The Jowiphon. Hans Joachim Winckelmann. Germany 1935

One of several optical synthesis devices that emerged in Germany during the 1920’s and 30’s, the ‘Jowiphon’ was a simple monophonic radio-tube based instruments that was operated by playing a hand held light beam across a selenium photocall that in turn triggered an audible voltage pulse generated by a vacuum tube. The Jowiphon was very similar to a design of Wolja Saraga developed at the Heinrich-Hertz-Institut für Schwingungsforschung, Berlin around 1930.

“How amazed, however, was when I was recently with a radioing-meur who was my friend, and he showed me something similar, which at first seemed almost more startling than that Theremin device. He led me into a darkened room with a flashlight in the air – and lo and behold, from a loudspeaker set up somewhere, a music sounded very similar to that of the Theremin apparatus. Here, too, it was only a miracle until Mirmein’s friend explained the technical process.

By exposing a photocell to the flashlamp, an electric current is generated; this is converted into sound vibrations by a certain method, but another, as in the case of the Theremin appliance. The more the flashlight approaches the photocell, the greater the exposure, the electric current becomes stronger and the tones become higher. It all sounds very simple, but it requires a shaken-up amount of knowledge to weld these theoretically remote things into something practical and practical. The inventor has christened his “Jowiphon” sound, which is said to be similar to the Theremin device, but tends toward the string instruments like the violin or cello. But you can also easily create the deepest bass tones like the highest notes of a piccolo. As with the Theremin instrument the tone color and the volume can be changed arbitrarily.

Playing on these devices is no harder to learn than that of other instruments. Their only drawback may be that producing faster results makes some more trouble. As the inventor explained, the Jowiphon, which, like most musical instruments, is unanimous, can also be made into a polyphonic instrument like the organ. The fact that these instruments have not become so popular is largely due to the fact that in Germany two other electric musical instruments have been constructed to a very high degree of perfection, the Vierling Electrochord and the Trautonium.

The Vierling Electrochord is played like a grand piano and allows you to tune to six different tones. The Trautonium is a unanimous instrument that is played by pressing a metal string down on a metal rail. In this instrument, the change of timbre is up to the highest perfection. You can just as well create the sounds of a bass as a clarinet or piccolo. With four instruments you could play a complete string quartet. But it can also produce quite new sounds of surprising effect. The fantastic magic that I felt when I heard the first ether wave music was gone. But I do not feel poorer about it. Despite all knowledge of the technical processes, there is always a remnant of the mystery that one feels again and again when one hears these instruments, which has given us the restraining technique of our century. W. W.’ “[efn_note]Uhu illustrated Magazine edition 11.1934/35, May pp 94-95[/efn_note]


Uhu illustrated Magazine edition 11.1934/35, May pp 94-95

Joachim Winckelmann. Das “Jowiphon” : [sein Bau u. s. Spielweise] (=Radio-Bau-Sammlung ; Bd. 5). Deutsch-Technischer Buchverlag. Berlin-Lichterfelde 1935

The Magneton. Wilhelm Lenk & Rudolf Stelzhammer. Austria, 1930

Rudolf Stelzhammer and Wilhelm Lenk demonstrating the Magenton at the Erfindermesse, London 1935
Rudolf Stelzhammer and Wilhelm Lenk demonstrating the Magenton at the Erfindermesse, London 1935

The Magneton, designed by Wilhelm Lenk at the University of Vienna, was a tone-wheel organ-like electronic instrument based on the same principles as Cahill’s Telharmonium (c1900)  and the later Hammond Organ of Laurens Hammond and  John Hanert; the electromagnetic principle of producing a voltage tone and associated timbres by spinning varied shaped metallic wheels within a magnetic field.

Tone-wheels of the Mageton
Tone-wheels of the Magneton arranged over 12 axles. Technology Museum Vienna.

The instrument’s contribution to tonewheel technology was to achieve a constant fixed rotation by using a frequency controlled motor regulator. This allowed the player to easily and accurately transpose the instruments switch at the flick of a switch.

Rudolf Stelzhammer and the Magenton in 1935
Rudolf Stelzhammer and the Magenton in 1935

The first promotional model of the instrument was produced by the Vienna piano company Stelzhammer in 1930 – four years before the first Hammond organ hit the market. The instrument was designed as a practice instrument for ‘real’ pipe organs and as a way of encouraging active participation from the congregation in sacred music (as espoused by the “Popular Liturgy Movement” in pre-war Austria).

