The ‘Hammond Organ’. Laurens Hammond, USA, 1935

The original Hammond Organ was Designed and built by the ex-watchmaker Laurens Hammond and  John M Hanert in April 1935. Hammond set up his ‘Hammond Organ Company’ in Evanston, Illinois to produce electronic organs for the ‘leisure market’ and in doing so created one of the most popular and enduring electronic instruments ever built. Hammond’s machine was designed using technology that relates directly to Cahill’s ‘Telharmonium’ of 1900, but, on a much smaller scale. The Hammond organ generated sounds in the same way as the Telaharmonium, the tone wheel-The tone generator assembly consisted of an AC synchronous motor connected to a gear train which drove a series of tone wheels, each of which rotated adjacent to a magnet and coil assembly. The number of bumps on each wheel in combination with the rotational speed determined the pitch produced by a particular tone wheel assembly. The pitches approximate even-tempered tuning.
This method of creating tones was maintained  until the mid 1960′s when transistors replaced tone wheels
The Hammond had a unique drawbar system of additive timbre synthesis (again a development of the Telharmonium) and stable intonation – a perennial problem with electronic instruments of the time. A note on the organ consisted of the fundamental and a number of harmonics, or multiples of that frequency. In the Hammond organ, the fundamental and up to eight harmonics were available and were controlled by means of drawbars and preset keys or buttons.A Hammond console organ included two 61-key manuals; the lower, or Great, and upper, or Swell, and a pedal board consisting of 25 keys. The concert models had a 32-key pedalboard. Hammond also patented an electromechanical reverb device using the helical torsion of a coiled spring, widely copied in later electronic instruments.As well as being a successful home entertainment instrument, The Hammond Organ became popular with Jazz, Blues and Rock musicians up until the late 1960′s and was also used by ‘serious’ musicians such as Karheinz Stockhausen in “Mikrophonie II”

Hammond patent documents

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.


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

‘Hanert Electric Orchestra’ John M Hanert, USA, 1945

The Hanert Synthesiser or ‘Electric Orchestra’ was designed and built by John Hanert c1945 for the Hammond Organ Company and was described as an ‘Apparatus for Automatic Production of Music’. The Synthesiser was an instrument for composition and synthesis of electronic music similar to the later RCA Synthesiser and other coded performance machines. Instead of using punch paper tape like the RCA Synthesiser the Hanert Synthesiser had a moving mechanical scanning head that moved over a sixty foot long table covered in eleven inch by twelve inch paper cards. The paper cards held the characteristics of the sound (pitch, duration, timbre and volume) stored in the form of graphite marks that were ‘read’ by direct electrical contact of the scanning head.The sound generating part of the instrument occupied a whole room and consisted of a bank of vacuum tube oscillators, a random frequency generator (to produce ‘white noise’ characteristics for percussive sounds) and wave shaping circuits. Speeding up and slowing down of the music(accelerando/decelerando) could be controlled by altering the speed and direction of the scanning head.

Hanert’s unique system allowed a great deal of flexibility in composition and synthesis, marks could be added to the cards simply by using a graphite pencil and the cards could be arranged in any order allowing variations and multiple combinations in the composition. Hanert commented:

“The composer ultimately usually has but slight control over the instrumentation employed by the orchestra and it is only after tedious and time consuming steps have been taken and the orchestra has ultimately rendered the composition the composer can actually audition his composition……its is seldom that a recording represents the closeness to perfection which is anticipated by the composer and the conductor…
In the method and apparatus of this invention the composer, arranger or conductor has at his command means for controlling the quality of each note, its intensity, envelope and the degree of accent, duration and tempo without necessarily affecting any other note or tone of the composition. he has under his control, within the limitations imposed by the apparatus as a whole, facilities for producing, under his sole control, any of a substantially infinite variety of renditions of a composition.”

John M Hanert was the chief engineer and designer at Hammond Organ Co from 1934 until his death in 1962.


T.L.Rhea:”The Evolution of Electronic Musical Instruments in the United States” (diss., George Peabody College, Nashville, Tenn, 1972)