‘Sound-Producing Device’ Melvin Linwood Severy, USA. 1912



Melvin L. Severy was an American engineer and inventor from Arlington Heights, Massachusetts – probably best known as the inventor of the Choralcelo; a huge hybrid electronic and electro-mechanical organ. Severy was also responsible for numerous patents on inventions as diverse as typewriters (1903), bottling machines (1882), piano-tuning devices (1912), telegraphic systems, steam boilers (1893), steam engines (1894), cameras (1907), orthopaedic shoes, thermo-chemical batteries (1899), solar panels for generating electricity (1894), an iron-lung (1916) and what is probably the first sampling instrument, the ‘Sound Producing Device’ of 1912.

“The object of the present invention is the construction of an improved musical instrument in which the sonorous vibrations are produced electromagnetically by the movement of phonograms of magnetic material past electromagnetic sound producing mechanism.”

Diagram showing the key-action that moves the magnetic pick-up closer to the sound wheel.
Diagram showing the key-action that moves the magnetic pick-up closer to the sound wheel.

It is unknown weather the ‘Sound-Producing Device’  was actually built – Severy didn’t use any similar mechanisms in the Choralcelo – yet the ‘Sound-Producing Device’ predicted the future of sampling instruments such as the Chamberlin and Mellotron by half a century and perhaps invented the concept of sampling.



Severy’s device was based around the concept of printing numerous magnetic spectrogram or recorded sounds as endless loops on rotating wheels. A magnetic pick-up would be placed near the spectrogram disk and in turn, transmit a variable magnetic pulse that would active a speaker membrane – or, in a manner similar to Cahill’s Telharmonium, transmit the signal through the newly established telephone network.

Melvin Severy

The instrument was to have numerous spectrogram for each note representing the various fundamentals and timbres of the recorded sound – a concept that was new for the time and most likely inspired by H. Helmholtz’sOn the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music‘ (first published in English in 1875). These different timbres could be mixed using organ-style stops. Variation in pitch was achieved simply by altering the speed of the disc for each note and the volume of each note by keyboard pressure which moved the pick-up nearer to the sonogram disc.

Each note of the instrument had it’s own speaker making the ‘Sound-Producing Device’ fully polyphonic as well as velocity sensitive.

Severy suggested several possible formats for encoded spectrograms including a (fig 11) paper-roll strips for long recordings, (fig 14, 14) disks with multiple pick-ups and an Edison type tube (fig 13):

“There are many ways in which the timbre forms may be made, such as stamping them from thin sheet metal; printing them on the cylinder with a magnetic ink; printing them with a sticky ink and then dusting the impression with iron filings or other magnetic particles; by electroplating, or by using a coating of paste impregnated with magnetic filings and various other methods, as will be obvious. The main idea is to secure a uniform layer of magnetic material whose lateral extent varies according to the variations of the sound waves to be produced.”

Melvin Severy. U.S. Patent notes. US1218324 A.2 March 1913

Severy had already, In 1910,  patented an automatic spectrogram or ‘Harmonograms’ recorder that mechanical wrote a sound recording to a rotating disc that would allow the recording and production of spectrograms for his instrument:

Severy explained how the instrument could be used to record and playback any sound:

“It is evident that by having some fine singer deliver into a phonautograph one or more complete octaves of musical notes, singing the broad A, for instance, and then having these phonautographs reproduced into timbre forms the instrument can be adapted for the repetition of the tones of the human voice. It is only necessary to secure a phonautograph of a single octave of the original notes for the reason that the other tones required are the mere variable speed of the first.”

Melvin Severy U.S. Patent notes. US1218324 A.2 March 1913

Melvin Linwood Severy. Biographical Notes.

Melvin Linwood Severy; born August 5, 1863 Melrose, Mass; died. Los Angeles, California 1951.

