The ‘Novachord’ Laurens Hammond, John Hanert & C.N.Williams. USA, 1939

The Hammond Novachord

The Hammond Novachord

The Hammond Novachord was manufactured by the Hammond Organ Co in the USA from 1939 to 1942, designed by Laurens Hammond, John Hanert and C.N.Williams. A total of 1096 models were built.The Novachord was a polyphonic electronic organ and was Hammonds first electronic tube based instrument – a departure from his usual tone-wheel designs. The Novachord was a much more complex instrument than the Solovox Hammond’s other electronic tube-based instrument. The Novachord had 169 vacuum tubes to control and generate sound and was played on a seventy two note keyboard with a simple pressure sensitive system that allowed control over the attack and timbre of the note. The sound was produced by a series of 12 oscillators that gave a six octave range using a frequency division technique; the Novachord was one of the first electronic instruments to use this technique which was later became standard in electronic keyboard instruments.

Novachord fron panel

Novachord fron panel

The front panel of the instrument had a series of 14 switch-able rotary knobs to set the timbre, volume, ‘resonance’,bass/treble, vibrato (six modulation oscillators were used) and ‘brightness’ of the sound. A set of 3 foot operated pedals controlled sustain,and volume the third pedal allowing control of the sustain by either foot. The final signal was passed to a pre-amplifier and then to a set of internal speakers. The Novachord was able to produce a range of sounds imitating orchestral instruments such as the piano, harpsichord, stringed and woodwind instruments as well as a range of it’s own new sounds.

In May 1939 ‘The Novachord Orchestra’ of Ferde Grofé performed daily at the Ford stand at the New York World Fair with four Novachords and a Hammond Organ and in Adrian Cracraft’s ‘All Electronic Orchestra’, the Novachord also featured in several film scores (Hans Eisler’s “Kammersinfonie” 1940) but seems to have fallen from favour due to the instability of it’s multiple tube oscillators and playing technique. The Novachord was discontinued in 1942. A Hammond employee comments:

“The Novachord made beautiful music if played well, but it was not well adapted either to either an organists style or a pianists style. Thus it required development of a specific style, which not many musicians were prepared to do. it also had technical problems, requiring frequency adjustments to keep it operating chiefly because the frequency dividers and electronic components before the war were not nearly as good as those available in later years. The hammond Organ Company could have revived it after the war, and could have made it better in light of available technology at the time, but sales had been disappointing ad so it was not considered a good commercial product”
Hammond Novachord in “New Horizons” 1940
A restored Novachord
Novachord Orchestra: Introduction of The Hammond Novachord at the New York World’s Fair 1939 – 1940.

Sources:

F.D.Merril jr: “The Novachord”, Electronics,xii/11 (1939),16