‘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



Illustrated catalogue from the Neuchatel Telegraph Factory showing numerous inventions of Matthias Hipp c1869

Part of and illustrated catalogue from the Neuchatel Telegraph Factory showing numerous inventions of Matthias Hipp …but with no mention of the Electromechanical Piano. c1869



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/ 

The ‘Musical Telegraph’ Elisha Gray. USA, 1876

Elisha Gray using a violin as a resonating amplifier for his Musical Telegraph

Elisha Gray using a violin as a resonating amplifier for his Musical Telegraph

Elisha Gray (born in Barnesville, Ohio, on Aug. 2, 1835, died Newtonville, Mass., on Jan. 21, 1901) would have been known to us as the inventor of the telephone if Alexander Graham bell hadn’t got to the patent office one hour before him. Instead, he goes down in history as the accidental creator of one of the first electronic musical instruments – a chance by-product of his telephone technology.

Elisha Grays patent for the Singing Arc

Elisha Grays patent for the Singing Arc


Elisha Gray’s Patent for the ‘Musical Telegraph’ 1876

Gray accidentally discovered that he could control sound from a self vibrating electromagnetic circuit and in doing so invented a basic single note oscillator. Using this principle he designed a musical instrument; The ‘Musical Telegraph’.

Elisha Gray's Musical Telegraph keyboard transmitter.

Elisha Gray’s Musical Telegraph keyboard transmitter.

Gray’s invention used steel reeds whose oscillations were created and transmitted , over a telephone line, by electromagnets. Gray also built a simple loudspeaker device in later models consisting of a vibrating diaphragm in a magnetic field to make the oscillator audible.After many years of litigation, A.G.Bell was legally named the inventor of the telephone and in 1872, Gray founded the Western Electric Manufacturing Company, parent firm of the present Western Electric Company. Two years later he retired to continue independent research and invention and to teach at Oberlin College.

Performance of the Musical Telegraph

Elisha Gray gave the first public demonstration of his invention for transmitting musical tones at the Presbyterian Church in Highland Park, Illinois on December 29, 1874 and transmitted “familiar melodies through telegraph wire” according to a newspaper announcement– possibly using a piano as a resonating amplifier.

Elisha Gray’s first “musical telegraph” or “harmonic telegraph” contained enough single-tone oscillators to play two octaves and later models were equipped with a simple tone wheel control. Gray took the instrument on tour with him in 1874. Alexander Graham Bell also designed an experimental ‘ Electric Harp’ for speach transmission over a telephone line using similar technology to Gray’s.

Gray's patent for the Musical Telegraph

Gray’s patent for the Musical Telegraph


Biographical Information:

Elisha Gray, the American inventor, who contested the invention of the telephone with Alexander Graham Bell. He was born in Barnesville, Ohio, on Aug. 2, 1835, and was brought up on a farm. He had to leave school early because of the death of his father, but later completed preparatory school and two years at Oberlin College while supporting himself as a carpenter. At college he became fascinated by electricity, and in 1867 he received a patent for an improved telegraph relay. During the rest of his life he was granted patents on about 70 other inventions, including the Telautograph (1888), an electrical device for reproducing writing at a distance.On Feb. 14, 1876, Gray filed with the U.S. Patent Office a caveat (an announcement of an invention he expected soon to patent) describing apparatus ‘for transmitting vocal sounds telegraphically.’ Unknown to Gray, Bell had only two hours earlier applied for an actual patent on an apparatus to accomplish the same end. It was later discovered, however, that the apparatus described in Gray’s caveat would have worked, while that in Bell’s patent would not have. After years of litigation, Bell was legally named the inventor of the telephone, although to many the question of who should be credited with the invention remained debatable.In 1872, Gray founded the Western Electric Manufacturing Company, parent firm of the present Western Electric Company. Two years later he retired to continue independent research and invention and to teach at Oberlin College. He died in Newtonville, Mass., on Jan. 21, 1901.”


