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.
Significantly the Wave Organ was unique in that it tried to replicate real organ sounds by cutting the tone wheels to the shape of a photographic image of the waveform of a church organ – rather than mechanically reproducing and combining ‘pure’ tones and overtones like the Telharmonium and Hammond Organ. In this way the Wave organ can be seen as one of the earliest analog sampling
The prototype Wave Organ was built in 1927 and premiered in November of the same year 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 April 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.
Michael J. Murphy professor RTA School of Media talks about the Robb Wave Organ
Frank Morse Robb
(born 28 January 1902 in Belleville, ON; 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 Stormont (“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.”).
‘Frank Morse Robb’s Wave Organ’ by Michael Murphy and Max Cotter. eContact! 17.3 — TIES 2014: The 8th Toronto International Electroacoustic Symposium
Canada Science and Technology Museum. ingeniumcanada.org
‘Encyclopedia of Music in Canada’. www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca
‘New worlds of sound; electronics and the evolution of music in Canada’ Katharine Wright.Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation Société des musées de sciences et technologies du Canada Ottawa, Canada