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


The 1937 version of the Robb Wave Organ. Image; National Music Centre,© 2016 National Music Centre, Calgary.AB.
The 1937 version of the Robb Wave Organ. Image; National Music Centre,© 2016 National Music Centre, Calgary.AB.

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.

Frank Morse Robb
Frank Morse Robb

“…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.”

Morse Robb's miniaturised tone wheels of the Wave Organ. From the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ottowa, Ontarion Canada.
Morse Robb’s miniaturised tone wheels of the Wave Organ. From the collection of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Ottowa, Ontario Canada.

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 1937 version of the Robb Wave Organ. Image; National Music Centre,© 2016 National Music Centre, Calgary.AB.
Tone Wheel housing of the 1937 version of the Robb Wave Organ. Image; National Music Centre,© 2016 National Music Centre, Calgary.AB.

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 1937 version of the Robb Wave Organ. Image; National Music Centre,© 2016 National Music Centre, Calgary.AB.
The 1937 version of the Robb Wave Organ. Image; National Music Centre,© 2016 National Music Centre, Calgary.AB.

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, 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.”).

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


‘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.

‘Encyclopedia of Music in Canada’.

‘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

‘La Croix Sonore’ Nicolai Obukhov. Russia – France, 1929-1934

Modern reconstruction of the Croix Sonore at the musée de L'Opéra, Paris.
Modern reconstruction of the Croix Sonore at the musée de L’Opéra, Paris.

Nicolai Obukhov was a Russian composer who, after studying  at the Moscow and St. Petersburg Conservatories with  Maximilian Steinberg and Nikolai Tcherepnin, left Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution in 1918. Obukhov settled in Paris in 1919 where he studied orchestration with Maurice Ravel and Marcel Orban while supporting his new family by working as a bricklayer. 

Marie-Antionette Aussenac-Broglie plays the Croix Sonore. Image; ‘Comoedia’ Paris 5th March 1934.

Obukhov, who signed his name “Nicolas l’illuminé” (Nicholas the visionary), was a deeply religious mystical Christian and profoundly influenced by the new theosophical cult of the Salon de la Rose + Croix which became popular with artists and musicians in the early 1920s. These beliefs were expressed in his compositions which, like his fellow countryman Alexander Scriabin, were intended as a means of attaining a transcendent state and a bridge to the world of the spirit – rather than just an aesthetic creation – Obukhov was driven by the idea that there was a higher reality to which art could reach. He attempted to achieve this spiritual goal through, for the time, unconventional means; a “total harmony” of 12 tone composition, unusual rhythm, experimental methods of notation, new invented instruments and expressive vocal directions –Obukhov was probably the first composer to   require a singer to make ‘non musical’ vocal sounds:

 ‘I forbid myself any repetition: my harmony is based on twelve notes of which none must be repeated. Repetition produces an impression of force without clarity; it disturbs the harmony, dirties it.’1 Schloezer op. cit, p 47.

“…music enjoys decided advantages which endow it with possibilities of insinuation into the depths of the soul, and the mind, of emotions inaccessible to other arts. This faculty resides in the fact that music is hindered less than any other art in the realisation of its aims by material conditions.” 2Manuscript MS 15226, music department, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.

In order to achieve this musical ‘insinuation’ Obukhov supplemented the traditional orchestra with new instruments of his own invention. These included the “Crystal” a piano type instruments where hammers hit a row of crystal spheres and the “Éther” an electronically powered instruments where a large rotating paddle wheel created various, apparently inaudible infra- and ultra-sonic humming sounds that ranged from approximately five octaves below to five octaves above human hearing. This sound was intended to have a mystical effect on the listener – though the effect was probably physiological, depending on the volume and frequency of the instruments sound. Low frequency infra-sound is known to have a physical effect on the human nervous system causing disorientation, anxiety, panic, bowel spasms, nausea, vomiting and eventually unconsciousness (supposedly 7-8 hz is the most effective being the same frequency as the average brain alpha wave). The effect is unintentionally generated by the extreme low frequencies in church pipe organ music, instilling religious feelings and causing sensations of “extreme sense sorrow, coldness, anxiety, and even shivers down the spine.” 3‘Organ Music Instills Religious Feelings’ by Jonathan Amos, 9/8/2003

The film actor Georges Colin presents Obukhov's "Chants Des Spheres " with the chorus and the Croix Sonore. Photo; L'Ouest-Éclair March 6th 1936.
The film actor Georges Colin presents the “Le Chant Des Spheres” with the Croix Sonore. Photo; L’Ouest-Éclair_03_06_1936_02

Obukhov’s only purely electronic instrument was “La Croix Sonore” or “Sonorous Cross” which was essentially one of several Theremin type instruments developed in Europe after Leon Termens departure to the USA in 1927 (others included the “Elektronische Zaubergeige” and the “Elektronde“). The Croix Sonore was designed and built in Paris by Michel Billaudot and Pierre Duvalier to Obukhov’s instructions in 1929 and was the result of several years experimenting with beat frequency/heterodyning oscillators probably after witnessing Termen’s demonstration of the Theremin while on tour around Europe. As with theTheremin the Croix Sonore was based on body capacitance controlling heterodyning vacuum tube oscillators. To suit Obukhov’s mystical and theatrical style, the circuitry and oscillators were built into a 44 cm diameter brass orb and the antennae disguised by a large 175 cm high crucifix adorned with a central star.

The Sonorous Cross was played in the same way as the Theremin – using the bodies capacitance to control the oscillators frequency, in this case moving the hands out from the central star on the crucifix altered the pitch and volume of the instrument. The ritualistic gestures made while playing this most unusual looking of instruments complemented the occult and mystical nature of Obukhov’s music and life.Obukhov continued to develop the instrument and produced an improved version, completed in 1934.

Nikolay Obukhov composed numerous pieces using his instrument as well as several using the Ondes-Martenot, culminating in his major work; “Le Livre De Vie” which exploited the glissando effects the Sonorous Cross could produce. The performances of these pieces were intended to be more like an occult church ceremony rather than an orchestral performance; Obukhov insisted that here were no spectators at his concerts – everyone would play their part in the mystical ritual which would take place in a circular ‘temple’:

“When the ‘Book of Life’ is performed, by which I mean when it is lived, the spectators, the participants will be arranged in spirals, in the interior of a circular and raised scene. The ‘terrestrial’ orchestra will be coiled up around the scene. A dome will contain the ‘celestial’ orchestra. Lighting changes will intervene in the ‘Sacred Action’, a synthesis of cult and orgy (the latter meant symbolically). Such is the ritual where science and religion are married.4Music of the Repressed Russian Avant-Garde, 1900-1929 p. 107. By Larry Sitsky, .Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut and London, 1994.

“…some like priests will take part directly in the action, the others witness it, participating mentally like the faithful in church.” 5 ‘ de Schloezer, Boris , “Nicolas Obukhoff”, La Revue Musicale, 1, part 3, Nov. 1921, pp 38-56.

These performances received mixed reviews from the puzzled critics:

A Paris concert audience was stirred. and while it squirmed and tittered. tonight when Nicholas Obouhoff’ presented parts of his “Book of Life” and hitherto unknown “Annunciation of the Last Judgement.” to the accompaniment of the new electric musical instrument, the croix sonore.

Henry Prunieres introduced the concert. warning the audience that it was going to hear chords played on the piano. notes sung by a human voice and sounds drawn from an instrument such as it had never heard before. Even this warning. however. did not prepare the listeners for the sudden “shriek” – there is no other word for it-of Suzanne Balguerie on the opening note of one of Obouhoff‘s liturgic poems. There was no warning, either. when the singer suddenly began to whistle instead of sing. Some members of the audience thought it was one of their number expostulating in the classic manner and began to cry, “Hush! hush!“

Prunieres had praised the courage of the singers, Mme. Balguerie and Louise Matha. in attempting music so new, and as they produced strange note after strange note many felt that this praise was well merited. if only because their mastery of their effects prevented the audience from tittering more loudly.6 ‘Titters Greet Music of Obouhoff in Paris: Singers’ Strange Performance Accompanied by Electrical Instrument, Causes Stir’, 1. New York Times, May 16, 1934, p. 23.

