The ‘Hugoniot Organ’. Charles-Emile Hugoniot . France, 1921.

Hugoniot's patent for a tone-wheel sound generator December 1919
A diagram from Hugoniot’s patent for a tone-wheel sound generator December 1919

CharlesEmile Hugoniot ( died; France, 1927 ) was a French mechanic, researcher and inventor of an early electronic organ. Hugoniot was awarded seven patents in France from 1919-1923 for various methods of sound generation including tone-wheels and photo-electrical tone generators.

Starting in 1919, Hugoniot began a process of improving existing sound generation devices of the period, first; Thaddeus Cahill’s electro-magnetic tone-wheels (from Cahill’s patent’s that would have been known to him in France) and continuing to electromagnetic steel discs and photo-electrical methods possibly influenced by the South African physicist, Hendrik van der Bijl’s patents from 1916. By doing so, Hugoniot introduced these new methods to a French group of electronic engineers.

Hugoniot’s died in 1927 before he could develop his ideas any further than prototypes yet he left behind a legacy of innovation that influenced a new generation of French pioneering instrument designers including Pierre Toulon and Givelet & Coupleaux.

Hugoniot's patent for a photo-electrical sound generator August 1921
Hugoniot’s patent for a photo-electrical sound generator August 1921

With this scheme the various types of wave forms for different timbres may be placed in radial sectors on a disk; another disk carrying the scanning slits in circular tracks rotates before this wave-form disk. A source of light and photocell complete the translating arrangements. Each slit track scans its corresponding wave cycle at a speed corresponding to one pitch of an approximate tempered scale. Thus, one wave and one slit track serve for each tone frequency of the tempered scale. Naturally the lowest pitch tracks are nearest the center and the highest are nearest the circumference of the scanning disk.

Another interesting arrangement is that used by Lesti and Sammis in the Polytone. Here, instead of using a series of similar wave-form cycles on a continuous track, with a single scanning device, only one complete such cycle is used with periodic scanning by a series of similar scanning slits, equispaced on a continuous track. The slit spacing is precisely equal to the wave-form lengths, so that this wave form is repeated at the scanning frequency; i.e., the number of slits passing it per second. The same method was disclosed as early as 1921 by the French inventor Hugoniot, who described an electrical musical instrument of this type in his patent’

A description of Hugoniot’s photo-electrical sound generation method from ‘Electronic Music and Instruments’ Institute of Radio Engineers, 1936


The Organ: An Encyclopedia. edited by Douglas Earl Bush, Richard Kassel

‘Electronic Music and Instruments’ By Benjamin F. Miessner
(Miessner Inventions, Inc., Millburn, New Jersey) . Institute of Radio Engineers.1936.

The Keyboard Electric Harmonium . Lev Sergeyevich Termen, USA/Russia, 1926

Lev Sergeyevich Termen most famous for creating the ‘Theremin’ also invented many other electronic instruments based on the heterodyning vacuum tube technology of the day – including the Keyboard Theremin, Theremin Cello, Terpsitone, Rhythmicon and the ‘Electric Harmonium’ or ‘Theremin Harmonium’.

Theremin Harmonium
Theremin Harmonium

Termen’s Harmonium was an early vacuum tube based polyphonic instrument designed to accompany vocal performances. The instrument had a three octave keyboard with a variable tuning that allowed 1,200 micro-tonal divisions per octave. The timbre and volume of the sound could be varied using twelve dials fixed to the front of the instrument.

Early version of the Theremin Harmonium. From the The Theremin Center for Electroacoustic Music , Moscow, Russia(1)
Early version of the Theremin Harmonium. From the The Theremin Center for Electroacoustic Music , Moscow, Russia(1)
Theremin's later version of the Harmonium. Each key plays a tunable (micro)tone which is reproduced with its own amplifier and speaker.
Theremin’s later version of the Harmonium. Each key plays a tunable (micro)tone which is reproduced with its own amplifier and speaker.



