter,Tom & Greg Armbruster 1984 GPI Productions.

Alan Phillips, ‘Osmond Kendall’s Marvellous Music Machine’ Maclean’s Magazine, June 11, 1955. [p.54]. York University Archives, Louis Applebaum fonds 1979 -002/030.

‘Music in Canada: Capturing Landscape and Diversity’. Elaine Keillor. McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 18 Mar 2008

‘Louis Applebaum: A Passion for Culture’. Walter Pitman. Dundurn, 1 Oct 2002

Louis Applebaum, letter to Arthur Irwin, Commissioner, NFB, December 6, 1950. York University Archives, Louis Applebaum fonds, 1979-002/022

‘Composertron’ Hugh Davies. The Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, 2nd edition, issue Published in print January 2001.

‘Canadian Film Technology, 1896-1986’. Gerald G. Graham, Ontario Film Institute. University of Delaware Press, 1989