The Stelzhammer Magneton tone wheel organ, 1930.
The Stelzhammer Magneton tone wheel organ, 1930.

“The slavish imitation of the sound of an organ and its characteristic rigidity was deliberately avoided, thereby giving the tone character of the instrument a number of special characteristics. What I like particularly in the magneton, 8 although I grew up with the pipe organ and have been inseparably associated with it for 50 years, is the fact that this new instrument is not an enemy of the historic organ.”

Vinzenz Gollerin the ‘Zeitschrift fur Instrumentenbau’ Vol. 54, 1933/34, p. 103

Despite a promising start, the Magneton failed commercially – only a few production models were built. A single surviving model can be found at the Vienna Museum of Technology, Austria.

Wilhelm Lenk
Wilhelm Lenk


The Stelzhamer Piano shop at Barnabitengasse 1060 Wien.
The Stelzhamer Piano shop at Barnabitengasse 1060 Wien.

Rudolf Stelzhammer. Biographical notes.

Rudolf Stelzhammer was born into a Viennese family of piano makers on the  03.11.1893. After learning the craft of piano construction and working in the family business he travelled throughout Europe and America working for large instrument manufacturers. Returning to Austria in 1924 he founded his own company in Vienna and from 1935 became the ‘guild master’ of the Austrian musical instrument producers. In 1966 Stelzhammer sold the business to the Ehrbar piano Company in Vienna. Stelzhammer was known for his scientific and electro-acoustic research which lead to several improvements in piano design. Stelzhammer was involved in the development of photoelectric experiments and was involved in the creation of the ‘Selenephon’ (1922) a device for printing optically recorded audio onto movie film. Rudolf Stelzhammer died in Vienna, Austria on 01.16.1967



Peter Donhauser, Elektrische Klangmaschinen. Die Pionierzeit in Deutschland und Österreich, 348 S., zahlr. s/w-Abb., Br., (Böhlau), Wien 2007. ISBN: 978-3-205-77593-5

The Organ: An Encyclopedia (Encyclopedia of Keyboard Instruments) by Douglas Bush, Richard Kassel (ISBN: 9780415941747)

S. Walter Fischer:. Technical In: L’Estrange Fawcett:. The world of film Amalthea-Verlag, Zurich, Leipzig, Vienna 1928, p 210-211

Franz Lechleitner: Selenophon. In: Oesterreichisches music lexicon. Online edition, Vienna 2002 ff. ISBN 3-7001-3077-5; Print Edition: Volume 4, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Vienna 2005, ISBN 3-7001-3046-5.

The ‘Electronic Keyboard Oboe’, ‘the Elastic Tuning Organ’ and ‘Electronic Keyboard Drum’. Ivor Darreg. USA 1936.

Darreg’s Electronic Keyboard Oboe of 1936

The Electronic Keyboard Oboe was a one-off experimental vacuum-tube based instrument made by the US microtonal composer and prolific instrument designer, Ivor Darreg in 1935. Darreg was a contemporary of Harry Partch and other US composers of the 1930s and 40s who pursued a vision of microtonal music free from the restrictions of equal temperament and the classical instrumentarium. Darreg designed and built numerous electronic and electro-acoustic instruments based around microtonal controllers such as the Amplified Cello, Amplified Clavichord, Electric Organ, Electric Keyboard Oboe and the Electric Keyboard Drum. Darreg coined the term ‘Xenharmonic’ – roughly translatable as “unfamiliar modes” – to describe microtonal tuning beyond the twelve tone system : “intended to include just intonation and such temperaments as the 5-, 7-, and 11-tone, along with the higher-numbered really-microtonal systems as far as one wishes to go.” 1Xenharmonic music retrieved 09-12-21


Aged 19 (in 1936), Darreg designed his first electronic instrument, the Electronic Keyboard Oboe which he intended to be a ‘generalised reed instrument’ imitating the oboe, bagpipe, saxophone, basson etc. The instrument was monophonic, generating a rough sine tone from a single vacuum tube based on a design of a of a telegraph oscillator circuit Darreg found in a radio hobbyist magazine. The oboe and horn sounds were created by passing the basic sine tones through a series of five formant filters and the notes could be further modulated using a series of pitch buttons to drop or raise the pitch by specified intervals. Although the Keyboard Oboe lacked any sound shaping capabilities – resulting a rather basic harsh tone and timbre – the pitch buttons gave it the tonal flexibility to be used in microtonal compositions. In the early 1960s, Darreg extended his original design to create the ‘Elastic Tuning Organ’ which consisted of sixty vacuum tube oscillators that were individually tunable via potentiometers allowing for every note of the instrument to be set at any pitch.2McLaren, Brian. (1990) Ivor darreg – a tour of his studio, video interview.