Severy was educated at Walpole, Mass. high school, Boston; grad school and  Monroe Coll. of Oratory. Severy worked as a florist and as a teacher teaching elocution and oratory and as an actor (where he acted with Edwin Booth, brother of the assassin of  Abraham Lincoln) Severy began his lengthy and succesful career as an inventor in 1882 and eventually held over 80 patents including the Severy Printing Process (which won him  John Scott medal of Franklin Institute in 1898), the Choralcelo, Vocalcelo and Vocalsevro (later name for the Choralcelo), fluid transmission for cars, telegraphic devices, engines, Health devices, typewriters and so-on.

Severy founded numerous businesses from his own inventions including the Ex-pres Severy Impression Process Co., Choralcelo Mfg. Co., Choralcelo Co., dir. Solar Power Co., and the Automatic Tympan Co.

As well as inventing, Severy found time to write books of fiction and non fiction including: ‘Fleur-de-lis and Other Stories’, ‘Materialization and Other Spiritual Phenomena from a Scientific Standpoint’ (1897), ‘The Darrow Enigma’( 1904), ‘ ‘The Mystery of June Thirteenth’ (1905), ‘Maitland’s Master Mystery’ and ‘Gillette’s Social Redemption (1907), ‘Gillette’s Industrial Solution’ (1903) both commissioned by King Gillette the inventor of the safety razor.

In  ‘The Darrow Enigma’( 1904) Severy acurately predicts the use of light beams (lasers) as a surveillance method:

“The device whereby I secure this at such a distance is an invention of my own which, for patent reasons–I might almost say ‘patent patent reasons’–I will ask you to kindly keep to yourself. To the diaphragm there I fasten this bit of burnished silver. Upon this I concentrate a pencil of light which, when reflected, acts photographically upon a sensitised moving tape in this little box, and perfectly registers the minutest movement of the receiving diaphragm. How I develop, etch, and reproduce this record, and transform it into a record of the ordinary type, you will see in due time–and will kindly keep secret for the present.”



US Patent Office.  Melvin L Severy US1218324 A. Publication date 6 Mar 1917

Solar Energy Index: The Arizona State University Solar Energy Collection. By George Machovec. Pergamon Press 1980, p844.

The ‘Chamberlin’, Harry Chamberlin, USA, 1951

Chamberlin M1001
Chamberlin M1001

The Chamberlin was an early pre-cursor of the modern digital sampler using a complex mechanism that stored analogue audio samples on strips of audio tape – 1 tape for each key. When a key on the keyboard was pressed the tape strip played forward and when released the play head returns to the beginning of the tape. The note had a limited length, eight seconds on most models. The instrument was designed as an ‘amusing’ novelty instruments for domestic use but later found favour with rock musicians in the sixties and seventies.

The first Chamberlin Model200
The first Chamberlin Model200

All the original sounds were recordings of the Lawrence Welk Orchestra made by Harry Chamberlin at his home in California. The recording technique produced clean unaffected sound but with a heavy vibrato added by the musicians. The full set of sound that came with the Chamberlin were:

  • Keyboards: Marimba, Piano, Vibes (with vibrato), Bells (glockenspiel), Organ, Tibia Organ, Kinura Organ, Harpsichord, Accordion, Electric
  • Harpsichord and Flute/String Organ.
  • Brass: Alto Sax, Tenor Sax, Trombone, Trumpet, French Horn, Do Wah Trombone, Slur Trombone and Muted Trumpet.
  • Wind: flute, oboe, and bass clarinet.
  • Voice: Male Voice (solo) and Female Voice (solo).
  • Strings: 3 violins, Cello and Pizzicato violins.
  • Plucked strings: Slur Guitar, Banjo, Steel Guitar, Harp solo, Harp Roll, Harp 7th Arpeggio (harp sounds were not available to the public), Guitar and Mandolin.
  • Effects: Dixieland Band Phrases and Sound Effects.

In 1962 two Chamberlins were taken to Great Britain where they were used as the basis for the design for the Mellotron keyboard:

The Chamberlin was invented in the US in 1946 by Harry Chamberlin who had the idea (allegedly) when setting up his portable tape recorder to record himself playing his home organ. It is rumoured that it occured to him that if he could record the sound of a real instrument, he could make a keyboard instrument that could replay the sound of real instruments and thus the Chamberlin was born. Chamberlin’s idea was ‘simple’ – put a miniature tape playback unit underneath each key so that when a note was played, a tape of ‘real’ instruments would be played. At the time, the concept was totally unique.

