The ‘Singing Keyboard’ Fredrick Minturn Sammis & James Nuthall. USA, 1934

James Nuthall(l), Frederick Sammis (r) and performer at the Singing Keyboard in 1934

Frederick Sammis invented the “singing Keyboard” in 1936, a precursor of modern samplers, the instrument played electro-optical recordings of audio waves stored on strips of 35mm film.

Let us suppose that we are to use this machine as a special-purpose instrument for making “talkie” cartoons. At once it will be evident that we have a machine with which the composer may try out various combinations of words and music and learn at once just how they will sound in the finished work. The instrument will probably have ten or more sound tracks recorded side by side on a strip of film and featuring such words as “quack” for a duck, “meow” for a cat, “moo” for a cow. . . . It could as well be the bark of a dog or the hum of a human voice at the proper pitch.

(Frederick Sammis, quoted in Rhea [1977]

Sammis had moved to Hollywood in 1929 to lead RCA into the era of film sound. Sammis was already familiar with the Moviola, a sound- and filmediting table that incorporated photoelectric cells. Using methods that were being developed for the new ‘talkies’, he recorded sung and spoken words onto individual strips of film. He then attached the resulting strips to the keyboard in such a way that a specific strip would be drawn across the optical cell when he depressed a corresponding key.  More recent instruments such as the Mellotron and Chamberlin use a similar technology of triggered and pitched magnetic tape recordings.


‘The Computer Music Tutorial’ Curtis Roads

Invention and Technology Magazine. Mathew Nicholl. Volume 8, Issue 4. 1993

The ‘Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones’ (1931), The ‘Polytone Organ’ (1934) . Arnold Lesti, Leo Tiedemann & Fredrick Minturn Sammis. USA, 1934


The Trillion Tone Organ
Lesti and Tiedemann’s  Trillion Tone Organ of 1931

Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones (1931)

The “Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones” was created and developed by Arnold Lesti and F. Sammis in the USA during 1931. The Radio Organ used a similar photo-electrical technique as the Celluphone, Superpiano and other variants. However the The Radio Organ generated a much more complex sound by projecting the light beam through two sets of glass disks – a ‘Pitch disk’ generating a pitched fundamental plus it’s ascending harmonics and a Timbre disk modifying the tone using a drawn representation of the sound wave of a real instrument (horn ,violin, clarinet, oboe and a human voice).  The principle was improved in the next version called the “Polytone”.
The Trillion Tone Organ's tone disk
The Trillion Tone Organ’s tone disk
The Trillion Tone Organ's pitch disk
The Trillion Tone Organ’s pitch disk
The "Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones" (1931)
The “Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones” (1931)
Diagram showing the tone and pitch disks
Diagram showing the tone and pitch disks

The Polytone Organ (1934)

A. Lesti and F. Sammis’s development of the Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones was christened the ‘The Polytone Organ’, this instrument was a three keyboard manual organ using the same sound production system as the ‘Radio Organ’ – rotating photo-electrical tone-wheel sound generation. The instrument was completed in 1934 and was one of the first multi-timbral instruments.