(1) Theremin Center for Electroacoustic Music

The ‘Radio Harmonium’ Sergeĭ Nikolaevich Rzhevkin, Russia, 1925

One of the earliest electronic instruments of the Soviet period, the Radio (or ‘Cathodic’) Harmonium was a three voice polyphonic cathode vacuum tube instrument controlled by a manual keyboard, designed for playing atonal music by the audio physicist Sergeĭ Nikolaevich Rzhevkin (1891-1981). The instrument was used by the philosopher Ivan Orlov in his investigations of aural phenomena.


‘A course of lectures on the theory of sound’ Sergeĭ Nikolaevich Rzhevkin. Pergamon Press, 1963

Orlov, I. E. 1926e. “Experiments with Rzhevkin’s cathode harmonium.”A Collection of Articles in Musical Acoustics (Russian),State Institute of Musical Science, 1925, 1.

The ‘Neo Violena’ Vladimir A Gurov, V.I. Volynkin & Lucien M. Varvich. Russia 1927

Designed by the engineers Vladimir A Gurov and V.I. Volynkin with the musical input from the composer Lucien M. Varvich, the Neo Violena was manufactured in Russia in 1927 and seems to have reached the USA during sometime during the 1930’s. The Neo Violena, as it’s name suggests, was a monophonic violin like instrument. The sound was generated by the player pressing a metal string to contact a metal conductive fingerboard; the position of the finger on the string determining the pitch and finger pressure varying the volume. Sound was produced from a heterodyning vacuum tube. The instrument was said to be capable of “producing a pleasant and ‘juicy’ sound that resembled different symphony orchestra instruments and possessed a wide range of sounding shades and timbres.”

“ On Thursday evening at the School House, A. R. Hamilton, president of the Hamilton College of Commerce at Mason City will give an address on “How the “Violena” Is Played” . The “violena” a musical instrument that is a whole orchestra in one, has been perfected at Leningrad, Russia, by the inventor, Vladimir A. Gurov and the young composer, Lucien M. Varvich. The player twirls a dial and the violena turns into a bass viol, another twirl and it becomes a guitar, still another and it is a flute, and so on. Besides its ability to reproduce faithfully almost- any musical instrument.”
The Bode Bugle. Page 5 USA. 28 May 1937.


The ‘Electronde’ Martin Taubman, Germany, 1927

The Electronde was a development of Lev Termen’s Thereminvox by the Frankfurt inventor Martin Taubman. Taubman added a hand held switch for adding staccato envelope and a foot pedal for volume control. This allowed the Electronde to be able to produce notes with a sharp ‘plucked’ attack which was a significant advantage over the Thereminvox

Sounds of the Electronde


The ‘Orgue des Ondes’ Armand Givelet & Edouard Eloi Coupleux, France. 1929

Organist Charles Tournemire at the Orgue Des Ondes in the église de Villemomble 1931
Organist Charles Tournemire at the Orgue Des Ondes in the église de Villemomble 1931 (Image: 1931 / A. Boukelion)

In 1929 the radio engineer Armand Givelet began a long collaboration with the organ builder Edouard Eloi Coupleux with the ambition to build on his experience with the ‘Clavier à Lampes‘ to create a popular electronic organ for use in churches, cinemas and concert halls. The resulting instrument, the ‘Orgue des Ondes’ or ‘Wave Organ’ was based on the same vacuum tube technology as the Theremin and Ondes-Martenot. Uniquely, the “Wave Organ” had an oscillator for each key therefore the instrument was polyphonic, a distinct advantage over its rivals – despite the amount of room needed to house the huge machine.

The Orgue Des Ondes installed at the Poste Parisien, Paris, France c 1928
The Orgue Des Ondes installed at the Poste Parisien radio station, Paris, France c 1928

The organ had over 700 vacuum oscillator tubes to give it a pitch range of 70 notes and ten different timbres – for each different timbre a different set of tubes was used. The Organ may have used as many as 1,000 tubes in total for oscillators and amplifiers. These tubes were housed in a separate rack ten feet long and six feet wide, out of sight of any audience.