“In “Annunciation of the Last Judgement” the singers stood together, one gowned in white. the other in red. while Obouhoff and Arthur Scholossberg played two pianos. and Princess Marie Antoinette Aussenac de Broglie, apart and sacramentally gowned in black, blue and orange, drew from the croix sonore notes that throbbed like twenty violins or at times sang like a human voice. In all this, it was the instrument that had the most success. Obuhoff’, it is said, dreamed of it long before the invention of the radio made application of the principle possible. He wrote music for it, calling it “the etherphone.” Out of it, by moving the hand back and forth, the Princess de Broglie drew an amazing sweetness or the most dreadful note, like the knocking of fate, to give Obouhofifs strange religious music far more power than his two pianos or even the distortions of his singers’ voices could produce.”7SHAW – MILLER, S. (2002). Visible Deeds of Music: Art and Music from Wagner to Cage. Yale University Press, p81 

Nicolas or Nicolai Obukhov ( also Obouchov, Obuchov, Obouhow, Obuchow), Born April 22, 1892 in Ol’shanka, Kursk, Moscow – died, June 13, 1954 in St. Cloud, France

Nikolay Obukhov studied counterpoint at the Moscow Conservatory from 1911 and later at the St Petersburg Conservatory in 1913 (with Kalafati, Maksimilian Steinberg and Nikolay Tcherepnin). His first published works date from this period, and were published as ‘Quatre mélodies’ by Rouart et Lerolle in Paris in 1921.


In 1915 Obukhov developed his own idiosyncratic form of musical notation (similar to one invented in Russia by Golïshev during the same period) using a 12-tone chromatic language highly influenced by the mystical Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. The only performances of his music in Russia took place at this time. A report of the performance describes Obukhov as ‘a pale young man, with gazing eyes’ who ‘confused the audience’. Obukhov left Russia during the revolution with his wife and two children; they eventually settled near Paris a year later. In Paris he encountered financial hardship until helped by Maurice Ravel who found Obukhov a publisher allowing him to devote his time to his music.

The 1920s saw a handful of performances, most notably that of the ‘Predisloviye knigi zhizni’ (‘Introduction to the Book of Life’) under Kussevitzsky. During this and the next decade he put into practice ideas for electronic instruments Obukhov had conceived as early as 1917: the ‘efir’ and ‘kristal’ (‘ether’ and ‘crystal’) he had described in Russia eventually gave rise to the croix sonore, and even though he built and wrote for the ether, it was with the croix sonore that he gained most attention. He found an exponent of the instrument in his pupil Marie-Antoinette Aussenac-Broglie who had also performed some of his piano music; she demonstrated the instrument around France and Belgium. Similar to both the theremin and the ondes martenot in that pitch production is reliant upon the distance of the performer’s arm from the instrument, the croix sonore was the subject of a film of 1934. During the mid-1940s his notation again provoked heated discussion, this time in Paris; a book containing works from the 18th to the 20th centuries in Obukhov’s notation was published by Durand. In 1947, his ‘Traité d’harmonie tonale, atonale et totale’ ‚ which had already interested Honegger ‚ was published, while a year later he lectured on this subject in the Russian Conservatory in Paris. Obukhov spent his last years incapacitated by a mugging in 1949 where the final version of  ‘the Book of Life’ was stolen; he composed only a few works after this incident.


Commentary on Obukhov’s work by Jonathan Powell 8

Obukhov’s output is dominated by vast works of which the most notorious ‚ notwithstanding the gargantuan ‘Troisième et dernier testament’ and ‘La toute puissance’ ‚ is the ‘Kniga zhizni’ (‘The Book of Life’) on which he worked from around the time he left Russia until at least the mid-1920s. Described by the composer as ‘l’action sacrée du pasteur tout-puissant regnant’ it was intended to be performed (or ‘accomplished’) uninterruptedly every year on the night of the first and on the day of the second resurrection of Christ. Obukhov did not consider himself the composer of this work; instead, he saw himself as the person permitted, by divine forces, to ‘show’ it. Parts of the score, one version of which is nearly 2000 pages in length, are marked in the composer’s blood.9 Powell: “This is now regarded as not true (see Pol’dyaeva, 2006)” The music is preceded by a lengthy exposition in archaic Russian, while the work concludes with one section the score of which unfolds into the form of a cross and another, taking the shape of a circle, which is fixed onto a golden and silver box decorated with rubies and red silk. (Nicholas Slonimsky, in his memoir ‘Perfect Pitch’ relates that the composer’s wife, driven to despair by Obukhov’s obsessive behaviour regarding this piece, attempted to burn ‚ or ‘immolate’, in the composer’s terminology ‚ the manuscript but was interrupted in her crime.) Much of the instrumental writing is characterized by the alternation of chorale-like material (often ornamented by filigree arppegiation) with tolling patterns, building to textures of considerable rhythmic and contrapuntal complexity. The vocal parts ‚ as with his writing for the voice in most of his other works ‚ have huge tessituras and are bespattered with glissandi and instructions for screaming or whispering. The style which is consistently applied in this magnum opus is prevalent in all of his mature works and has its roots in the songs and piano miniatures written in Russia.


Taking as a starting point the language employed by Skriabin in his mid- and late-period works, Obukhov evolved a harmonic technique based on the systematic configuration and manipulation of 12-note chords or harmonic areas. The sonorities resulting from this ‘total harmony’ are often broadly octatonic and frequently have a quasi-dominant character due to the prevalence of diminished fifths in the lower elements. Although longer structures appear to unfold in a schematized yet organic manner, the detail of musical procedure is curiously static. Obukhov saw his work as a musical articulation of his strongly-held religious beliefs and would sometimes sign his manuscripts ‘Nicolas l’illuminé’ or ‘Nicolas l’extasié’. Possibly inspired by Vladimir Solov´yov’s idea of ‘sobornost´’ (collective spiritual or artistic experience), Obukhov sought to abolish the traditional performer-audience polarity in favour of a merging of these previously mutually exclusive groups into one of participants. Obukhov mostly used his own texts which are frequently inspired by the Book of the Revelation or the Apocrypha. It is thus no coincidence that the only poets whose work appealed to him spiritually and compositionally were Solov´yov and Bal´mont, since it was the former’s orthodox mysticism that significantly informed the apocalyptic vision of the latter. In addition to these sources, mention should be made of Obukhov’s use of two verses by Musorgsky; it is between his work and that of Messiaen that Obukhov’s visionary language can be placed.


  • 1
    Schloezer op. cit, p 47.
  • 2
    Manuscript MS 15226, music department, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris.
  • 3
    ‘Organ Music Instills Religious Feelings’ by Jonathan Amos, 9/8/2003
  • 4
    Music of the Repressed Russian Avant-Garde, 1900-1929 p. 107. By Larry Sitsky, .Greenwood Press, Westport Connecticut and London, 1994.
  • 5
    ‘ de Schloezer, Boris , “Nicolas Obukhoff”, La Revue Musicale, 1, part 3, Nov. 1921, pp 38-56.
  • 6
    ‘Titters Greet Music of Obouhoff in Paris: Singers’ Strange Performance Accompanied by Electrical Instrument, Causes Stir’, 1. New York Times, May 16, 1934, p. 23.
  • 7
    SHAW – MILLER, S. (2002). Visible Deeds of Music: Art and Music from Wagner to Cage. Yale University Press, p81 
  • 8
  • 9
    Powell: “This is now regarded as not true (see Pol’dyaeva, 2006)”

Further Reading:

Hugh Davies. “Croix sonore.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online

E.Ludwig: “La Croix Sonore” ReM, nos 158-9(935),96 ReM,nos 290-91 (1972-73)

Consciousness, Literature and the Arts. Archive. Volume 1 Number 3, December 2000 “Skriabin and Obukhov: Mysterium & La livre de vie The concept of artistic synthesis”. By Simon Shaw-Miller
‘Nikolay Obukhov and the Croix Sonore’ Rahma Khazam. From: Leonardo Music Journal,Volume 19, 2009, pp. 11-12


The ‘Theremin’ or ‘Thereminvox’. Leon (or Lev) Sergeivitch Termen, Russia. 1922

Leon Termen plays the 'Theremin' or 'Thereminvox' . Paris, 1927
Leon Termen plays the ‘Theremin’ or ‘Thereminvox’ . Paris, 1927

The principles of beat frequency or heterodyning oscillators were discovered by chance during the first decades of the twentieth century by radio engineers experimenting with radio vacuum tubes. Heterodyning effect is created by two high radio frequency sound waves of similar but varying frequency combining and creating a lower audible frequency, equal to the difference between the two radio frequencies (approximately 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz). the musical potential of the effect was noted by several engineers and designers including Maurice MartenotNikolay ObukhovArmand Givelet and the Russian Cellist and electronic engineer, Leon (or Lev) Sergeivitch Termen .

One problem with utilising the heterodyning effect (heterodyning is the effect where two high frequency signals are added producing a third audible tone which is the difference of the two high frequencies. This effect was the basis of many vacuum tube based electronic instruments.”) for musical purposes was that as the body came near the vacuum tubes the capacitance of the body caused variations in frequency.


Leon Termen realised that rather than being a problem, body capacitance could be used as a control mechanism for an instrument and finally freeing the performer from the keyboard and fixed intonation. Termen’s first machine, built in the USSR in 1917 was christened the “Theremin” (after himself) or the “Aetherophone” (sound from the ‘ether’) and was the first instrument to exploit the heterodyning principle.

The original Theremin used a foot pedal to control the volume and a switch mechanism to alter the pitch. This prototype evolved into a production model Theremin in 1920, this was a unique design, resembling a gramophone cabinet on 4 legs with a protruding metal antennae and a metal loop. The instrument was played by moving the hands around the metal loop for volume and around the antennae for pitch. The output was a monophonic continuous tone modulated by the performer. The timbre of the instrument was fixed and resembled a violin string sound. The sound was produced directly by the heterodyning combination of two radio-frequency oscillators: one operating at a fixed frequency of 170,000 Hz, the other with a variable frequency between 168,000 and 170,000 Hz. The frequency of the second oscillator being determined by the proximity of the musician’s hand to the pitch antenna. The difference of the fixed and variable radio frequencies results in an audible beat frequency between 0 and 2,000 Hz. The audible sound came from the oscillators, later models adding an amplifier and large triangular loudspeaker. This Theremin model was first shown to the public at the Moscow Industrial Fair in 1920 and was witnessed by Lenin who requested lessons on the instrument. Lenin later commissioned 600 models of the Theremin to be built and toured around the Soviet Union.


Termen left the Soviet Union in 1927 for the United States where he was granted a patent for the Theremin in 1928. The Theremin was marketed and distributed in the USA by RCA during the 1930’s as a DIY kit form or as a finished instrument ( later aficionados of the instrument included Robert Moog who made and sold transistorised Theremins in the 1950s). The heterodyning vacuum tube oscillator became the standard method of producing electronic sound until the advent of the transistor in the 1960’s and was widely used by electronic musical instrument designs of the period.

The Theremin became known in the USA as a home ‘novelty instrument’ and featured in many film soundtracks of the 1940-50’s, it also appeared in several pop records of the 1960’s but never overcame it’s novelty appeal; used for effect rather than as a ‘serious instrument’, most recordings employ the Theremin as a substitute string instrument rather than exploiting the microtonal and pitch characteristics of the instrument. Leon Sergeivitch Termen went on to develop variations on the original Theremin which included the “Terpsitone“, The “Rhythmicon“, the “keyboard Theremin” and the “Electronic Cello”.

Theremin Orchestra, Carnegie Hall. C1930
Theremin Orchestra, Carnegie Hall. C1930


Images of the Theremin

Promotional brochure for the RCA Theremin

NKVD Photograph of Lev Sergeyevich Termen (Russian: Ле́в Серге́евич Терме́н) (27 August [O.S. 15 August] 1896 – 3 November 1993),
NKVD Photograph of Lev Sergeyevich Termen (Russian: Ле́в Серге́евич Терме́н) (27 August [O.S. 15 August] 1896 – 3 November 1993),

Biographical Information: Leon Sergeivitch Termen. 1896 – 1993

The story of Lev Sergeivitch Termen is like some nightmarish John LeCarre novel. Prof. Termen was born in the Russian city of St Petersberg in 1896, he would become one of the most important pioneers in the development of electronic music through his instrument the Thereminvox (commonly referred to as the Theremin). Prof. Termen first invented a prototype Thereminvox in 1920, he worked upon his invention for the next few years, whilst also relocating from Russia to New York. A US patent was granted to Termen for the invention of the Thereminvox in 1928. Termen set up a studio there catering to high society patrons from whom he would extract the moneys he used to continue his experiments. His New York studio apparently was kitted out with a variety of devices, that in the late twenties must have seemed like pure science fiction: a variety of electronic audio devices; electronic lighting shows; an electronic dance platform; even a prototype colour television system.

Lev Termen and Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore
Lev Termen and Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore

In 1938 Termen was rumoured to have been kidnapped in the New York apartment he shared with his American wife (the black ballet dancer, Iavana Williams) by the NKVD (forerunners of the KGB). Infact he returned to Russia for tax and financial problems in the USA as well as his concerns over the coming war.

“I left New York because at that time the war was coming. The military troops of the fascists were approaching Leningrad, and so on. I asked to be sent to the Soviet Union so as to make myself useful, I asked many times. For a whole year I asked to be sent back. The war had already started, and they didn’t send me, they didn’t send me. Then at last they permitted me. They assigned me to be an assistant to the captain of a large motor ship. So I went home, but they did not take my wife.”


Termen's American born second wife, the dancer Lavinia Willaims
Termen’s American born second wife, the dancer Lavinia Willaims

On his return He was accused of propagating anti-Soviet propaganda by Stalin. Meanwhile reports of his execution were widely circulated in the West. In fact Termen was not executed, but interned in Magadan, a notoriously brutal Siberian labour camp.

 “I was arrested, and I was taken prisoner. Not quite a prisoner, but they put me in a special lab in the Ministry of Internal Affairs. There I worked in this lab just as others worked. [Airplane designer] Andrei Tupolev was imprisoned in such a way too, if you know about that. He was considered to be a prisoner, and I was considered a prisoner too…At one time, on the way to the laboratory, I was sent to a camp, where they did road construction. I was assigned to be supervisor over the prisoners. From there, after eight months on road construction, I was sent with Tupolev to the Aviation Institute. Many important people worked there: [Missile designer] Sergei Korolyov worked there for me.”

Leon Termen interview By Olivia Mattis and Robert Moog 1992

Termen was put to work on top secret projects by the Soviet authorities  (together with Andrei Tupolev, Sergei Korolev, and other well-known scientists and engineers)  which culminated in his invention of the first “bug,” a sophisticated electronic eavesdropping device. Termen supervised the bugging of both the American embassy, (and perhaps, Stalin’s private apartment). For this ground-breaking work he was awarded the Stalin Prize (first Class), Russia very highest honour.

After his rehabilitation Termen took up a teaching position at the Moscow conservatory of music. However he was ejected for continuing his researches in the field of electronic music. Post war Soviet ideology decreed that modern music was pernicious. Termen was reportedly told that electricity should be reserved for the execution of traitors. After this episode Termen took up a technical position, and worked upon non-music related electronics . Ironically his invention the Thereminvox, was becoming vastly influential in America, a development of which he was completely unaware.Before his death in 1993 Prof. Termen made one final visit to America lecturing, and demonstrating his Thereminvox.



“PULLING MUSIC OUT OF THIN AIR: AN INTERVIEW WITH LEON THEREMIN”By Olivia Mattis and Robert Moog. February 1992 issue of Keyboard Magazine.

‘Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture’. 2008 by Thom Holmes

‘Sound in Z: Experiments in Sound and Electronic Music in Early 20th Century Russia’. 2013. by Andrey Smirnov.
‘Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage (Music in American Life)’. Feb 2005. Albert Glinsky

The ‘Staccatone’. Hugo Gernsback & C.J.Fitch. USA, 1923

Hugo Gernsback’s ‘Staccatone’ c 1923
Hugo Gernsback, perhaps better known as the ‘Father of Science Fiction’  (and currently eponymously celebrated in the ‘Hugos’ Science Fiction Awards) also invented and built an early electronic instrument called the Staccatone in 1923 (with Clyde.J.Fitch)  which was later developed into one of the first polyphonic instruments, the Pianorad in 1926. Gernsback was a major figure in the development and popularisation of television, radio and amateur electronics, his multiple and sometimes shady businesses included early science fiction publishing, pulp fiction, self-help manuals and DIY electronics magazines as well as his own science fiction writing.
The Staccatone was conceived as a self-build project for amateur electronics enthusiasts via Gernsback’s ‘Practical Electrics’ magazine. The instrument consisted of a single vacuum tube oscillator controlled by a crude switch based 16 note ‘keyboard’. The switch based control gave the note a staccato attack and decay – hence the ‘Staccatone’. Gernsback promoted the instrument through his many publication and on his own radio station WJZ New York:
The musical notes produced by the vacuum tubes in this manner have practically no overtones. For this reason the music produced on the Pianorad is of an exquisite pureness of tone not realised in any other musical instrument. The quality is better than that of a flute and much purer. the sound however does not resemble that of any known musical instrument. The notes are quite sharp and distinct, and the Pianorad can be readily distinguished by its music from any other musical instrument in existence.”
Hugo Gernsback
Self-build instructions for the Staccatone from ‘Practical Electrics’ magazine 1924:


Hugo Gernsback: “The Staccatone” Practical Electrics. March 1924. P.248

Holmes, T. (2020). Electronic and experimental music: Technology, music, and culture (Sixth ed.). New York: Routledge.

The ‘Pianorad’, Hugo Gernsback, Clyde.J.Fitch, USA, 1926

Gernsback’s ‘Pianorad’ at the WRNY radio studio, New York, USA in 1926.Image: Radio News, vol. 8, no. 5, November 1926

The Pianorad, designed by Hugo Gernsback and built by Clyde Finch at the Radio News Laboratories in New York was a development of Gernsback’s Staccatone of 1923. the Pianorad had 25 single vacuum tube oscillators, one for every key for its two octave keyboard making the instrument the first valve based electronic instrument to achieve full polyphony*. The sound from the tubes was passed through a rudimentary mechanical filter that removed harmonic distortion producing virtually pure sine tones. The instrument played sound through a top mounted speaker or could be connected directly for radio broadcast.

Hugo Gernsbacks' Pianorad
Hugo Gernsbacks’ Pianorad’ showing the cabinet containing 25 vacuum tubes – one for each note. Image: Radio News, vol. 8, no. 5, November 1926

Theory of the Instrument

The Pianorad has a keyboard like an ordinary piano, and there is a radio vacuum tube for each one of the piano keys. Every time a key is depressed, there is energized a radio-oscillator circuit which gives rise to a pure, flutelike note through the loud-speaker connected to the device. It is possible to connect any number of loud-speakers to the Pianorad if it is desired to flood an auditorium with its tones. Also, by arranging suitable outlets for loud-speakers on different floors or different rooms, the sounds of the Pianorad can be heard all over any large building.

The musical notes produced by the vacuum tubes in this manner have practically no overtones. For this reason the music produced on the Pianorad is of an exquisite pureness of tone not realised in any other musical instrument. The quality is better than that of a flute and much purer. the sound however does not resemble that of any known musical instrument. The notes are quite sharp and distinct, and the Pianorad can be readily distinguished by its music from any other musical instrument in existence.

Electric, Not Sound Waves

The loud-speaker arrangement makes it possible for an artist to play the keyboard while the music emerges, perhaps miles away from the Pianorad. It is thus possible for the pianist to play the instrument in absolute silence while the music is produced at a distance. This requires simply that a wire line must connect the output end of the Pianorad instrument with the loud-speaker at some distance away. It is quite feasible for the Pianorad to be played in New York while the music will be heard at the Chicago end, with any number of loudspeakers connected by amplifiers to a long-distance telephone wire line.

A novel idea is the connection of the Pianorad direct to the broadcast-station transmitter. In this case, instead of using a loud-speaker in the studio, the Pianorad is connected electrically to the broadcast transmitter. The artist now plays the Pianorad in the studio in absolute silence. No sound is heard. The radio audience, however, will enjoy the music, although no one in the studio can hear it. In order that the pianist may hear what he is playing, he will wear a set of head receivers attached to an ordinary radio set. The music, therefore, is picked out from the air by the receiver and thus only the artist hears it. In the studio itself, no sound is audible for the Pianorad itself is silent.

Developments Still Continuing

The Pianorad has as yet not entered the commercial stage. The instrument illustrated in this article has 25 keys and therefore, 25 notes. A full 88-note Pianorad has as yet not been constructed, but will be built in a short time. The larger instrument could have been built at once, but it would occupy almost as much space as a piano; and as this amount of room was not then available in the studio of WRNY, for which the first Pianorad was especially constructed, the smaller instrument was built instead.

The Pianorad at WRNY is usually accompanied by piano or violin or both; very pleasing combinations are produced in this manner. At present it uses a single stage of amplification, giving volume enough, in connection with one loud-speaker, to more than fill a fair sized room. By adding several stages of audio-frequency amplification, sufficient volume can be obtained to fill a large church or auditorium.

The Pianorad was first demonstrated publicly Saturday, June 12 at 9 P.M., with a number of brilliant selections played on it by Mr. Ralph Christman; the concert being broadcast over WRNY at The Roosevelt, New York.

The principle embodied in this instrument was first demonstrated in 1915 by Dr. Lee de Forest, inventor of the Audion. At that time Dr. de Forest was able to produce musical tones by means of vacuum tubes, but the radio art at that time had not progressed sufficiently to make possible the Pianorad.

An article by Clyde J. Fitch describing the construction of the Pianorad will appear in the December issue of Radio News.

Each one of the twenty five oscillators had its own independent speaker, mounted in a large loudspeaker horn on top of the keyboard and the whole ensemble was housed in a housing resembling a harmonium. A larger 88 non keyboard version was planned but not put into production. The Pianorad was first demonstrated on june 12, 1926 at Gernsback’s own radio station WRNY in New York City performed by Ralph Christman. The Pianorad continued to be used at the radio station for some time, accompanying piano and violin concerts.

Pianorad’s 25 units designed to eliminate harmonics.Image: Radio News, vol. 8, no. 5, November 1926

*The Telharmonium at the beginning of the 20th century earlier was a polyphonic electronic instrument but, because it generated sound using tone-wheels, it can be considered an eletro-acoustic instrument.


Hugo Gernsback: “The ‘Pianorad’ a New Musical Instrument which combines Piano and Radio Principles” Radio News, vol. 8, no. 5, November 1926

The ‘Dynaphone’, René Bertrand, France, 1927


The French electrical engineer, mechanic and doll modeller, René Bertrand, who had been experimenting with electronic instruments as early as 1914, was a long time friend and collaborator with Edgard Varèse and with Varèse’s support Bertrand developed the “Dynaphone” (not to be confused with Cahill’s “Dynamophone” or “Telharmonium“).

Promotional photograph of Bertrand and the Dynamophone. from an article ‘future Music/ Zukunft Musik’ in Die Buhne 1928
A review of a Dynaphone concert ‘Angelic Music’ from the ‘Le Petit Parisien’ 14-04-1928

The Dynaphone was a portable, monophonic instrument controlled not with a keyboard but played with a pitch-lever and volume switch. The instrument was semi-circular in shape with a diameter 0f 30 cm played on top of a table. The Dynaphone belonged to a family of dial-operated non keyboard electronic instruments developed around the 1930’s such as Mager’s ‘Spharaphon. The right hand controlled the pitch using a circular dial on a calibrated disc (cardboard cut-out templates of music could be inserted). The total rotation of the dial was equal to seven octaves but only the five highest or lowest could be selected at any one time by the means of a switch, giving an overlap of three octaves common to both ranges.

René Bertrand,
René Bertrand and the Dynaphone in 1928 (image : ‘L’Afrique du Nord illustrée’ 1928-05-05))

Additional vibrato effects could be added by moving the right hand to and fro slightly and the machine also included a push button for articulating the sound. The left hand controlled the volume and timbre – described as similar to a cello, low flute, saxophone or french horn. The Dynaphone generated sound by the by-now standard method of a heterodyning vacuum tube pair, originally used in Leon Termen’s ‘Theremin‘.


A later development of the Dynaphone (known as the ” Radio-electric-organ” used a five octave keyboard on which the note played could be doubled at the fifth and octave. The first public demonstration of the instrument in 1928 was a performance of Ernest Fromaigeat’s ‘Variations Caractéristiques’ for six Dynophones and later in ‘Roses de Metal’ a ballet by the swiss composer Arthur Honegger

In 1932 Varèse applied to the Guggenheim memorial fund for a grant towards continuing the development of the Dynaphone:

Edgard Varese
Edgard Varese

“…..The Dynaphone (invented 1927-28) is a musical instrument of electrical oscillations similar to the Theremin, Givelet and Martenot electrical instruments. But its principal and operation are entirely different, the resemblance being only superficial. The technical results i look for are as follows:

  • To obtain pure fundamentals
  • By means of loading the fundamentals with certain series of harmonics to obtain timbres which will produce new sounds.
  • To speculate on the new sounds that the combination of two or more interfering Dynaphones would create if combined as one instrument.
  • To increase the range of the instrument to reach the highest frequencies which no other instrument can give, together with adequate intensity.

The practical result of our work will be a new instrument which will be adequate to the creative needs of musician and musicologist…..”

Despite Varèse’s assertions, the Dynaphone was not distinctly different from its close competitors and the Guggenheim Foundation did not sponsor Bertrands work despite several further attempts by Varèse.

In 1941, Edgard Varèse, in the hope to resume his collaboration with Léon Theremin, wrote him the letter reported below (courtesy of Olivia Mattis ), but the inventor wasn’t able to read it until 1989, when musicologist Olivia Mattis, during an interview with Theremin (first emerged from Russia after 51 years), presented a copy of it. The letter is dated May 5, 1941.

Dear Professor Theremin,

On my return from the West in October I tried to get in touch with you. I wanted very much to see you again and to learn of the progress of your work. I was sorry – on my account – that you had left New York. I hope that you have been able to go on with your experiments in sound and that new discoveries have rewarded your efforts.

I have just begun a work in which an important part is given to a large chorus and with it I want to use several of your instruments – augmenting their range as in those I used for my Equatorial – especially in the high range. Would you be so kind as to let me know if it is possible to procure these and where … and in case of modifications in what they consist. Also if you have conceived or constructed new ones would you let me have a detailed description of their character and use. I don’t want to write any more for the old Man-power instruments and am handicapped by the lack of adequate electrical instruments for which I now conceive my music.

Mr. Fediushine has kindly offered to forward this letter to you. Please let me hear rom you as soon as possible. With cordial greetings and best wishes in which my wife joins me,


Edgard Varese

P.S. If any of your assistants or collaborators are continuing your work in New York would you kindly put me in touch with them.

Review from 'Numéro Le Gaulois' February 12th 1982.
Review of a concert of six Dynaphones from ‘Numéro Le Gaulois’ February 12th 1982.



Edgard Varèse L.E.Gratia: ‘La Musique des Ondes éthérées’ , Les ménestrel, xc (1928)

‘L’Afrique du Nord illustrée’ 05-05-1928.

‘Le Petit Parisien – journal quotidien du soir’ 1928 04 24

‘René Bertrand’s Dynaphone: Roses de Metal by Arthur Honegger’. GloryLynn Foster Van Duren. 1983.

‘Numéro Le Gaulois’ February 12th 1982.

The ‘Cellule Photo Electrique’ or ‘Cellulophone’. Pierre Toulon & Krugg Bass, France, 1927.

Pierre Toulon's Patent for the Cellulophone
Pierre Toulon’s Patent for the Cellulophone

Invented by the French engineer Pierre Toulon aided by the electronic engineer Krugg Bass, the Cellulophone (“Cellule Photo-électrique”) made it’s debut as a prototype in France in 1927. The Cellulophone was an electro-optical tone generator instrument resembling an electronic organ controlled by two eight octave keyboards and a foot pedal board.

The sound was created by passing a light beam through slits in a vari-speed rotating disk. The single spinning disk was cut with a number of equidistant slits (54 slits for the lowest note) with different shaped masks to create varied timbres. The disks masked a light beam that flashed through the slits and on to a photoelectric cell, the speed of the rotating disk therefore determining the frequency of the output signal from a single vacuum tube oscillator.

The Cellulophone (copyright Tom Rhea, Keyboard Magazine 1977)
The Cellulophone (copyright Tom Rhea, Keyboard Magazine 1977)


Toulon’s Cellulophone won the Prix jean Bares in 1933:

Second prize (2,500 francs) was awarded to Mr.. Pierre Toulon, a father of three children and consulting engineer of the Electrical School , who made a large number of inventions, among which include “the relay arc” whose principle is applied in instruments referred to as “Thyratrons” and “Spark-gap convertors”, the latter enabling flattening  and straightening of even high powered electrical currents.

Mr. Toulon also invented a device called “Cellulophone” – a musical instrument keyboard developed by the Pleyel company, which is an organ extremely reduced in size.

One disk was used for all the notes of each octave therefore notes whose frequencies could not be generated by an integral number were out of tune. This system however gave the unique and unusual possibility of having a different timbres for each octave. The Cellulophone was one of a generation of instruments in the 1920-30’s using a photo-electric sound generation method; other examples being the “Licht-ton Orgel” , the “Photona” and the “Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones”. The increased sophistication and reliability of post war electronic circuitry marked the decline of light based synthesis after the 1940’s except for a few pioneers such as Daphne Oram who used a similar sytem not only to synthesise sounds but to sequence sounds.

Pierre Toulon proposed in the 1930’s a related technique of speech synthesis using fragments of optical film mounted on a rotating drum.

Rotating disc mechanism of the Cellulophone<em> (©Tom Rhea, Keyboard Magazine 1977)</em>
Rotating disc mechanism of the Cellulophone (©Tom Rhea, Keyboard Magazine 1977)

Extract from ‘La Revue hebdomadaire : romans, histoire, voyages.’ Paris, March 1928 which describes various new electronic instruments of the period including the Cellulophone:


Les concerts du professeur Theremin. Une expérience d’acoustique fort instructive. Battements électriques. Où interviennentles lampes à trois électrodes de la T. S. F. Le principe de l’éthérophone. Un précurseur. Piano etorgues radio électriques. Le cellulophone. Conclusion. On a beaucoup parlé ces derniers temps d’une rénovation de l’art musical par l’emploi d’instruments de musique utilisant la merveilleuse souplesse des ondes hertziennes. Les concerts donnés cet hiver à Paris par le professeur Léo Theremin, de Léningrad, ont attiré un nombreux public. Il n’est pas douteux que l’idée d’utiliser les ondes hertziennes à la production des sons puisse constituer une innovation heureuse. Essayons donc de décrire le merveilleux appareil du professeur Theremin et d’en faire comprendre le fonctionnement.

L’explication paraîtra très simple à tous les sans-filistes. Quant à mes autres lecteurs, s’ils veulent bien me prêter quelque attention, je suis certain qu’ils saisiront tout aussi aisément le principe de la musique radiophonique. Rappelons tout d’abord une expérience d’acoustique que chacun peut répéter, pourvu qu’il possède chez lui quelque instrument de musique.

Tout le monde sait que le son est produit par les vibrations de la matière et qu’il nous paraît d’autant plus aigu que les vibrations sont plus rapides. Lorsqu’on fixel’extrémité d’une tige d’acier, une lame de fleuret par exemple, dans un étau, et qu’après l’avoir écartée desa position on l’abandonne à elle-même, elle entre en vibration et produit un son, d’abord très grave, maisqui monte de plus en plus au fur et à mesure qu’on raccourcit la lame, ce qui augmente le nombre des oscillations par seconde. Les sons les plus graves que l’on puisse entendre correspondent environ à 30 vibrations par seconde, et les sons les plus aigus à 40 000. Entre ces limites s’étend toute la gamme des sons perceptibles.