Excerpt from Brian Mc Laren’s 1990 interview of Ivor Darreg showing Darreg demonstrating the Electronic Keyboard Oboe and Keyboard Drum.

Jonathan Glasier described his life and work circa 1988:3Glasier, J. (1997) Ivor Darreg and Xenharmonics, Biography by Jonathan Glasier, Perfect Sound Forever, retrieved 03-12-21 ‘

“Ivor Darreg was born Kenneth Vincent Gerard O’Hara in Portland Oregon. His father John was editor of a weekly Catholic newspaper and his mother was an artist. Ivor dropped out of school as a teenager because he had a series of illnesses that left him without teeth and with very little energy. He did have energy to learn. He was self-taught in at least ten languages that he read and spoke. He had a basic understanding of all the sciences. His real love was music and electronics. Because of his choice of music, his father cast him out and he and his mother set out on their own with little help from anyone. At that point he took on the name “Ivor,” which means “man with bow” (from his cello-playing talents) and “Drareg” (the retrograde inversion of “Gerard”), soon changed to Darreg.

Ivor’s life with his mother was a huge struggle, and Ivor’s health was poor until his mother died in 1972. Part of the reason was that they lived on canned soup, and the salt kept his blood pressure sky-high. Being poor in health and wealth, Ivor became resourceful. He picked up stray wires that were cut off telephone poles and other things on the street and from friends. He said he learned to “pinch a penny so hard, it would say ouch.” Ivor created his first instrument, the Electronic Keyboard Oboe, in 1937. Following the current history of electronics and reading from the journals of the day, he learned circuitry. He made the instrument, which still runs today, because the orchestra he was playing in needed an oboe and Ivor took the challenge. The Electronic Keyboard Oboe is not only one of the first synthesizers, but a microtonal one at that. It plays the regular twelve tones, but there are eight buttons that move the tone in gradation from a few cents for a tremolo effect to a full quarter-tone.

In the forties, Ivor built the Amplified Cello, Amplified Clavichord and the Electric Keyboard Drum. The Amplified Clavichord no longer exists, but the Electric Keyboard Drum, which uses the buzzer-like relays, and the Amplified Cello are still working.

In the sixties Ivor created an organ with elastic tuning. The circuitry would justify thirds and fifths. In the early sixties, Ivor met Ervin Wilson and Harry Partch. Upon conversing with Wilson and seeing his refretted guitars and metal tubulongs (3/4″ electric conduit), Ivor took the plunge into non-quartertone microtonality or Xenharmony. He began refretting guitars and making tubulongs and metallophones in 10, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 21, 22, 24, 31 and 34 tone equal temperaments. He shared his new beginning with others through his Xenharmonic Bulletin and other writings. The Xenharmonic Alliance [a network of people interested in alternative tuning systems] was created. When we met Ivor in 1977, through John Chalmers, I saw a need to give Ivor and others a more public forum, so I started the journal Interval/Journal of Music Research and Development. Then in 1981, Johnny Reinhard created the American Microtonal Festival in New York, and in 1984 the 1/1 just intonation group started in San Francisco. Recently the South East Just Intonation Center has been created by Denny Genovese.

In the seventies, Ivor created his Megalyra family of instruments, the Megalyra itself being the tour de force of Ivor instrumental creations (featured in EMI Vol. II #2). This six to eight foot long contrabass slide guitar is strung on both sides to solo (I-I-V-I) and bass (I-V-I) configurations. This instrument sounds like tuned thunder and is waiting for some heavy metal or slide guitar pro to make it a celebrity. Other instruments in the Megalyra family are the Drone, Kosmolyra, and the Hobnailed Newel Post, which is a 6″ by 6″ beam strung with over seventy strings. Ivor called this instrument his harmonic laboratory.

Those of you who knew Ivor or read his writings knew that he had a special outlook on music, and a comprehensive mind that explored many subjects. His compositions, of which all are either on tape or written down, date from 1935. Many of his piano compositions are available on cassette, played by Ivor. Detwelvulate! contains a selection of his tapes Beyond the Xenharmonic Frontier, Vols. 1, 2 and 3 as well as earlier acoustic recordings Ivor made on his reel-to-reel machine.

