The ‘Synthetic Tone’ was an electro-mechanical instrument similar but much smaller to the Choralcelo designed by the Brookline, Massachusetts electrical engineer Sewall Cabot (Cabot, Quincy Sewall b: 4 SEP 1901 in New York d: MAR 1957 in New York). The instrument created complex tones by resonating metal bars with a tone-wheel generated electromagnetic charge.
“One object of my present invention is to provide an improved musical instrument of relatively small cost and small dimensions in comparison to those of a pipe-organ, but capable of attaining all the musically useful results of which a pipe-organ is capable. Another object is to provide an instrument that will produce desirable tonal effects not heretofore obtainable from a pipe-organ.”
Sewal Cabot Patent documents
Early Electronic Music Instruments: Time Line 1899-1950.Curtis Roads Computer Music Journal Vol. 20, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 20-23 Published by: The MIT Press
Matthias Hipp’s many inventions and adaptations include; Chronoscopes, Chronographs, Galvanometers, railway signalling equipment, watch and clock mechanisms, Telegraphic time detectors, telexes, networked electronic clocks, fire alarms, Microphones, Seismographs, electronic Gyroscopes and possibly the first ‘real’ electronic musical instrument.
In 1867 Hipp created an ‘Electromechanical Piano’. How this instrument operated is unclear, no contemporary records exist that describe the instrument in any detail but modern texts suggest that it was a ‘true’ electronic instrument, generating sounds through multiple dynamos:
“Going back to the first electrical instruments, the conception of the electromechanic piano is due to Hipps (whose first name is unknown). This instrument was essentially composed of a keyboard which would activate some electrical magnets.These in their own right would activate some dynamos (small electrical current generators), the devices actually responsible for sound production. They were the same dynamos which, almost a century later, would be used in Cahill’s Teleharmonium”
Andreas Baroni: “A brief History of Synthesizers”
“Electromechanical Piano – Developed by Hipps (first name unknown) who was a director of the telegraph factory in Neuchatel, Switzerland. The keyboard activated electromagnets that activated dynamos (small electric generators), which produced sound. Dynamos where later used in Thaddeus Cahill’s Dynamophone (also known as the Telharmonium).”
Kevin M Walczyk “Electroacoustic Music A brief historical outline and recorded anthology”
or more prosaically, simply an electronically controlled player-piano:
“Electricity was used to operate player pianos from about 1850, and the basis for many later systems was developed by Matthäus Hipp of Neuchâtel in his ‘electromechanical piano’ of 1867”
Hugh Davies. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
Another possible method could be that Hipp extended the mechanism of the Hipp Chronoscope. The Chronoscope was an electronic clock designed to measure micro-events based around an escape mechanism regulated by a high frequency vibrating metal tine (rather than a pendulum). The problem was that to be accurate, the metal tines had to vibrate at a constant frequency of 1000hz and at the time the only way to calibrate was to hire a piano tuner who could hear the difference (phase) between a known 1000hz pitch tuning fork:
“We all know that some piano tuners are prodigiously accurate, and we can presume that similar paragons staffed the tuning fork manufactures of 19th century Europe. However, any physics course will show you that tuning forks have an easier potential for high accuracy of frequencies than many other devices. This potential is found in the audible phenomenon of beats, in which two tuning forks which are very slightly different will produce a signal of varying loudness. The frequency of this varying loudness is the difference in frequency of the two forks, thus permitting easy adjustment of the erring fork.”
Edward J. Haupt Montclair State University
By simply changing the voltage supply to the metal tines via a keyboard, Hipp would have been able to create a scaled set of frequencies. Whatever technique Hipp used, the Electromechanical Piano seems to have been a one-off curio for Hipp, it doesn’t appear anywhere alongside the more commercial inventions in his illustrated catalogues of the period or in the inventory of the Neuchatel Telegraph factory.
Hugh Davies. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Macmillan Publishers Ltd
“Electroacoustic Music A brief historical outline and recorded anthology”. Kevin M Walczyk , Western Oregon University. 1997, Keveli Music
Andreas Baroni: “A brief History of Synthesizers”
‘The Hipp Chronoscope’. Dr Thomas Schraven, Krefeld. 2003
‘The Controversy between G. E. Mller and Wilhelm Wundt over the proper measurement of reaction time’. Edward J. Haupt , Montclair State University 1999.