Multiple vacuum tubes of the Orgue Des Ondes
Multiple vacuum tubes of the Orgue Des Ondes

The sound of the organ was said to be particularly rich due to small variations in the tuning between each note creating a chorus like effect – in fact, the organ was capable of an early type of additive (addition of sine or simple waveforms) and subtractive (filtering complex waveforms) synthesis due to its number of oscillators and distortion of the sine waves produced by the LC oscillators.

Marshal Pétain reviews the inauguration of the Orgue Des Ondes at the Poste Parisien radio station. Image; 'Le Petit Parisien' 27 October 1932.
Marshal Pétain reviews the inauguration of the Orgue Des Ondes at the Poste Parisien radio station. Image; ‘Le Petit Parisien’ 27 October 1932.

Le Petit Parisien 17 October 1932

Le Post Parisien soon to inaugurate the “Wave Organ”

The organ which has been installed at the Post Parisien will be inaugurated in a few days, on 26 October. The organ, not a typical orchestral instrument used by numerous radio broadcasters, is the result of the latest perfections of technology. This organ, whose powerful voice will soon be broadcast on the waves, has little resemblance to the monumental organs of Notre Dame, Saint-Eustache and Saint-Etienne du Mont. One searches in vain for the forest of pipes which previously would show the instrument’s personality. Instead, two mahogany chests flank the organ, which, pierced with loudspeakers resembling portholes, replace the hundreds of slender colonnades of pipes, evoking the appearance of a harmonium.

This revolution however is not just decorative. The ‘Orgue Des Ondes’, which has just been installed in the large auditorium of the Post Parisien on the Champs Elysees, can be considered one of the most remarkable contributions of current science.

Eloy Coupleux, its inventor and manufacturer (with Armand Givelet) gave me a description of the instrument which, today can rival the the most venerable consecrated instruments. To establish his instrument, Mr. Coupleux started from the principle that every note was to be a transmitter, creating an oscillation at the same frequency of each note. Each of these positions corresponds to a key keyboards or pedal which when pressed trigger an oscillating circuit corresponding to an oscillating frequency of the note and the sound – thus creating all the vibrations of the musical scale. As for sounds, which in the classical organ, are dependent on the shape, length and mouth of the pipes, they are here created by and electrical circuit. The instrument, which has many advantages (over a classical organ. ed ), has three keyboards, pedals and seventy-six stops. The organ is insensible to temperature changes – unlike a classical organ – and is perfectly flexible, offering the possibility of indefinite virtuoso repetitions of high-speed lines. Similarly, the sound can, thanks to the amplified speakers, reach everywhere at the same time – and with radio transmissions of the movement of the keys, at a speed of 300,000 kilometers per second, an organist could play the organ of the Poste Parisien perfectly to the borders of Japan.

Rejuvenated by the miracle of the waves, the instrument will generate new interest in organs due to the vast increase in it’s abilities.
Maurice Bourdet.

The organ was controlled in the usual way with two manual keyboards, drawbars or stops and foot pedal controls for volume and expression. The instrument was said to accurately reproduce the sound of a large pip organ as well as flutes, brass, and woodwind. The amplified sound from the organ was fed into a large array of thirty loudspeakers spaced around the performance room.

The Orgue Des Ondes installed at the Poste Parisien radio station, Paris, France c 1928
The Orgue Des Ondes installed at the Poste Parisien radio station, Paris, France, 1932

Only two of the ‘Orgues Des Ondes’ were actually built and installed; The first at th Église de Villemomble in the Parisian suburbs of Saint-Denis – inaugurated by the famous organist Charles Tournemire on the 6th December 1931. The second instrument was installed at the Poste Parisien radio station and auditorium on the Champs Elysees, Paris, France in October 1932. The high-profile inauguration event  was lead by the famous organist and composer Maurice Duruflé who’s repertoire of the evening included:

  • Mendelssohn ‘6th Sonata’
  • Bach ‘I cry to you Lord’
  • Buxtehude ‘modal Fugue in C’
  • Vierne ‘Allegrro perennial of the 1st Symphony ‘
  • Duruflé ‘Sicilian’
  • Gigout ‘Toccata ‘
  • Franck ‘Pastorale’ Schumann ‘Canon in B Minor’

Both instruments seem to have been removed and replaced sometime after with more modern organs.

