‘Electromechanical Piano’ Matthias Hipp, Switzerland,1867

Matthias Hipp
Matthias Hipp ” The Swiss Edison” 25.10.1813 – 3.5.1893

Matthias Hipp’s many inventions and adaptations include; Chronoscopes, Chronographs, Galvanometers, railway signalling equipment, watch and clock mechanisms, Telegraphic time detectors, telexes, networked electronic clocks, fire alarms, Microphones, Seismographs, electronic Gyroscopes and possibly the first ‘real’ electronic musical instrument.

In 1867 Hipp created an ‘Electromechanical Piano’. How this instrument operated is unclear, no contemporary records exist that describe the instrument in any detail but modern texts suggest that it was a ‘true’ electronic instrument, generating sounds through multiple dynamos:

“Going back to the first electrical instruments, the conception of the electromechanic piano is due to Hipps (whose first name is unknown). This instrument was essentially composed of a keyboard which would activate some electrical magnets.These in their own right would activate some dynamos (small electrical current generators), the devices actually responsible for sound production. They were the same dynamos which, almost a century later, would be used in Cahill’s Teleharmonium”
Andreas Baroni: “A brief History of Synthesizers”

“Electromechanical Piano – Developed by Hipps (first name unknown) who was a director of the telegraph factory in Neuchatel, Switzerland. The keyboard activated electromagnets that activated dynamos (small electric generators), which produced sound. Dynamos where later used in Thaddeus Cahill’s Dynamophone (also known as the Telharmonium).”

Kevin M Walczyk  “Electroacoustic Music A brief historical outline and recorded anthology”

or more prosaically, simply an electronically controlled player-piano:

“Electricity was used to operate player pianos from about 1850, and the basis for many later systems was developed by Matthäus Hipp of Neuchâtel in his ‘electromechanical piano’ of 1867”

Hugh Davies. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.

Another possible method could be that Hipp extended the mechanism of the Hipp Chronoscope. The Chronoscope was an electronic clock designed to measure micro-events based around an escape mechanism regulated by a high frequency vibrating metal tine (rather than a pendulum). The problem was that to be accurate, the metal tines had to vibrate at a constant frequency of  1000hz and at the time the only way to calibrate was to hire a piano tuner who could hear the difference (phase) between a known 1000hz pitch tuning fork:

“We all know that some piano tuners are prodigiously accurate, and we can presume that similar paragons staffed the tuning fork manufactures of 19th century Europe. However, any physics course will show you that tuning forks have an easier potential for high accuracy of frequencies than many other devices. This potential is found in the audible phenomenon of beats, in which two tuning forks which are very slightly different will produce a signal of varying loudness. The frequency of this varying loudness is the difference in frequency of the two forks, thus permitting easy adjustment of the erring fork.”

Edward J. Haupt Montclair State University

By simply changing the voltage supply to the metal tines via a keyboard, Hipp would have been able to create a scaled set of frequencies. Whatever technique Hipp used, the Electromechanical Piano seems to have been a one-off curio for Hipp, it doesn’t appear anywhere alongside the more commercial inventions in his illustrated catalogues of the period or in the inventory of the Neuchatel Telegraph factory.

Military balistic experiments using the Hipp Chronoscope
Military ballistic experiments using the Hipp Chronoscope



Hugh Davies. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Macmillan Publishers Ltd

“Electroacoustic Music A brief historical outline and recorded anthology”. Kevin M Walczyk , Western Oregon University. 1997, Keveli Music

Andreas Baroni: “A brief History of Synthesizers”

‘The Hipp Chronoscope’. Dr Thomas Schraven, Krefeld. 2003

‘The Controversy between G. E. Mller and Wilhelm Wundt over the proper measurement of reaction time’. Edward J. Haupt , Montclair State University 1999.


Biography of M.Hipp http://www.medienkultur.org/sm1/gdg/ha/ 

7 thoughts on “‘Electromechanical Piano’ Matthias Hipp, Switzerland,1867”

  1. There is a description of the Piano in “Rapport sur le piano électrique de M. Hipp à la Société commerciale et industrielle de Neuchâtel / [collab.: Ed. Dubied, L. Kurz, Léopold Lenz]
    Neuchâtel : Impr. de H. Wolfrath et Metzner, 1869”. If somebody is interested, I can send him a scan of the article (in French),

  2. I was researching the history of electronic instruments for an assignment and found this site very helpful. During my extended research on this particular instrument I stumbled upon a very interesting site that digitalizes old archives and found an abstract that seems to have been written by Hipp himself, in which he describes how the electromechanical Piano was developed and how it functions.
    You can find it here: http://dingler.culture.hu-berlin.de/article/pj183/ar183053 (the text is in old german)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *