The ‘Saraga-Generator’ was developed by the electrical engineer and physicist Wolja Saraga at the Heinrich-Hertz Institut Für Schwingungsforschung (HHI) in Berlin, Germany around 1931. The Saraga Generator was an unusual photo-electrical vacuum tube instrument originally designed to be used for theatrical production where the sound would be triggered by movement in front of the instrument.
The original instrument consisted of a single photoelectric cell mounted on the white painted inside surface of a box with a small ‘V’ shaped slit cut on one face. A low voltage neon lamp was placed at some distance from the box on a stage and the performers movements interrupting the light beam causing variations in pitch in a tone generated using the well established heterodyning effect of two vacuum tubes. Later versions were designed to be played in a way similar to the Theremin with one hand held in the air controlling the pitch by interrupting the light beam –Envelope and timbre were controlled by manipulating a hand held switching device, the overall volume being driven by a foot pedal. The Saraga Generator was monophonic with a tonal range of four octaves.
The Saraga Generator was patented in 1932 and demonstrated at the Berlin Radio Exhibition (IFA Berlin) in the same year.
Saraga took a version of the Generator to London after he left Berlin for the UK in 1938 ( He also brought a Volkstrautonium purchased as a promotional model from Telefunken) . He gave several presentations of the instrument for the Institute of Musical Instrument Technology (Holloway Rd, London N7) in May 1945 entitled “A Homophonic or single-note electronic musical instrument with a photo electric cell as playing manual – demonstration of an experimental model” and searched for commercial applications for the instrument including film soundtrack music and musical therapy for blinded war veterans.
Difficulties in sourcing electronic components in post-war Britain hampered development of the instrument which was eventually overtaken by more sophisticated and versatile electronic instruments of the 1950s
Wolja Saraga: Biographical Notes
Saraga was a German Jewish Physicist, born in Berlin to a Romanian father and a Russian mother. Saraga studied telecommunications at the Heinrich Hertz Institute (‘Heinrich-Hertz Institut Für Schwingungsforschung’ or ‘HHI’) at the Technical University, Berlin under Prof Gustav Leithäuser – alongside luminaries such as Oskar Vierling, Harald Bode , Winston Kock and Friedrich Trautwein.
It was during his time at the HHI that he began investigations into electronic musical instruments, his published papers detailing; a dual oscillator Aetherophone or ‘Theremin‘ , a ‘Poly-rhythmic Electronic Musical Instrument’ , The workings of the Volkstrautonium and his design for a photo-optical instrument, the ‘Saraga Generator’ first built in 1931. Saraga became a research assistant at the institute and later a lecturer from1929-1933. He also studied physics and mathematics at the Humboldt University of Berlin , where he was awarded a Dr. phil. in physics in 1935.
During his time in Berlin, Saraga was very energetic in promoting the potential of electronic music; He made several public presentations and demonstrations of electronic instruments including Theremins, Trautoniums and his own ‘Saraga Generator’. Saraga was also present playing the ‘Saraga Generator’ at the 1932/3 International Funkaustellung (IFA) where the first ever electronic musical orchestra performed (Das ‘Orchester der Zukunft’).
It became clear to Saraga in 1935-6 that as a Jewish scientist he would have no future in the new National Socialist German Reich and began to apply to leave the country, first of all to Switzerland and then to the UK. Saraga finally left Berlin in 1938 at the age of 29. he was initially held for six months on the Isle Of Man Hutchinson Camp as a German internee but was given a position working for the ‘Telephone Manufacturing Company’ (or ‘TMC’) in St Mary’s Cray, Kent where, despite his unhappiness at his employers lack of interest in research, he remained until 1958.
Saraga then joined The Associated Electrical Industries Research Laboratory in Blackheath, London as a Research Scientist and Group Leader where he specialised in telephony filter design. In 1962, Saraga’s key contributions were recognised by the award of the Fellowship of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, ‘for contributions to network theory and its application in communications’. In 1972, Saraga moved full time to Imperial College, London where he became a postgraduate lecturer and researcher in network theory and mathematics.
Saraga wrote a number of books and filed several patents on network theory and telephony.
Archives of the Heinrich Hertz Institute/Heinrich-Hertz Institut Für Schwingungsforschung, Berlin, Germany
CIRCUIT THEORY AND APPLICATIONS, VOL. 8, 341 (1980) Obituary of Wolja Saraga by J. 0. SCANLAN
Saraga, W. “Elektrische Klangfarbenerzeugung, in FUNK-Bastler” 1932, Heft 38, S. 594, zit. nach STANGE-ELBE 1993a, S. 15( “Electrical Timbre generation, into radio hobbyist” )
[Wolja] Saraga: Die “tönende Handschrift”, in: Funktechnische Monatshefte 1933, H. 10, S. 403-406, hier S. 406
W. [Wolja] Saraga: An Electronic Musical Instrument with a Photo-Electric Cell as Playing Manual, in: Electronic Engineering 17 (1945), Juli, S. 601-603
Obituary: IEEPROC, Vol. 128, Pt. G, No. 4, AUGUST 1981
Documents from the Saraga Family Archive 2016