The ‘Orgue Des Ondes’ was met with praise from the scientific community and some musicians – including a young Olivier Messiaen – but also came under fierce criticism as being a frivolous invention or ‘fairground toy’ competing in the serious world of religious music (even the President of the Republic, Albert Lebrun joined in the critical affray). Part of the problem was that Coupleux and Givelet had created a futuristic instrument but placed it in a ‘traditional’ and conservative environment unwilling to countenance the replacement of the ‘sacred’ and timeless pipe organ with a synthetic newcomer. For example, it was only in the 1960s that The Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church admitted the use of electronic organs in sacred music but emphasised the preeminence of the pipe organ;

“with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority, provided that the instruments are suitable for sacred use.” 

Despite it’s initial warm reception, the “Wave Organ” eventually succumbed to the practicality and portability of the American built Hammond Organ – designed for the Jazz age and home user rather than the limited religious market –which bankrupted the Givelet-Coupleux partnership in 1935.

Images of the ‘Orgue Des Ondes’

The Coupleux brothers, Paul, Leon and Eloi
The Coupleux brothers, Paul, Leon and Eloi

Eloi Coupleux Biographical notes

The Coupleux piano manufacturing business was founded in 1865 originally as a modest watchmaking workshop based in Rue Carnot, Tourcoing, Lille, France by Pierre Coupleux . On Pierre’s death in 1904 the Coupleux sons – Eloi, Paul and Leon took over the business and, extending their knowledge of watchmaking, they began to manufacture music boxes, phonographs, devices for optical illusions, fairground equipment and early cinema equipment. The Coupleux’s soon began selling Pianos and other stringed instruments fired by the new middle class demand for the instrument. The Coupleux fuelled this fire by giving promotional concerts around France and Europe, recording their own records and eventually launching their own radio station ‘Radio Flanders’ in 1923 – five years before the existence of French national state radio.

Coupleux brothers working at their fathers watchmaking shop c1900
Coupleux brothers working at their fathers watchmaking shop c1900

In 1908, having secured the French monopoly of imported American Pianolas, Paul Coupleux, by then an established piano dealer and tuner, opened a second shop in one of Lille’s most affluent shopping street 24 bis, rue Esquermoise, Lille selling their own manufactured pianos.

The Coupleux shop at 24 bis, rue Esquermoise, Lille France c 1920
The Coupleux shop at 24 bis, Rue Esquermoise, Lille France c 1920

During the First World War Lille was occupied by the Germans and much of the Coupleux brothers shop and warehouse was destroyed. However in 1919 they realised that there was a new demand for church organs; most of the churches of Northern France and Belgium had been destroyed or damaged and soon their order books were full due to the demand for Coupleux pipe Organs. By 1923 the business was thriving with 150 staff and a production of 150 pianos per month.

The Coupleux company continued to thrive until 1935 when the simultaneous and combined forces of the commercial failure of their electronic musical instrument and the economic crisis of the 1930s closed the business. The rue Esquermoise shop continued as a music store until 1997 long after the closure of the instrument manufacturing business.

Workers at the Coupleux frères piano and organ workshop at 100 rue du Moulin-Fagot, Tourcoing, Lillle, France c1920
Workers at the Coupleux frères piano and organ workshop at 100 rue du Moulin-Fagot, Tourcoing, Lillle, France c1920

Eloi Coupleux was a self taught engineer, he had left school at fifteen and began working in his father’s watchmaking shop where he soon discovered his mechanical talent. His inventions included a dual disk phonograph for stereo audio, the’ Télépiano’ (1922) – a device for transmitting piano vibration magnetically down a telephone wire and numerous audio reproduction machines. And it was this obsession with new technology that lead him to meet the physicist and engineer Armand Givelet in 1927.