(Kenneth M. Swezey [author of "Science Shows You How"] The Encyclopedia Americana — International Edition Vol. 13. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Incorporated, 1995. 211)”

The ‘Singing Arc’ William Duddell, UK, 1899

The singing arc

The singing arc

Before Thomas Alva Edison invented the electric light bulb in the United States, electric street lighting was in widespread use throughout Europe. The predecessor of the filament light bulb was the Carbon Arc Lamp which generated light by creating a spark between two carbon nodes. The problem with this method of lighting, apart from the dullness of the light and inefficient use of electricity was a constant humming noise from the electric arc. The British physicist and electrical engineer William Duddell was appointed to solve the problem in London in 1899. During his experiments Duddell found that by varying the voltage supplied to the lamps he could create controllable audible frequencies from a resonant circuit caused by the rate of pulsation of exposed electrical arcs.

Wave forms photographically recorded by Duddell's 'Oscillograph'

Wave forms photographically recorded by Duddell’s ‘Oscillograph’

(Technically note: a current arc between to electrodes, shunted by a circuit containing a capacitance and inductance would establish an oscillating circuit. The value of the of the capacitance and inductance determines the frequency of oscillation. An arc follows a characteristic, which is the inverse of Ohm’s law in that when the current of the arc is increased, the voltage across the electrodes decreases. This characteristic is often called negative resistance. Placing a series LC circuit across the terminals of an arc will initially cause the capacitor to charge, diverting some of the current away from the arc. Given the aforementioned arc characteristics, the potential difference between the arc electrodes will increase, putting the capacitor at an even higher voltage. Once the capacitor reaches full charge the arc current will reverse to discharge the capacitor back into the arc. As the current into the arc increases, the potential difference will fall and the voltage across the capacitor will also fall to a point, which it will begin to charge again. If the circuit resistance is small enough, this process will continue as an oscillation. Duddell found that it was necessary to use a minimum of 1 microfarad of capacitance to obtain oscillations of considerable energy. With this large capacitance, it was not possible to reach high enough frequencies for transmission of Radio-telegraphy.).

Duddell Moving Coil Oscilliograph

Duddell’s Moving Coil Oscilliograph

This phenomena had already previously been recorded in 1898 by a Dr. Simon (Frankfurt, Germany). Dr. Simon had noticed that the electric arc could be made to “sing” by means of modulating the voltage to an electric arc supply. Dr. Simon showed that the electric arc made a effective loudspeaker which he demonstrated in public, Duddell may have been aware of these experiments. Dr. Simon’s experiments also showed that the modulated arc produced not only sound but a modulated light beam by means of which the German Navy managed to make telephone calls between ships using a modulated arc searchlight and a photosensitive selenium cell.

A carbon arc street lamp of the type used in Victorian Britain

A carbon arc street lamp of the type used in Victorian Britain

By attaching a keyboard to the arc lamps he created one of the first electronic instruments and the first electronic instrument that was audible without using the yet to be invented amplifier, loudspeaker or telephone system as an amplifier and speaker. When Duddell exhibited his invention to the London institution of Electrical Engineers it was noticed that arc lamps on the same circuit in other buildings also played music from Duddell’s machine this generated speculation that music delivered over the lighting network could be created. Duddell didn’t capitalise on his discovery and didn’t even file a patent for his instrument. Duddell toured Britain with his invention which unfortunately never became more than a novelty. It was later recognised that if an antenna was attached to the singing arc and made to ‘sing’ at radio frequencies rather than audio it could be used a continuous radio wave transmitter. The carbon arc lamp’s audio capabilities was also used by Thadeus Cahill during his public demonstrations of his Telharmonium ten years later

William Du Bois Duddell

William Du Bois Duddell

Biographical Information: William du Bois Duddell. UK b 1872

William Duddell an electrical engineer in Victorian England was famous for developing a number of electronic instruments notably the “moving coil oscillograph” an early oscillator type device for the photographic monitoring of audio frequency waveforms. Other inventions of Duddell’s included the thermo-ammeter, thermo-galvanometer (an instrument for measuring minute currents and potential differences later used for measuring antenna currents and still used in modified form today)and a magnetic standard, which was used for the calibration of ballistic galvanometers.


