Oskar Vierling was an important figure in the development of electronic musical instruments and electro-acoustic instruments during the 1930’s to the 1950’s. Vierling was a trained electronic engineer who, after studying at the Ohm Polytechnic, Nuremberg filed over 200 patents. In 1935 Vierling moved to Berlin where he received his doctorate in physics at the Technical University and then continued to work at the Heinrich-Hertz-Institute of Vibration Research under Fritz Sennheiser.
Vierling’s first musical instrument was the ‘Electochord’ an electro-acoustic piano designed and built in collaboration with Benjamin Franklin Mießner and was commercially marketed by August Förster Piano Factory in Lõbau. The Elechtrochord worked by converting resonating piano strings via electro-magnets into electronic sounds in a similar way to Vierling’s Neo-Bechstien Piano (an early electro-acoustic piano designed by Vierling and Walther Nernst in 1931). The vibrations from a normal piano string were recorded and amplified electronically. Various register circuits enabled the player to change the sound’s timbre ranging from “a delicate Spinettte, the lyrical tone of a parlour organ to the powerful sound emission of a grand piano”. A restored model of the Electrochord is kept in the music collection of the Deutsches Museum in Munich. During the early 1930’s Vierling worked closely with Jorg Mager at his Darmstadt research centre on the construction of Klaviatursphäraphon amongst other instruments.
The ‘Kraft Durche Freude Grosstonorgel’
Vierling went on to develop another large electronic organ; the ‘Grosstonorgel’ (together with Karl Willy Wagner and the American engineer Winston E. Kock both at the Heinrich-Hertz-Institute. Winston Kock came to Berlin in 1933 as an exchange student at the Technical University of Berlin where he built an electronic organ for his diploma thesis. Since vacuum tubes were very expensive, he designed an instrument that relied instead on the smaller and cheaper neon tubes for the oscillators . He filed a patent for a use of inductive neon oscillators and sound-colour generation. It’s likely that the Grosstonorgel used similar neon or vacuum tube technology.
Work on the Grosstonorgel was funded by the National Socialist ‘Kraft Durche Freude’ cultural association (‘Strength Through Joy’ Set up as a tool to promote the advantages of National Socialism to the people,which became the world’s largest tourism operator of the 1930s) . The Grosstonorgel, as well as a Vierling designed 500 watt PA system, was a one-off instrument specifically designed to provide the musical accompaniment to the 1936 Olympic Games. A year later the instrument was also used at the Reich Party Congress of the National Socialist Party in Nuremberg. The new improved model was said to be able to produce “beautiful bell sounds” to accompany the Nazi propaganda spectacle.
Vierling had joined the National Socialist Party (NDSAP) in the late 1930s and in 1941 established the Vierling research group with a staff of 200 employees co-operating directly with the Wermacht high command. The secret research establishment was located in Burg Feuerstein, Ebermannstadt disguised as a hospital with red-cross emblems on the roof to avoid allied bombing.
Research included audio-controlled torpedoes (codenamed “wren” and “vulture” where the torpedoes located their target from the propeller noises of enemy ships ), encryption technology (with Erich Hüttenhain and Erich Fellgiebel on a voice encryption method of the legendary SZ 42 cipher ), anti radar submarine coating (codenamed “chimney sweep”) as well as radio control equipment and electronic calculators. The Vierling company still exists as a family run business in Ebermannstadt.
After the fall of Nazi Germany the Burg Feuerstein castle was sealed-off by the American troops. Vierling revealed his previously secret work which he had hidden in secret walled off chambers in the castle and collaborated openly with the new occupiers “They were willing to talk about their work, and cooperated with the repair of the laboratory”. At this time Vierling met the British mathematician and the ‘Father of Computing’ Alan Turing (then working for the Ticom ; Target Intelligence Committee), to discuss details of encryption and specifically the Enigma machine. Vierling then worked at Gehlen Organisation (an American run espionage organisation employing hundred of ex-Nazis ) on the design of bugging devices for the American occupation (echoing the career trajectory of Lev Termen) and from 1949 to 1955, having escaped the De-Nazification process through his collaboration with the occupying powers, became professor of physics at the Philosophical-Theological College in Bamberg, Germany. Vierling continued working at Vierling AG in Ebermannstadt and died in 1986.
Kock and Vierling in Berlin
Excerpt from Hans-Joachim Braun’s ‘Music Engineers. The Remarkable Career of Winston E. Kock, Electronic Organ Designer and NASA Chief of Electronics’
“In the spring of 1933, after finishing his studies in Cincinnati, Kock became exchange fellow at the Technical University of Berlin. He had heard of Karl Willy Wagner’s work and wanted to conduct doctoral research with him at the Heinrich Hertz Institute. Kock’s counterpart as an exchange student from Berlin to Cincinnati was Sigismund von Braun, Wernher von Braun’s eldest brother. In Berlin Kock wrote a Ph. D. thesis on oscillations in inductive glow discharge circuits and, with Oskar Vierling, another student of Wagner’s, designed an improved electronic organ on the formant principle. Oskar Vierling, Kock’s collaborator on the Kock-Vierling organ, had studied electrical engineering at an engineering school and in 1925 joined the Laboratory of the German Research Institute for Telegraphy headed by Karl Willy Wagner. In 1928 he followed Wagner as his assistant to the newly founded ‘Institute for Vibration Research’ conducting acoustic research and designing electrified pianos and electronic organs. Together with the Nobel Laureate Walter Nernst he in 1931 designed the Neo-Bechstein piano, an electrostatic piano and from 1928 to 1935 developed his Electrochord for the piano manufacturer Förster. The National Socialist Strength through Joy organization sponsored Vierling’s ‘Strength through Joy Organ’ which was played at the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. This enlarged and improved version of the Kock-Vierling model created a sensation as did his electrically generated bell sounds which he presented at the National Socialist Party Rally in Nuremberg a year later.8 Fascination by technology, electricity and electronics,surprising effects, glorious sounds, this was food for the masses and much appreciated by the party propagandists. Vierling’s mentor Karl Willy Wagner must have watched his former assistant’s success with very mixed feelings, having himself been forced to resign from his directorate of the Heinrich Hertz Institute in 1936. There is an irony in the fact that Kock,who played a significant role in the US War effort during World War II, contributed, although unintentionally, to enhancing Nazi propaganda efforts.”
Peter Donhauser ‘THE FIRST ELECTRO-ACOUSTICAL PIANO IN GERMANY. THE NEO-BECHSTEIN AND IT’S RESTORATION’ Vienna Museum of Technology
Mariahilfer Strasse 212, 1140 Vienna
Hans-Joachim Braun ‘Music Engineers. The Remarkable Career of Winston E. Kock, Electronic Organ Designer and NASA Chief of Electronics’
‘Tarnname Schornsteinfeger’ by Thadeusz, Frank ‘Was wurde im Geheimlabor der Nazis auf Burg Feuerstein erforscht? Der Erfinder Oskar Vierling soll dort akustische Leitsysteme für die Wehrmacht entwickelt haben.’ Der Spiegel 18.04.2011
Wolfgang Voigt: Oskar Vierling, ein Wegbereiter der Elektroakustik für den Musikinstrumentenbau, in: Das Musikinstrument vol. 37, Nr 1/2, 1988, 214-221 und Nr. 2/3, 172-176.