Louise Coupleux (sister of Eloi) playing an amplified Télépiano in c1922
Louise Coupleux (sister of Eloi) playing an amplified Télépiano in c1922

This meeting was the beginning of a long collaboration between the duo designing new electronic musical instruments. Their first device was a larger, polyphonic version of Givelet’s ‘Clavier à lampes‘ designed for use as a large church organ. The resulting instrument the ‘Orgue Des Ondes’ was premiered at the 1929 exhibition in Paris and was one of the first electronic organs. Despite international publicity only four of the huge instruments were sold – all to churches in Northern France. In 1930 Coupleux and Givelet designed and built another electronic organ christened the ‘Givelet’, this time controlled by a punch-paper pianola style cardboard roll but still using the multiple radio-valve sound generators.

Sheet music book and the Orgue Des Ondes
Sheet music book and the Orgue Des Ondes



Olivier Carpentier Olivier Carpentier L’Aventure industrielle des frères Coupleux, 1900-1935 Préface de Douglas Heffer, éditions de l’Inoui, 2004.

La Nature > 1930 – Cinquante huitième année, deuxième semestre – n. 2836-2847 p.258-262

‘L’ Orgues des Ondes’ Bulletin de la Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale 1933

The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW – 1842 – 1954), Wednesday 15 August 1934, page 6.

Mémoire du folk en Nord Pas de Calais

‘The Organ: An Encyclopedia’. Douglas Earl Bush, Richard Kassel
Psychology Press, 2006 – p679.

the ‘Clavier à Lampes’ or ‘Piano Radio Èlectrique’ Joseph Armand Marie Givelet, France. 1927

Armand Givelet playing the 'Clavier à Lampes
Armand Givelet playing the ‘Clavier à Lampes

Armand Givelet , the engineer and physicist at the radio laboratory at the Eiffel Tower in Paris produced his first instrument the ‘Clavier à Lampes’ in 1927 as a way of solving audio technical problems at the radio station. Because microphones of the time were of poor quality, it was impossible to record or broadcast decent quality sound. Givelet’s response was to build an electronic organ that could be directly injected into the transmitter without using microphones. The resulting instrument, the ‘Clavier à Lampes’ was a monophonic vacuum tube keyboard instrument.

The ‘Clavier à Lampes’ was premiered in Paris in 1927 and taken on tour to the United States starting with the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia on June 9th 1927.

Loudspeakers and valves of the 'Piano Radio Èlectrique'
Loudspeakers and valves of the ‘Piano Radio Èlectrique’

Images of the ‘Clavier à Lampes

Armand Givelet Biographical notes

Armand Givelet (born:21 07 1889 Reims France – died:09 11 1963 La Varenne St-Hilaire, St-Maur-des-Fossés) was originally  an engineer in the French military during the First World War but  soon recognised the potential of Lee De Forest’s triode technology. He founded the first Radio Club in France and the T.S.F. engineering school. Givelet became a recognised authority on radio technology and  inventor who held many patents for radio and broadcast equipment as well as his work with electromechanical (tone-wheel) and valve based electronic musical instruments; His particular contribution w as a stabilised audio oscillator that used much less power than traditional triode circuitry.

Givelet’s first complete instrument was the The monophonic “Piano Radio-électrique” unveiled in 1927. A meeting with the organ Builder Eloi Coupleux in early 1929 began a life-long collaboration that produced some of the earliest electronic organs – designed primarily for church and religious music. The largest of the Coupleux-Givelet instruments was built for “Le Poste-Parisien” – withs 200 oscillator tubes producing 70 different timbres or stops. Despite their unique features, The Coupleux-Givelet organs were rapidly made obsolete by much smaller and cheaper organs such as the Hammond Organ. Only four organs were sold by Coupleux-frères to churches in France.

