Spielmann’s Superpiano, patented in 1927, was based on the photo-optical principle used in a number of instruments during the 1920s and 30s such as the Cellulophone , the Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones, the ‘Sonothèque’ , the Welte Licht-ton Orgel and others. In general this principle worked by projecting a light beam through a spinning glass disk onto a photo-electrical cell. The regular interruption of the light beam causing an ‘oscillating’ voltage tone. Spielmann’s innovative instrument used two rows of twelve black celluloid disks. Each disk had a series of holes cut in seven concentric circles equating to the waveforms of the seven octaves of a note – the light beam being picked up by selenium photo-electrical cells.
The Superpiano created complex tones by allowing a combination of ‘pure’ and harmonic sound waves of the same note; each note was duplicated with contrasting sound wave and harmonics – hence two rows of twelve disks – allowing the player to mix the sound waves of each note with a knee lever. Volume control was achieved by variable pressure on the manual keyboard via variable resistors dimming and increasing the lightbulb brightness – and therefore the note volume. The instrument’s overall pitch could also be altered while playing, by adjusting the speed of the rotating disks. Spielmann intended the Superpiano to be used as an affordable ($300) home keyboard which could be played like a piano but also a type of early sampling keyboard – ‘drawings’ of different instrument’s waveforms could be made on the celluloid disks, allowing the player to reproduce the “entire instrumental range of an orchestra” – or so the advertising claimed.
Spielmann’s instrument had it’s debut in 1929 at a concert organised by the Österreichische Kulturbund (Austrian Culture Union) on January 9, 1929 played by the renowned composer and pianists Erich Wolfgang Korngold who played a piano with one hand and the Superpiano with the other. Later, On February 14, 1929, Spielmann presented the Superpiano on the Vienna radio station RAVAG featuring lectures on the theme of ‘Das Licht spricht, das Licht musiziert’ (Light speaks, light makes music).
Several instruments seem to have been built but only one survived the ravages of WW2, sold to the Vienna technical Museum in 1947. Spielmann developed a modification of the Superpiano called the ‘Symphonium'; where the Superpiano used organ-like sounds, the Symphonium was based on mixable combinations of orchestral sounds; woodwind, brass and strings allowing fifteen possible combinations of timbres (to the Superpiano’s two)
With the seizure of power by the National Socialists in Austria and Germany in 1933 the Superpiano project was disrupted and the instrument failed to become a commercial proposition; As an Austrian Jew, Spielmann’s situation became increasingly precarious , his license to practice as an architect was revoked in 1938. Spielmann fled to London with his daughter Anni, and then to New York where he became a naturalised US citizen in 1944. Spielmann seems to have continued the project in the USA but the instrument was probably overshadowed by the similar ‘Welte LichttonOrgel’ using similar technology (also Jewish escapees to New York), and dominance of the Hammond Organ in the home instrument market.
Video of Peter Donhauser – Head of Division Fundamentals of Technology & Science at the Vienna Technical Museum – with the Spuperpiano: http://klangmaschinen.ima.or.at/db/pv.php?id=2013&lang=en&table=Object
Emerich(Ernst) Moses Spielmann – 23.06.1873 Vienna, Austria – 1952 Elmhurst, Queens, New York USA. Biographical notes
Emerich Spielmann, was a Viennese architect born into a Jewish family in the mid-19th century in Moravia. His father was a merchant Hermann Spielmann (1842-1925), his mother Josephine Franzos (1850-1918). Spielmann studied after high school from 1892 to 1899 at the Institute of Technology at King Karl and Karl Mayr Eder . He then worked until 1903 in the Wilhelm Stiassny and Friedrich Ohmann architectural practise. In 1904 he began a collaboration with the architect Alfred Teller working in the Viennese secessionist style and later to neo-baroque and classical forms, until 1932, when he worked independently with his own practice. As a Jew, in 1938 Spielmann’s license to practice was revoked by the Nazi authorities. He fled to London 1939 with his daughter Anna on May 6 and arrived on August 22, 1944 in New York where he became a naturalised citizen in 1944. He l died in New York in 1952.
Peter Donhauser, Elektrische Klangmaschinen, Vienna 2007.
The archive of Regina Spelman, Deborah Lucas, Dan Lucas