The ‘Telharmonium’ or ‘Dynamophone’ Thaddeus Cahill, USA 1897

Thaddeus Cahill

Thadeus Cahill
b. Mount Zion,Iowa 1867, d. New York City 1934

In 1897 Thaddeus Cahill patented what was to become the “Telharmonium” or “Dynamophone” which can be considered the first significant electronic musical instrument . The Telharmonium was an immense instrument of about 200 tons in weight and 60 feet in length assuming the proportions and appearance of a power station generator….the quoted cost was $200,000. The monstrous instrument occupied the entire floor of “Telharmonic Hall” on 39th Street and Broadway New York City for 20 years. Despite the Telharmonium’s excessive proportions the sound it produced was both flexible and novel to a degree unmatched by subsequent designers until the 1950′s, and unusually, the instrument was ‘portable’ – taking up thirty railroad carriages when transported from Holyoke, Mass to NYC. The visionary 36-note-per-octave keyboard designed around Cahill’s ideas of just Intonation were far ahead of their time musically but proved unpopular with musicians who had little time to practice on the unusual keyboard this factor eventually added to the demise of the instrument.

The Telharmonium. Scientific American magazine 1907.

The Telharmonium. Scientific American magazine 1907.

The Telharmonium was a type of additive synthesiser – and Cahill probably coined the phrase ‘Synthesiser’ to describe his instrument – using a electro-mechanical method to generate it’s sound. As the only way to hear the instrument in the era before amplification and loudspeakers, was to send the voltage output over a telephone line, Cahill hit upon the idea of centrally performing music and serve it over the phone network to paying subscribers in hotels, railway stations and private houses; a kind of early Victorian audio internet.

The reasons for the instruments vast proportions were that it produced sounds using ‘rheotome’ tone wheels; basically a set of  varied shaped rotors which when spun created tones through interrupted contact with wire brushes. Each key had it’s own rotor shaped to produce a set of harmonic overtones. The first version of the Telharmonium required a massive four hundred and eight dynamos, each weighing many tons. (this was reduced in later models where overtones from multiple rotors were ‘overlapped’ and rheotomes were replaced with alternating current dynamos in later models).

A single tone wheel generator

A single tone wheel generator

Essentially there were three version of the instrument. The first fully completed model, built in Washington DC in 1906 and moved to Cahill’s workshop at Holyoke, Massachusetts. The second, smaller (Fourteen feet and 14,000 lbs in weight)  machine was built at the Cabot St Mill in Hollyoke .The final machine, installed at Telharmonic Hall in New York  in 1917, was by then already obsolete, killed off by the far more efficient and cheaper vacuum tube, loudspeaker and radio technology.

The keyboard control of the Telharmonium at Telharmonic Hall 1907

The dual keyboard control of the Telharmonium at Telharmonic Hall 1907


The Telharmonium was essentially a collection of 145 modified dynamos employing a number of specially geared shafts and associated inductors to produce alternating currents of different audio frequencies. These signals were controlled by a multiple set of polyphonic velocity sensitive keyboards ( of seven octaves, 36 notes per octave tunable to frequencies between 40-4000Hz) and associated banks of controls.The resulting sound was audible via acoustic horns built from piano soundboards in the early models, later models were linked directly to the telephone network or to a series of telephone receivers fitted with special acoustic horns – this was the only way to amplify the sound in this pre-amplifier era (Cahill’s invention had pre-dated the invention of amplifiers by 20 years). The Telharmonium supplied 1 amp of power to each telephone receiver on the network this was much more than the telephone itself but was enough to be able to hear the music without lifting the receiver speaker to the ear however this also masked and disrupted any other signal on the line. The instrument was usually played by two musicians (4 hands) and reproduced “respectable” music of the time: Bach, Chopin, Grieg, Rossinni etc.