Givelet also wrote theatrical works under the pseudonym Ch. de Puymordant.


Olivier Carpentier ‘L’Aventure industrielle des frères Coupleux, 1900-1935’ Préface de Douglas Heffer, éditions de l’Inoui, 2004.

La Vie et les ondes : l’oeuvre de Georges Lakhovsky / Michel Adam et Armand Givelet, [1936]

Le Genie Civil February 7, 1928

Le Monde, 1989-07-21, p. 23

the ‘Warbo Formant Orgel’, Harald Bode & Christian Warnke, Germany, 1937

the Warbo Formant Orgel
The Warbo Formant Orgel

Harald Bode’s first commercial design was the wonderfully named “Warbo Formant Orgel” built while at the Heinrich-Hertz Institut für Schwingungsforschung at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin. The Warbo Formant Orgel was designed and built with the musical input from the composer and band-leader Christian Warnke (hence ‘War- Bo’  Warnke/Bode);

“Christian made the contribution of a musician — that means he told me what to do as far as all the features the instrument should have. I’ll have to go into more detail. Christian Warnke was a composer and musician, a bandleader with a fine ear for music, and he was an excellent violinist. He wasn’t involved in the design per se, just the specifications of the Warbo. And he sponsored the project on a minimum budget. Mind you this was in the second part of the 30s, which had still terrible after-effects of the depression. But the Warbo was my first major contribution in the field.”
Harald Bode in  SYNE magazine 1980
The Warbo Formant Orgel from the Hamburger Anzeiger. 21 September 1938.
The Warbo Formant Orgel from the Hamburger Anzeiger. 21 September 1938.
Description of the Formant operation of the Warbo Formant Orgel
Description of the Formant operation of the Warbo Formant Orgel

Two versions of the instrument were made and later stored at the  Heinrich-Hertz Institute (HHI) in Charlottenburg, Berlin. The institute’s building was completely destroyed during the war and with it the Warbo Formant Orgel. No recording of the Warbo Formant have been found. As with many other instruments designed by Bode the ‘Warbo Formant Orgel’ pioneered aspects of electronics that became standard in later instruments. The Warbo Formant Orgel was a partially polyphonic four-voice keyboard instrument with 2 filters and key assigned dynamic envelope wave shaping – features that were later used on the postwar ‘Melodium’ and  ‘Melochord’.

“… It [The Warbo Formant Orgel] was built with a relaxation type of oscillator. Four oscillators actually, that were selected for the 44-note keyboard. The major problem being the stability of the oscillators, which is critical when comparing one with the other, especially with four. So I dropped the idea of a four-note organ at that time and went on to the Melodium, which was created in 1938 and used in many large performances with the Berlin Philharmonic as a solo instrument. It was also used in some significant motion pictures of that era.”
Harald Bode in  SYNE magazine 1980

Biographical notes

Harald Bode; October 19, 1909 Hamburg Germany – January 15, 1987 New York USA.
Harald Bode; October 19, 1909 Hamburg Germany – January 15, 1987 New York USA.

Bode Studied  mathematics, physics and natural philosophy at Hamburg University, graduating in 1934. In 1937, with funding support provided by the composer and band-leader, Christian Warnke, Bode produced his first instrument the ‘Warbo-Formant Orgel’ (‘Warbo’ being a combination of the names Warnke and Bode). Bode moved to Berlin in 1938 to complete a postgraduate course at the Heinrich Hertz Institute where he collaborated with Oskar Vierling and Fekko von Ompteda. During this period Bode developed the ‘Melodium’ ;  a unique monophonic touch-sensitive, multi-timbral instrument used extensively in film scores of the period.