Elizabeth and I brought Ivor to San Diego in 1985, and he seemed to get younger every year. He was in the best health of his life for those years. We were very happy to be there to share time with this great man and friend, and see him spend the most productive and stable years of his life here in San Diego.

We miss you Ivor.”


  • 1
    Xenharmonic music retrieved 09-12-21
  • 2
    McLaren, Brian. (1990) Ivor darreg – a tour of his studio, video interview.
  • 3
    Glasier, J. (1997) Ivor Darreg and Xenharmonics, Biography by Jonathan Glasier, Perfect Sound Forever, retrieved 03-12-21 ‘

Further reading:

Xenharmonic Wiki:

Xenharmonic Alliance: Microtonal Music Forum:

The ‘Singing Keyboard’ Fredrick Minturn Sammis & James Nuthall. USA, 1934

James Nuthall(l), Frederick Sammis (r) and performer at the Singing Keyboard in 1934

Frederick Sammis invented the “singing Keyboard” in 1936, a precursor of modern samplers, the instrument played electro-optical recordings of audio waves stored on strips of 35mm film.

Let us suppose that we are to use this machine as a special-purpose instrument for making “talkie” cartoons. At once it will be evident that we have a machine with which the composer may try out various combinations of words and music and learn at once just how they will sound in the finished work. The instrument will probably have ten or more sound tracks recorded side by side on a strip of film and featuring such words as “quack” for a duck, “meow” for a cat, “moo” for a cow. . . . It could as well be the bark of a dog or the hum of a human voice at the proper pitch.

(Frederick Sammis, quoted in Rhea [1977]

Sammis had moved to Hollywood in 1929 to lead RCA into the era of film sound. Sammis was already familiar with the Moviola, a sound- and filmediting table that incorporated photoelectric cells. Using methods that were being developed for the new ‘talkies’, he recorded sung and spoken words onto individual strips of film. He then attached the resulting strips to the keyboard in such a way that a specific strip would be drawn across the optical cell when he depressed a corresponding key.  More recent instruments such as the Mellotron and Chamberlin use a similar technology of triggered and pitched magnetic tape recordings.


‘The Computer Music Tutorial’ Curtis Roads

Invention and Technology Magazine. Mathew Nicholl. Volume 8, Issue 4. 1993

‘Photo-Electric Marimba’ or ‘Marimbalite’. Dr. Phillips Thomas. USA, 1934

The Marimbalite on the cover of the October 1934 edition of Radio Craft (USA)
Pogot_eectric Marimba
Photo-electric Marimba

Dr Phillip Thomas a research physicist at the Westinghouse Research laboratory created the ‘Marimbalite’ sometime around 1935 as a way of publicising Westinghouse’s research into photo-electric technology. Other promotional applications included ‘Rastus’ the rubber negro robot who could be commanded to stand up and talk when illuminated by a torch beam.

Dr Thomas plays the Marimbalite
Dr Thomas plays the Marimbalite

The Marimbalite was an electro-mechanical device which created sounds mechanically from light triggered vibrating tubes, Dr Thomas was able to ‘play’ the Marimbalite with a torch in each had:

“Dozens of photo-cells and radio tubes are lined up side by side atop the new musical device. For each musical note there is an oscillating circuit which produces electrical vibrations when light is directed on that circuits photo-cell. Reproducers convert the electrical vibrations into sound which is directed into the marimba pipes.”

‘Modern Mechanix Magazine’ Archive. September 1935

Dr Phillip Thomas worked at Westinghouse Research laboratory for thirty five years and developed numerous inventions including primitive robots, ‘vortex chimneys’, lightbulbs, voice activated switches, ultra-audible microphones. After retirement he proposed to study the possibility of recording telepathic human thoughts –there is no record of his findings with this endeavour.

Dr Phillips Thomas shoots 'Rastus' the Negro robot
Dr Phillips Thomas shoots ‘Rastus’ the African-American robot with a light beam bow and arrow.
Dr Phillips Thomas
Westinghouse electrical engineer Phillips Thomas measures the heart palpitations of a couple kissing with his “ultra-audible” microphone, Pittsburgh, PA, March 15, 1924.