The 60ft long, 200 ton, $200,000 “Telharmonium III”

The 60ft long, 200 ton, $200,000 “Telharmonium III”

The sound produced from the Telharmonium at Telharmonic Hall was dogged with technical imperfections on behalf of the performers and by cable transmission errors such as sudden drops in volume when extra voices were added and a ‘growling’ effect on the bass notes that was said to make the overall experience ‘highly irritating’. Cahill completed the third and final Telharmonium in march 1911, this machine was even bigger and more expensive than its predecessor. The third Telharmonium had a whole set of redesigned and more powerful alternators, stronger magnets to reduce the bass rumbling and volume controls. The instrument was installed at 535 west 56th street New York City.

Inside the Telharmonium:

Tone Mixers from the Telharmonium III

Tone Mixers from the Telharmonium III

Dynamo tone generators at  Cabot Street Mill.

Dynamo tone generators at Cabot Street Mill.

Dynamos of the Telhamronium III in the basement of the Telharmonic Hall

Dynamos of the Telhamronium III in the basement of the Telharmonic Hall


Tone mixer

Tone mixer

Wiring looms of the Telharmonium III

Wiring looms of the Telharmonium III

Cahill and the ‘New England Electric Music Company’ funded a plan to transmit ‘Telharmony’ using the Telharmonium to hotels, restaurants,theatres and private homes via the telephone network. This visionary quest failed when the capital outlay became prohibitive and it was discovered that the machine interfered seriously with local telephone calls. The venture ground to a halt before the first world war. Rumour has it that a New York businessman, infuriated by the constant network interference, broke into the building where the Telharmonium was housed and destroyed it, throwing pieces of machinery into the Hudson river below. The final Telharmonium (the last of 3 built) was operating until 1916 and having survived the Wall Street crash and World War 1 was finally killed off by the advent of popular radio broadcasting and amplification.

Despite its final demise, the Telharmonium triggered the birth of electronic music- The Italian Composer and intellectual Ferruccio Busoni inspired by the machine at the height of its popularity was moved to write his “Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music” (1907) which in turn became the clarion call and inspiration for the new generation of electronic composers such as Edgard Varèse and Luigi Rusolo.

No recordings of the Telharmonium/Dynamophone are known to have survived, though Arthur.T. Cahill, brother of Thaddeus, was as recently as 1950 trying to find a home for the prototype instrument, his search proved unsuccessful and the historic machine vanished. The principles underlying the Telharmonium are still used in the Hammond organ designed in the early 1930s.

Mark Twain (Clemens) remembers the Telharmonium:

“I recall two pleasant social events of that winter: one a little party given at the Clemenses’ home on New-Year’s Eve, with charades and storytelling and music. It was the music feature of this party that was distinctive; it was supplied by wire through an invention known as the telharmonium which, it was believed, would revolutionise musical entertainment in such places as hotels, and to some extent in private houses. The music came over the regular telephone wire, and was delivered through a series of horns or megaphones — similar to those used for phonographs — the playing being done, meanwhile, by skilled performers at the central station. Just why the telharmonium has not made good its promises of popularity I do not know. Clemens was filled with enthusiasm over the idea. He made a speech a little before midnight, in which he told how he had generally been enthusiastic about inventions which had turned out more or less well in about equal proportions. He did not dwell on the failures, but he told how he had been the first to use a typewriter for manuscript work; how he had been one of the earliest users of the fountain- pen; how he had installed the first telephone ever used in a private house, and how the audience now would have a demonstration of the first telharmonium music so employed. It was just about the stroke of midnight when he finished, and a moment later the horns began to play chimes and “Auld Lang Syne” and “America”.”Mark Twain: A Biography,Albert Bigelow Paine (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912), 1364-1365

Patent Documents


MAGIC MUSIC FROM THE TELHARMONIUM Reynold Weidenaar Scarecrow Press 800/642-6420; 301/459-3366
Holmes, Thomas B. Electronic and Experimental Music. New York: Scribner, 1985. pp. 32-41