Mettons en bran le deux diapasons identiques, donnant par exemple chacun le la normal, l’un d’eux ayant été désaccordé par un peu de cire fixée sur l’une des branches. Le diapason normal effectuant 435 vibrations par seconde, celui qui a été désaccordé en donnera par exemple 432. Dans ces conditions, lorsque les deux diapasons fonctionnent en même temps, on perçoit dans le son d’ensemble des renforcements et des affaiblissements sucessifs,des sortes de hou, hou, hou, répétés régulièrement etqu’on appelle des battements. L’expérience a permis de constater que le nombre deces hou, hou, hou. par seconde est exactement égal à la différence entre les nombres de vibrations par seconde que donnent séparément les deux diapasons, soit ici 435 diminué de 432. Il y a donc trois battements par seconde. Le phénomène est général. Chaque fois qu’on produit simultanément, au moyen d’appareils quelconques, deux séries de mouvements vibratoires dont les nombres d’oscillations par seconde sont différents, l’ensemble donne lieu à des renforcements et à des affaiblissements successifs,à des battements. Or les ondes hertziennes résultent d’une sorte de mouvement vibratoire d’un milieu hypothétique qu’on suppose répandu partout et auquel on a donné l’antique nom d’éther. Dans les ondes, dites entretenues, qu’utilise la radiophonie, les vibrations sont très régulières mais extrêmement rapides. Elles se produisent à raison de quelques centaines de mille par seconde. Envoyées directement dans un téléphone, ces ondes seraient sans actionsur lui, car à supposer qu’elles fussent capables de faire vibrer, suivant un rythme de quelques centaines de mille par seconde, la membrane du téléphone, nous serions incapables de percevoir des vibrations aussi rapides, pour les quelles notre oreille est atteinte d’une surdité absolue. Mais émettons simultanément, au moyen de deux appareils différents, deux séries d’ondes hertziennes, les unes, pour fixer les idées, à raison de ioo ooo vibrations par seconde, et les autres, à raison de 99 000. Leur production simultanée donnera naissance à des battements électriques, à des renforcements suivis d’affaiblissements des ondes hertziennes, dont le nombre par seconde sera égal à 100,000 diminué de 90,000. Et à ces battements électriques qui se produisent ainsi à raison de 1,000 par seconde, le téléphone peut être rendu sensible. Sa membrane oscillant à raison de r 000 vibrations par second eémettra un son aisément perceptible. Si donc, l’une des deux séries d’ondes demeurant invariable et se produisant toujours à la fréquence 100 000, nous avons le moyen de faire varier la fréquence de l’autre série d’ondes et de la rendre égale par exemple à 99,500, à 99,400, à 99,300. le nombre des battements, toujours égal à la différence des fréquences associées, sera successivement 500, 600, 700. par seconde. Le téléphone actionné par les battements fournira un son deplus en plus aigu, correspondant successivement à 500, 600, 700. vibrations par seconde. Et c’est là tout le secret de l’éthérophone. Des ondes hertziennes sont produites à la fréquence moyenne de 300 ooo vibrations par seconde par deux générateurs appelés hétérodynes. Si les deux séries d’ondes sont légèrement désaccordées, elles donnent lieu à des battements électriques qui, agissant dans un haut-parleur à la manière habituellement utilisée dans les réceptions radiophoniques, en actionnent la membrane et produisent un son. De la boîte où sont enfermées les deux hétérodynes émergent une tige métallique verticale jouant le rôled’antenne, et une spirale en fil de cuivre placée horizontal ement sur le côté. Le fonctionnement de l’appareil consiste à faire varier les constantes électriques de l’un edes deux séries d’ondes en approchant la main droitede l’antenne verticale et la main gauche de la spirale. Le premier mouvement fait varier la fréquence des battements et, par conséquent, détermine la hauteur de lanote le second mouvement agit sur l’amplitude des ondes et par suite sur l’intensité du son. De ces deux mouvements, le premier, qui doit suivre les notes de la partition musicale, est évidemment le plus compliqué etest de ce chef dévolu à la main droite le second est réservéà la main gauche en raison de sa simplicité.

L’idée qui est à la base de l’éthérophone n’est pas nouvelle. Dès 1917, les ingénieurs français travaillant au laboratoire de la tour Eiffel avaient songé à tirer un parti musical des battements radio électriques dont nous venons de parler. M. Armand Givelet, vice-président du Radio-Club de France, avait eu l’idée de marquer à lacraie sur le cadran du condensateur d’hétérodyne le réglage correspondant aux différentes notes de la gamme. En tournant rapidement ce condensateur variable et en arrêtant brusquement l’aiguille sur les repères du cadran, il était parvenu assez facilement à jouer des mélodies populaires simples. C’était, en somme, exactement le principe de l’éthérophone. Il a suffi de perfectionner quelques détails pour obtenir un appareil permettant deproduire des effets véritablement artistiques.

D’ailleurs, M. A. Grivelet a réalisé, il y a quelques années, le premier piano radio électrique. On a pu voircet instrument exposé récemment au premier Salon des Sciences et des Arts, au Grand Palais des Champs Élysées. Chaque note est produite par un circuit séparé, engendrant les vibrations sans qu’aient à intervenir des battements. De son côté, M. Bertrand a construit sous le nom d’orgue radio électrique un appareil d’un principe tout à fait analogue à celui du professeur Theremin, qui utiliseles battements électriques de deux hétérogynes, et dans lequel le son est diffusé par un haut-parleur de grand modèle. La variation de la hauteur du son est produite par la commande d’une manette qui se déplace devant un cadran comportant une gamme de trois octaves.

Le Cellulophone de M. Pierre Toulon n’est pas moins curieux. Son principe est tout différent. Il utilise la propriétédes cellules photo électriques, sortes de piles qui donnent naissance à un courant lorsqu’elles reçoivent un faisceau de lumière. En envoyant sur une cellule, non un éclairage continu, mais un éclairage intermittent qu’on peut réaliser en interposant entre la source lumineuse etla cellule un disque tournant perforé, la pile produit une succession de courants instantanés dont le nombre par seconde dépend du nombre des trous que porte le disqueet de sa vitesse de rotation. Envoyés dans un haut parleur,ces courants le font vibrer avec la même fréquence. La hauteur de la note musicale dépend ainsi du nombre de trous que porte le disque et de sa vitesse derotation, le timbre étant déterminé par la forme de cestrous. On conçoit qu’on puisse modifier à volonté la hauteur et le timbre, et obtenir des effets musicaux très variés.

Il serait difficile de prédire l’avenir qui est réservé aux appareils de musique radio électrique. Indiquons seulement qu’ils ont permis d’obtenir des effets artistiques très intéressants, et il ne serait pas surprenant que,grâce à eux, la musique, cette forme si élevée et si expressive de l’art qui a très peu évolué depuis des siècles,entrât dans une voie entièrement nouvelle.


From Le Genie Civil February 7, 1928

cellulophon from ‘le genie civil’ 18 February 1928



Donhauser, P.: Elektrische Klangmaschinen. Die in Deutschland und Österreich Pionierzeit, Boehlau Vienna 2007.

Rhea, Tom. Keyboard Magazine 1977.

Le Genie Civil February 7, 1928

The ‘Ondes-Martenot’ Maurice Martenot, France, 1928

Ondes Martenot
Ondes Martenot

Maurice Martenot a Cellist and radio Telegraphist, met the Russian electronic engineer Leon Termen in 1923, this meeting lead him to design an instrument based on Termens ideas, the first model, the “Ondes-Martenot” was patented on the 2nd of April 1928 under the name “Perfectionnements aux instruments de musique électriques” (improvements to electronic music instruments). His aim was to produce a versatile electronic instrument that was immediately familiar to orchestral musicians. The first versions bore little resemblance to the later production models: consisting of two table mounted units controlled by a performer who manipulated a string attached to a finger ring (using the bodies capacitance to control the sound characteristics in a manner very similar to the Theremin) this device was later incorporated as a fingerboard strip above the keyboard.

Female Ondes Orchestra
Female Ondes Orchestra

Later versions used a standard keyboard.The Ondes-Martenot became the first succesfull electronic instrument and the only one of its generation that is still used by orchestras today, Martenot himself became, 20 years after its invention, a professor at the Paris Conservatoire teaching lessons in the Ondes-Martenot. The Ondes-Martenot’s success was the Theremins loss, although both used the vacuum tube oscillator as a sound source and were both monophonic, where the Theremin had a sliding scale and no fixed preset notes the Ondes-Martenot had a keyboard and a strip control for glissando and vibrato, organ like stops for preset timbres and an appearance that was familiar to any keyboard player.

Pre-set sounds on the later Ondes Martenot were:

  • Onde (O): A simple sine wave timbre. Similar in sound to the flute or ocarina.
  • Creux (C):  A peak-limited triangle wave. Similar in sound to a clarinet in high registers.
  • Gambe (G):  A timbre somewhat resembling a square wave. Intended to be similar in sound to string instruments, as the French title would suggest.
  • Petit Gambe (g): A similar but less harmonically-rich timbre than Gambe. The player can control the number of harmonics present in the signal by using a slider situated in the control drawer.
  • Nasillard (N): A timbre resembling a pulse wave. Similar in sound to a bassoon in low registers.
  • Octaviant (8): A timbre with a reinforced first harmonic whose intensity in the signal can be controlled by using a slider. This setting is analogous to the 4 foot stop in organ terminology.
  • Souffle (S): A timbre often described as white noise, but in fact pink noise of indefinite pitch.