In the early 1920s Thomas invented an “ultra-audible” microphone that enabled “scientists to hear sounds inaudible to the naked ear.” He would later work on radio signal-controlled electric circuitry, and a vortex gun designed to eliminate smoke from factories by shooting it in vortex rings high into the atmosphere. After World War II, Thomas believed that the answer to mental telepathy might be found in the unexplored frequency band between ultra-short radar waves and the longest waves of light.”



‘Modern Mechanix Magazine’ Archive. September 1935

‘Popular Science’ Magazine. May 1949

Telelux and rastus: Westinghouse’s forgotten robots


The ‘Ether Wave Violin’ or ‘Aetherwellengeige’ Erich Zitzmann-Zirini, Germany 1934

The ‘Ether Wave Violin’ or Aetherwellengeige shown here in a 1952 Film

The ‘Aetherwellengeige’ was one of many instruments inspired by Leon Termen’s Theremin using the same heterodyning principle and body capacitance to generate a variable tone from two thryatron vacuum tubes (other instruments were the Sonar (1933) , Neo Violena (1927), Electronde (1927), Emicon (1932) and Croix Sonore (1929) amongst others) . This version was built by the amateur electronic engineer and musician Erich Zitzmann-Zirini in Berlin in 1934 after he had witnessed the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra using Termen’s Theremin in 1927. Zitzmann-Zirini appeared with his instrument in the 1934 Funkausstellung ‘Orchestra of the Future’

"Sounds from the air from the self-made Ether Wave Violin"
Poster “Sounds from the air from the self-made Ether Wave Violin”

Zitzmann-Zirini used his one-off instrument as the centrepiece of his career in vaudeville, circus, radio, and TV shows, he renamed his instrument the ‘musical Sputnik’ after Gagarin’s space flight in the 1960s.


André Ruschkowski ‘Soundscapes’, pp. 23 (1st edition, Berlin 1990)

The ‘Westinghouse Organ’ or ‘Electric Radio Organ’ Richard .C.Hitchock. USA, 1930

Hirchcock and the Westinghouse organ 1931
R.C.Hitchcock and the Westinghouse Organ 1931

The Westinghouse Organ was a semi-polyphonic multi vacuum tubed electronic organ designed by the research engineer Richard. C. Hitchcock for Westinghouse Electric Manufacturing Company, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania USA. The organ was played on a three octave manual keyboard using a foot pedal for volume control. Hitchcock’s instrument allowed control of each note’s timbre by employing multiple vacuum tubes for each note to create adjustable natural harmonics of the fundamental note. The organ also had an electrical motor driven tremolo unit to shape the sound:

“…no previously known musical instruments. of the type to which my invention pertains, were provided with adequate means for tone and volume-control and, consequently, they were incapable of reproducing musical compositions with the same tone-color and nuances of expression that could be obtained with pipe-organs and pianos. In addition, the limitations of previously known electrical musical instruments were such as to preclude their proper tuning and they could not be satisfactorily utilized in orchestras wherein the other instruments were tuned to the tempered scale. It is, accordingly, an object of my invention to provide an electrical musical ‘instrument wherein each note of the scale shall be accompanied by the harmonic frequencies necessary to give it the requisite color.”

R.C.Hitchcock Patent Application 1930

The ‘Electric radio Organ’ was built to test the practicality of broadcasting electronic organ music over the radio rather than recording real pipe organs on-location with with the primitive microphones of the day (similar to the ‘Givelet Coupleaux’ Organ in France). The organ’s debut was at Pittsburgh’s KDKA radio station in 1930.

A New Instrument, Called a Radio Organ, is Demonstrated in Concert by Dr. Heinroth. United Press Staff Correspondent. PITTSBURGH, Jan. 23.

The squeals and squawks that are the bane of radio fans have been brought under control and combined in music rivalling that of the pipe organ. The new instrument, in fact, Is called a radio organ, and SO oscillating vacuum tubes replace the pipes. The first concert on the radio organ was played by Dr. Charles Heinroth, noted musician of Carnegie Institute, and though the event was not without a few impromptu notes, the half hour program amply demonstrated that the noise of radio tubes can be made beautiful. The radio organ is the product of the genius of R. C. Hitchcock of the Research Department, Westinghouse  The keyboard is like that of a regular three-octave organ and foot pedals to control the volume are provided.” The touch of a key plays the proper note ‘by causing one of the’ tubes to oscillate. The electric impulses thus set up may then he carried directly to a loud speaker which transforms them into sound. But they need not be transformed into sound at once, and this fact is held to open a vast realm of possibilities for the radio organ.. For instance, the music that is to say, the electrical impulses set up by the oscillating tubes may be broadcast without use of a microphone and not become audible until it is picked tip on the receiving sets. Likewise the possibility of a central organ with the music wired to several churches or theatres may -be easily be envisioned. Another advantage of the radio organ is that all the mechanism of the instrument may be placed in a basement room, with only the keyboard visible.