When WWII started in 1939 Bode worked on military submarine sound and wireless communication projects “…We had the only choice in Germany, to go to military service or do work for the government. I praise myself lucky, that I was able to go to the electronic industry” and moved to the  small village Neubeuern in southern Germany, where in 1947 Bode built the first European post-war electronic instrument, the ‘Melochord’. In 1949 Bode joined the AWB company where he created the  ‘Polychord’ a simpler, polyphonic version of the ‘Melochord’ which was followed by the ‘Polychord III’ in 1951 and the  ‘Bode Organ’, a commercial organ which became the prototype for the famous Estey Electronic Organ. After leaving AWB, Bode’s designs included the ‘Tuttivox’, a miniature electronic organ and collaborated on a version of Georges Jenny’s ‘Clavioline’, both big sellers throughout Europe.

In 1954 Bode moved to the USA, settling in Brattleboro, Vermont where he lead the development team (and later, Vice President)  at the Estey Organ Corporation. In 1958, while still working at Estey, Bode set up the Bode Electronics Company where in March 1960 he created another unique instrument; a modular synthesiser “A New Tool for the Exploration of Unknown Electronic Music Instrument Performances” known as the  ‘Audio System Synthesiser’ which Robert Moog used as the basis for his line of new Moog synthesisers.

After the Estey Organ Company foundered in 1960, Bode joined the Wurlitzer Organ Co and moved to Buffalo, New York where he was one of the first engineers to recognise the significance of transistor based technology in electronic music.  Bode’s concepts of modular and miniature self-contained transistor based machines was taken up and developed in the early 1960’s by Robert Moog and Donald Buchla amongst others. 1962 saw the beginning of a long collaboration between Bode and the composer Vladimir Ussachevski at the  Columbia Princeton Center for Electronic Music which lead to the development of innovative studio equipment designs such as the  ‘Bode Ring Modulator’ and ‘Bode Frequency Shifter’. The commercial versions of these inventions were produced  under the Bode Sound Co and under license Moog Synthesisers.

Harald Bode retired in 1974 but continued to pursue his own research. In 1977 he created the ‘Bode Vocoder’ (licensed as the ‘Moog Vocoder’). In 1981 he developed his last instrument, the ‘Bode Barberpole Phaser’.

Harald Bode’s sketchbooks



The ‘Superpiano’ and ‘Symphonium’. Emerich Spielmann, Austria, 1928

Emerich Spielmann playing the Superpiano
Emerich Spielmann playing the Superpiano and a standard piano

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.

Anni Spielmann (Emerich's daughter) playing the Superpiano
Anni Spielmann (Emerich’s daughter) playing the Superpiano

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.

The celluloid disks of the Superpiano for creating tones and harmonics
The celluloid disks of the Superpiano for creating tones and harmonics

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).

Spielmann's Superpiano 1927
Spielmann’s Superpiano 1927 th e Museum of Technology, Vienna, Austria
The last Superpiano at the Vienna Technical Museum, Austria
The last Superpiano at the Vienna Technical Museum, Austria showing the celluloid disks and light bulbs
The last Superpiano at the Vienna Technical Museum, Austria
The last Superpiano at the Vienna Technical Museum, Austria

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.

Letter to Spielmann advocating the  Superpiano from Albert Einstein. USA 1944
Spielmann's patent for the photo-electrical sound generator
Spielmann’s 1928 patent for the photo-electrical sound generator


Video of Peter Donhauser – Head of Division Fundamentals of Technology & Science at the Vienna Technical Museum – with the Spuperpiano:

first show of the superpiano 2

Superpiano editorial in the Southeast Missourian Newspaper. 1929
Superpiano editorial in the Southeast Missourian Newspaper. 1929
Contemporary newspaper clippings The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 - 1954)
Contemporary newspaper clippings The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954)
Contemporary newspaper clippings. Straights Times, Singapore 1929
Contemporary newspaper clippings. Straights Times, Singapore 1929
Front view of the Superpiano showing tone-mixing knee lever, pedals and loudspeaker
Front view of the Superpiano showing tone-mixing knee lever, pedals and loudspeaker
naturalisation papers of Emerich Spielmann. 1944
U.S. naturalisation papers of Emerich Spielmann. 1944

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

The ‘Wave Organ’. Frank Morse Robb. Canada. 1927


The Robb Wave Organ designed by Morse Robb in Belleville, Ontario was an early pre-cursor, and said to be  musically superior, to the Hammond Organ. The instrument attempted to reproduce the sound of a cathedral pipe organ by amplifying sounds generated by a similar tone-wheel mechanism. Robb based his tone-wheel design on that of Melvin Severy’s ‘Choralcello’ but with the addition of amplification – which wasn’t available to Severy at the time.