In the ’50s, at least 100 Chamberlins were produced and to promote his instrument, Harry teamed up with a guy called Bill Fransen who was (allegedly) Harry’s window cleaner. Fransen was (allegedly) totally fascinated by this unique invention and subsequently became Chamberlin’s main (and only) salesman. However, there were terrible reliability problems with the Chamberlin and it had a very high (it is said 40%) failure rate with the primitive tape mechanism which resulted in tapes getting mangled.

Fransen felt that Chamberlin would never be able to fix these problems alone and so, unknown to Chamberlin (allegedly), Fransen brought some Chamberlins to the UK in the early ’60s to seek finance and a development partner. He showed the Chamberlin to a tape head manufacturer, Bradmatics, in the Midlands and the Bradley brothers (Frank, Leslie and Norman who owned Bradmatics) were (allegedly) very impressed with the invention and (allegedly) agreed to refine the design and produce them for Fransen but…Under the mistaken impression that the design was actually Fransen’s (allegedly)!

A new company, Mellotronics, was set up in the UK to manufacture and market this innovative new instrument and work got underway with the Bradley brothers (allegedly) unaware that they were basically copying and ripping off someone else’s idea! Of course, it wasn’t long before Harry Chamberlin got to hear of this and he too went to the UK to meet with the Bradley brothers. After some acrimonious discussions, the two parties settled with Harry selling the technology to the Bradleys. Mellotronics continued to develop their ‘Mellotron’ whilst Harry returned to the US where he continued to make his Chamberlins with his son, Richard, in a small ‘factory’ behind his garage and later, a proper factory in Ontario, a small suburb in Los Angeles. In total, they made a little over 700 units right through until 1981. Harry died shortly afterwards.

But whatever happened in those early meetings almost 40 years ago is inconsequential – the fact of the matter is that the two instruments are almost indistinguishable from each other. Each key has a playback head underneath it and each time a key is pressed, a length of tape passes over it that contains a recording of a ‘real’ instrument. The tape is of a finite length lasting about eight seconds and a spring returns it to its start position when the note is finished. As you can see from the photograph above though, the Chamberlin is smaller (although some mammoth dual-manual Chamberlins were also produced!).

Many claim that the Chamberlin had a better sound – clearer and more ‘direct’ …. which is strange because the Mellotron was (allegedly) better engineered than the Chamberlin. But there is a lot of confusion between the two instruments not helped by the fact that some Chamberlin tapes were used on the Mellotron and vice versa…. so even though the two companies were in direct competition with each other, they shared their sounds….. weird!

It also seems that some users were also confused and credited a ‘Mellotron’ on their records when in fact it might well have been a Chamberlin that they used (allegedly). However, given the similarities between the two, this confusion is understandable and it’s a tribute to Mellotronics’ marketing that they got the upper hand on the original design.

To be honest, the whole story is shrouded in hearsay and music history mythology and we may never know the truth (especially now that the original people involved are sadly no longer with us) but regardless of this, the Bradley brothers were obviously more successful with their marketing of the idea than Chamberlin himself. Although it was originally aimed at the home organ market with cheesy rhythm loops and silly sound effects, the Mellotron went on to become a legend in the history of modern music technology and the mere mention of its name can invoke dewy eyed nostalgia amongst some people. On the other hand, however, few people have even heard of the Chamberlin which is sad because Harry Chamberlin’s unique invention preceded the Mellotron by some fifteen years or more and by rights, it is the Chamberlin that deserves the title of “the world’s first sampler”.

Nostalgia has a lovely Chamberlin string sound that captures the original Chamberlin character quite authentically. Unlike the original, though, the sound is looped but, like the original, it has the same keyboard range (G2-F5) and is not velocity sensitive.

Quoted from: http://www.hollowsun.com/vintage/chamberlin/