The sound from the instrument could be output to a number of speakers or ‘Diffuseurs’ who’s physical properties further coloured the sound, the were:

  • ‘Principal’ A traditional, large loudspeaker.
  • ‘Résonance’ A loudspeaker which uses springs to produce a mechanical reverb effect.
  • ‘Métallique’ A small gong is used as the loudspeaker diaphragm to produce a ‘halo’ effect rich in harmonics.
  • ‘Palme’ An iconic lyre-shaped loudspeaker, using strings to produce sympathetic resonances.
loudspeakers or Diffuseurs of the Ondes Martrnot: the Métallique, the palm and the Principal

The instrument also had a bank of expression keys that allowed the player to change the timbre and character of the sounds. A later (1938) version of the instrument featured microtonal tuning as specified by the Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore and the musician Alain Danielou. The Ondes-Martenot was quickly accepted and became one of the few electronic instruments to be admitted to the orchestra (at least in France) and had a wide repertoire by prominent composers such as Edgard Varèse, Olivier Messian (The “Turangalîla Symphonie” and “Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence Divine” amongst others ), Darius Milhaud , Arthur Honegger, Maurice Jarre, Jolivet and Koechlin.


The Electrophon (1921), Sphäraphon(1924), kurbelsphärophon (1926), Klaviatursphäraphon(1928), Partiturophon (1930) and Kaleidophon(1939). Jörg Mager, Germany.

Jörg (Georg Adam) Eichstätt Mager  born  November 6, 1880 Aschaffenburg, Bavaria, Died Aschaffenburg 1939
Jörg (Georg Adam) Eichstätt Mager born November 6, 1880 Aschaffenburg, Bavaria, Died Aschaffenburg 1939
 “Whoever has occupied himself even a little with electric sounds will be forced to the conclusion: there are yet things in music of which our book-learning cannot dream.” Jörg Mager

Jörg Mager’s lifelong fascination with micro-tonal music began accidentally during the hot summer of 1911 when he heard an out of tune organ playing notes beyond the fixed tempered scale. Fascinated by the instruments strange sounds he began to explore the concepts of half and quarter tone music which he eventually self-published in his ‘ Vierteltonmusik’ of 1915. At the same time he began to design an instrument that was capable of delivering micro-tonal and quarter tone scales, the first of which was an acoustic harmonium, the ‘Vierteltonharmonium’ (Four-Tone harmonium)  in 1912.

After his participation in the failed 1918 communist coup in Bavaria, Mager left for Berlin. Here he joined a small circle of microtonal musicians (Mager, Alois Hába, Richard Stein, Ivan Wischnegradsky ) under the wing of renowned composer and theorist Ferruci Bussoni. This circle of musicians were united in their aim to liberate music from the tyranny of fixed-tonality, however, rather than adapt existing instruments, Mager decided to create an entirely new instrument based on the emerging radio technology of the time.

To survive in post WW1 hyper-inflationary Berlin, Mager accepted any unskilled labour he could find. It was while working in a radio vacuum tube factory that he hit upon the idea of using vacuum tubes as the basis for his first electronic microtonal instrument, the Electrophon in 1921. The Electrophon was a simple monophonic instrument based on the same heterodyne principal as that of the Theremin; a method by which two frequencies are combined within the radio frequency spectrum (not perceptible by the human ear) to produce a third frequency that is equal to the difference between the latter two frequencies and that itself is within the audible spectrum humans. In case of Electrophon two  50 Khz frequency oscillators were used. The novel feature of the Electrophon was that rather than being controlled by a fixed tone manual, notes were instead triggered by rotating a metal handle, creating a glissando type effect on a continuous tone. Under the handle was a semicircular plate marked with chromatic scale intervals. Changes in  timbre could be applied through various filters. Further developments of the Electrophon were christened the Sphärophon after the Pythagorean legend of the music of the spheres.

“The music of the future will be attained by radio instruments! Of course, not with radio transmission, but rather direct generation of musical tones by means of cathode instruments! […] Indeed, the cathode-music will be far superior to previous music, in that it can generate a much finer, more highly developed, richly coloured music than all our known musical instruments! ”
Jörg Mager: ” Eine Neue Epoch Der Music Durch radio” (Berlin 1924)

Mager’s proposal in ” Eine Neue Epoch…” was that the medium of radio should be used to create and deliver a new type of utopian ‘free’ music by means of new electronic cathode-ray musical instruments, rather than just a means of transmitting mass content:

“…Radio firms have mobilised more energy for transmission of a radio-music but have hardly shown any interest in the most important problem: the production of music itself.”

“…the music of the future will be implemented largely by radio instruments not only in the sense that they can be easily transmitted, but especially that musical sounds can be produced directly through cathode-ray instruments . “

Mager’s fellow Microtonalist Czech composer Alois Hába added:

 “This is a new era in the development, not only in building instruments, but in music in general . “

Further developments of the Sphärophon lead to the kurbelsphärophon unveiled at the 1926 Donaueschingen summer music festival (alongside Leon Termen’s Theremin). This adaptation added a second manual dial that allowed the player to interrupt the instrument’s continuous output and avoid the continuous glissando of the Sphärophon  by queuing up another note and added two pedals to control each note’s volume and envelope.

Mager playing the kurbelsphärophon
Mager playing the Kurbelsphärophon

Though mostly ignored at the time,  Mager’s instrument quickly gained notoriety throughout Germany; the composer Georgy Rimsky-Korsakov (Grandson of the Russian composer) composed some quarter-tone experimental pieces and Paul Hindemith enthusiastically  endorsed Mager’s instrument. This support lead to the the formation in 1929 of the ‘Studiengesellschaft für Elektro Akustische Musik’  (‘Society for Electro-acoustic Music) in Darmstadt to support his research (funded by the city of Darmstadt, the Heinrich Hertz Institut für Schwingungsforschung and the Reichsrundfunk radio station) . The society was housed in a large, luxurious castle in Darmstadt and staffed with skilled technicians including the future electronic instrument designer Oskar Vierling.

The Klaviatursphäraphon
The Klaviatursphäraphon

With this resource at his disposal Mager continued to develop his instrument design, creating the Klaviatursphäraphon in 1928. In this model he replaced the handles of the Kurbelsphäraphon with two short keyed monophonic keyboards – the shorter keys allowing the player to play both keyboards simultaneously thereby producing a duophonic tone. It was also possible by adjusting the capacitance of the sound generating circuit to alter the intervals between each key and scale the acoustic length of the keyboard. An octave could be made as small as a major second, so that each successive step represented an interval of a 12th tone. Additional tone colour was added by mechanical resonators, series of filters and specially formed resonant speakers.

Jorg Mager and the The Partiturophon
Jorg Mager and the The Partiturophon

By now, Mager’s focus was moving from micro-tonality towards audio timbre. The “Partiturophon” (from the German ‘Partitur’ or musical score, reflecting his aim of capturing the varied combinations of orchestral timbre) was a four (in later models, five) keyboard and five voice version of the Klaviatursphäraphon produced in 1930. This instrument allowed the player to play four (or five) voices at once, one voice per keyboard:

“Mager produced today and organ with many registers on which four voice playing is possible. So far there is only one difficulty; that is, that each voice must have its own keyboard, thus the four voice movement must be played on three manuals and the pedal. For this reason the manuals must be close to each other and the keys short, so that one can easily play on several manuals with one hand. For this reason the keys are somewhat narrower than those on a regular organ or piano keyboard. Apart from these difficulties, which require a special adjustment to the playing of the new instrument, it is surprising in its infinite multiplicity of sound possibilities, through dynamic wealth of shading and through the possibilities of expression in the tones”

The critic and historian Frederick Prieberg on the Partiturophon

1932 marked the high point of Mager’s success. He had become a household name in Germany and  received commissions, from Winifred Wagner herself, to provide the sound effects for the annual Beyreuth Wagner festival, and he was also commissioned to mark the centenary of Gothe’s death with a micro-tonal piece  for thirty theatrical interpretations of drama Faust , which took place in Frankfurt and Darmstadt. Other plaudits came from  composers and conductors Arturo Toscanini and Wilhelm Furtwängler , the latter the director of the orchestral interpretation of Parsifal in 1931.