“…Such an instrument as his, (Severy’s ‘Choralcello’) however, is both practically and theoretically impossible, as without amplification, far greater than the microphone type he suggests, nothing but the faintest trace of tones could be heard. The mere addition of amplification to his instrument would not be invention. If this were done, moreover, the instrument could not be made to function musically as the circuit and wiring arrangement set forth in his patent-would preclude that possibility due to internal resistance in the magnets. Every impulse generated by the tone disc would be absorbed in the circuits to such an extent that amplification would be impossible.”

Robb’s aim was to miniaturise elements of previous huge tone-wheel designs (‘Coralcello‘ of 1909 and ‘Telharmonium‘ 1897-1917) to create a practical, easy to maintain and affordable electronic organ. This was done by reducing the size and number of the tone wheels by adding a system of gears and increasing the number of notes on each wheel by  ‘doubling and redoubling the wave forms on the discs on one shaft’ . The instrument was equipped with twelve tone wheels representing each note, the ‘character’ or timbre of note – corresponding to organ stops and photographed from a cathode ray oscillograph – plus the harmonics of each fundamental note. The variation in pitch of each note was achieved by changing the speed of the tone wheel’s rotation giving the Wave Organ a total of five octaves. The tone wheels spinning within a magnetic field generated a voltage output of each note which was made audible by being passed to a valve amplifier and loudspeaker.

The prototype Wave Organ was built in 1927 at the Toronto Daily Star’s CFCA radio studio in Belleville and patented in 1928 (1930 in the USA). Robb planned to market the instrument by arranging a production contract with the General Electric Company in Schenectady, NY and later, organ builders Casavant Frères in Canada, however the worsening economic troubles of the 1930s depression permanently stalled the agreements in the spring of 1931 .

Undaunted by the commercial  failure of his first prototype, Robb produced a new, two manual, 32 note version of the Wave Organ in 1934 and launched the ‘ Robb Wave Organ Company’- incorporated on 21 September 1934 – to market and sell the instrument. The first productions models became available in July 1936 and was publicly demonstrated at Eaton’s department stores in Toronto and Montréal. Despite an initial positive reaction Robb was unable to obtain funding for further production and in 1938 he abandoned the project – Only thirteen models were ever sold and the Wave Organ was taken off the market in 1941.

The Robb Wave Organ was more expensive than other electronic organs of the period – notably the American Hammond Organ, which used an almost identical tone-wheel technology – and sales suffered because of World War II. The last remaining Wave Organ prototype is preserved at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ontario.

Second version of Morse Robb’s ‘Wave Organ’ c1936

Michael J. Murphy professor RTA School of Media talks about the Robb Wave Organ

Frank Morse Robb

born 28 January 1902 in Belleville, Ontarion; died 5 August 1992 in Belleville

Robb studied at McGill University from 1921 to 1924 and then returned to Belleville where in 1926 began research on the Robb Wave Organ. After the commercial failure of the Wave Organ, Robb applied his talent as an inventor to devices for the packing of guns during the Second World War. He became vice-president of his brother’s packing company and won acclaim as a silversmith. He also wrote a Sci-Fi -post nuclear holocaust novel Tan Ming (1955) under the pseudonym Lan Storming (“An amusing fantasy in which a department store window dresser falls in love with a robot mannequin and manages to conjure into its body the soul of a princess named Tan Ming from a postholocaust future.”).

'Tan Ming' by
‘Tan Ming’ by Lan Stormont/Morse Robb 1955


Canada Science and Technology Museum

Encyclopedia of Music in Canada