The Kaleidophon
The Kaleidophon

Yet this success was short lived. A new electronic instrument had emerged in 1930; Dr Friedrich Trautwien’s ‘Trautonioum’. In contrast to Mager’s amateur enthusiasm, Trautwien was a trained engineer and managed to produce an instrument that was both novel, reliable and wasn’t shackled by the complexity of Mager’s devotion to micro-tonality. The final blow to Mager came in 1933 when Hitler’s National Socialists took power. Experimental music was labelled  ‘Entartete’ or ‘degenerate’ and un-German; the great flowering of German musical innovation had come to an abrupt end. Mager tried to ingratiate himself into the new party “to get on the gravy train” but became increasingly paranoid and irritable, driving away many of his collaborators and supporters. In the struggle to develop the Partiturophon as a commercial domestic instrument, the contract for the  ‘Studiengesellschaft für Elektro Akustische Musik’ lapsed and funding dried up. Mager spent the rest of his life leading an impoverished semi-nomadic existence. His state of health was increasingly precarious due to diabetes and growing disorientation and mental confusion. His daughter Sofie, brought him back to Aschaffenburg, where he died on April 5, 1939, at the age of 59.

spite the oppressive new political climate, Mager was commissioned to create sound effects with the Partiturophon in the 1936 film "Stärker Paragraphen als"  by Jürgen von Alten , with music by Rudolf Perak.
spite the oppressive new political climate, Mager was commissioned to create sound effects with the Partiturophon in the 1936 film “Stärker Paragraphen als” by Jürgen von Alten , with music by Rudolf Perak.

None of Mager’s instruments are known to have survived the Second World War, The castle at Darmstadt was heavily bombed by the Allies, obliterating the last traces of the Partiturophon and it’s predecessors. The last of Mager’s family of instruments was the Kaleidophon completed in 1939 and only survives in notes as “…a monophonic electronic instrument with kaleidoscopic sound mixtures following the tonal precepts of Arnold Schoenberg and Ferruccio Busoni.”

Mager's colleague Alois Hába playing the Partituropohn
Mager’s colleague Alois Hába playing the Partituropohn

Mager’s instruments ultimately failed because of, on one hand, Mager’s single minded devotion to microtonality which had virtually no repertoire and was little accepted even by the avant garde of the time ( even Mager’s close circle of friends Hába, Wischnegradsky and Stein never realised their promises to compose  for the instruments) and on the other, the fact that the instruments were in continual development, unstable and never completely finished making it difficult to become anything more than an interesting curiosity.


Jörg Mager: ” Eine Neue Epoch Der Music Durch radio” (Berlin 1924)

Peter Donhauser, “Electric sound machines. Pioneer days in Germany and Austria,” Böhlau Verlag, ISBN 9783205775935

Fred Prieberg, “Music in the Nazi state,” Dittrich Verlag, ISBN 392086266XElena monster, “As the electronic music was ‘invented’ ,” Schott Verlag, ISBN 3795718910

MAGER Jörg: Eine neue Epoche der Musik durch Radio, Berlin-Neukölln 1924. : Vierteltonmusik, Aschaffenburg [1915].

The ‘Hellertion’ and The ‘Heliophon’. Bruno Helberger & Peter Lertes, Germany, 1929-1936

The Hellertion
Bruno Helberger playing the two-voice version of the Hellertion

The Hellertion (1929)

The Hellertion, christened after the combination of the inventor’s names, was a monophonic vacuum tube instrument developed collaboratively by Peter Lertes, an electrical engineer in Leipzig and Bruno Helberger from Frankfurt, a well-known pianist of his time. Helberger was inspired to build the instrument after witnessing Termen’s Theremin – possibly at the Neue Frankfurt exhibition in 1927. 1 Donhauser, Peter, Elektrische Klangmaschinen. Die Pionierzeit in Deutschland und Österreich, Böhlau, Wien, 2007, 46. Several variants of the instrument were constructed and promoted through a licensing arrangement with the Schneider-Opel AG radio company in Frankfurt, who positioned the new instrument as ‘a portable, multi-voice instrument that can be connected to any radio with record amplification’. Although the deal eventually fell through with the collapse of Schneider-Opel in 1932, the Hellertion can be seen as the world’s first commercially produced electronic musical instrument.

Bruno Helberger and the Hellertion as a Grand Piano attachment.

Bruno Hellberger at the Hellertion
Bruno Helberger with an early version of a single voice the Hellertion designed as a grand piano attachment.
The Hellertion was the first electronic instruments to use a fingerboard/continuous controller instead of a keyboard manual a feature that was to influence the design of later electronic instruments particularly Trautwein’s Trautonium (essentially a licensed derivation of the Hellertion) and the soviet instrument called the Sonar. The fingerboard was a flat metal resistance strip covered in leather which when pressed completed a circuit. Depending on where the strip is pressed, a different resistance in the circuit is created altering the voltage sent to the oscillator and thereby producing different pitches. The force of the pressure controlled the volume of the output signal. The fingerboard was marked to help the performer find the correct pitch on the strip and had a range of approximately five octaves.
The wire manual of the Hellertion with an added key reference guide. (image; Radio Wien. 1932)
Helberger and Lertes at the 4 voice version of the Hellertion 1932. (image; Radio Wien. 1932)
The original instrument had just one fingerboard strip which was gradually increased to four and then on the later models, six aligned in parallel horizontally at the height of a piano keyboard. The four and six strip models allowed four and six voice polyphony when the strip could be played simultaneously with fingers and thumbs. The Hellertion was occasionally used in concerts as a piano addition, the melody being played with one hand on the Hellertion and the accompaniment being played with the other hand on the piano. A version of the Hellertion was produced in 1931 microtonally tuned to 10 divisions of an octave.
Diagram showing the sliding control of the Hellertion.
Diagram showing the sliding control of an early model of the Hellertion.




Peter Lertes’ book on Electronic Music “Elektrische Musik. Eine gemeinverständliche Darstellung ihrer Grundlagen, des heutigen Standes der Technik und ihrer Zukunftsmöglichkeiten, etc” 1933.
2“Elektrische Musik: Ein gemeinverständliche Darstellung ihrer Grundlagen, des heutigen Standes der Technik und ihre Zukunftsmöglickkeiten”, Theodor-Steinkopff-Verlag, Dresden & Leipzig, 1933

The Hellertion premiered at a broadcast at Südwestdeutsche Rundfunk (SDR) on 20 November 1930 with where it was described as a new electro-acoustic instrument could be used ‘not just for Hausmusik (domestic music ensembles) but also for soundtracks for films’ and ‘a serious competitor to the cinema organ’.3 “Das Hellertion, ein neues electrisches Musikinstrument,” Funkbastler, July 3, (1931). However the tone quality of the instrument was criticised especially the tone-slip of the player on the wire-controller ‘could be tormenting for the ear’.4 Donhauser, Peter, Elektrische Klangmaschinen. Die Pionierzeit in Deutschland und Österreich, Böhlau, Wien, 2007, 49.

Patent documents of the Hellertion


The Heliophon (1936)

Bruno Helberger's 'Heliophon'
Bruno Helberger’s ‘Heliophon’

At the outbreak of war where around 1940 began constructing an enhanced version of the Hellertion he called the Heliophon. Helberger continued the development of the Helertion creating an enhanced keyboard version of the Hellertion he called the Heliophon. The first version of the Heliophon was completed in Berlin, 1936, but destroyed during WW2. Helberger moved to Hörzendorf in Austria where he constructed a second model Heliophon in 1947 and continued the development of the instrument until his death in Vienna in 1951 (subsequent development was taken over by Wolfgang Wehrmann).

The sound of Heliophon was produced, as with the Hellertion, by heterodyning vacuum tube oscillators but with the Heliophon the sound was controlled by two 58 note pressure sensitive keyboard manuals instead of a series of fingerboard strips. Each keyboard had the ability to be split into three different pitches and timbres simultaneously, the output volume being controlled by foot pedals with a knee lever to add vibrato. Each keyboard had a Hellertion style fingerboard to add glissando and timbre variations which gave the instrument a remarkable versatility, apparently capable of producing realistic imitations of orchestral instruments as well as imitate human vocal sounds. The Heliophon was used by Helberger throughout the 1940s and ’50s for theatrical, film and musical productions.

The Heliophon on the soundtrack to Leopold Rudolf’s Der Rabe 1951

Helberger’s patent documents for the Heliophon


  • 1
    Donhauser, Peter, Elektrische Klangmaschinen. Die Pionierzeit in Deutschland und Österreich, Böhlau, Wien, 2007, 46.
  • 2
    “Elektrische Musik: Ein gemeinverständliche Darstellung ihrer Grundlagen, des heutigen Standes der Technik und ihre Zukunftsmöglickkeiten”, Theodor-Steinkopff-Verlag, Dresden & Leipzig, 1933
  • 3
    “Das Hellertion, ein neues electrisches Musikinstrument,” Funkbastler, July 3, (1931).
  • 4
    Donhauser, Peter, Elektrische Klangmaschinen. Die Pionierzeit in Deutschland und Österreich, Böhlau, Wien, 2007, 49.