The News-Herald. Franklin, Pennsylvania January 23, 1930 · Page 5

Dr. Richard Hitchcock of Westinghouse sits on top of "junior" the portable Van de Graaff generator
Dr. Richard Hitchcock of Westinghouse sits on top of “junior” the portable Van de Graaff generator
Dr. Richard Hitchcock of Westinghouse sits on top of "junior" the portable Van de Graaff generator
Dr. Richard Hitchcock of Westinghouse sits on top of “junior” the portable Van de Graaff generator


The History of the Organ in the United States. Orpha C. Ochse

Radio News 1931, on ‘The Electrical Future Of Music.’

Popular science monthly. May 1930.p35

Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture . Thom Holmes

The ‘Hardy-Goldthwaite Organ’ Arthur Cobb Hardy, Sherwood F. Brown & duVal Radford Goldthwaite, USA, 1931

Hardy Goldthwaite Organ
Hardy Goldthwaite Organ

The Hardy-Goldthwaite organ was a type of early  analogue sampler, similar to the Welte Licht-Ton Orgel, The Superpiano and several other photo-electrical instruments of the period and was developed by the physicists Arthur Hardy and Sherwood Brown at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the request of DuVal R. Goldthwaite, chairman of the Interchemical Corporation (who apparently had originated the concept after working with Hardy on colour and ink chemistry). At the heart of the instrument was a single optical disc of photographed sound waves. The discs, created from translations of original instrumental sounds, rotate between a light a slit and a photo-electrical cell generating voltage outputs of various timbres. A small three octave manual keyboard operated a shutter within the instrument that projected a light beam through the specific tone on the disc correlating to the key’s pitch.

The instrument was said to be able to produce the timbres of an organ, trumpet, piano and strings – with the possibility of reproducing any sound that could be recorded to the glass disc.

Arthur Cobb Hardy

Arthur C. Hardy born Worcester, Massachusetts:1895 died: 1977.

Arthur Hardy was a physicist best know for his work with spectrometers and colour analysers and was the author of the default text on the subject ‘The Principles of Optics’ . After the WWI Hardy worked at Kodak Research Labs and then transferred to Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he became chair of MIT’s physics department.

Hardy became president of the Optical Society of America from 1935-36 and in 1935 Hardy filed a patent for the first spectrophotometer – a device for measuring and recording colour values. It could detect two million different shades of colour and make a permanent record chart of the results. The patent was assigned to the General Electric Company of Schenectady, N.Y. which sold the first machine on 24 May 1935. It used a photo-electric device to receive light alternately from a sample and from a standard for comparison. 

After the outbreak of WWII Hardy founded the ‘Visibility Laboratory’ which focused on applying optics to such problems as camouflage, misdirection of aerial bombardment, target location, visibility of submerged objects at sea.

'The Canadian Champion' Newspaper July 3rd 1930
‘The Canadian Champion’ Newspaper July 3rd 1930



‘A History of Sampling’ (Hugh Davies)

Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture. Thom Holmes

‘Modern Mechanix’ magazine USA 1931

The Canadian Champion Newspaper July 3rd 1930

The ‘Electrone’ and ‘Melotone’ Leslie Bourn, United Kingdom, 1932


Since the 1920’s the Compton Organ Co had been the premier manufacturer of pipe organs for cinemas, churches and dance halls in the UK. In 1932 Compton developed their first electronic “pipe-less” organ the ‘Melotone’ intended as an add-on unit for conventional organs to extend their range. The Melotone’s sound was generated using the same tone-wheel technique as the Hammond Organ and the much earlier Telharmonium (1876), where a metal disc engraved with representations of sound waves spun within a magnetic field generating varying voltage tones. In this case two electrostatic tone wheels provided the sounds, amplified and fed to a large speaker horn in the organ loft. The Melotone was not intended as a complete instrument in itself and had it’s own ethereal synthetic character to contrast with a traditional pipe organ.

The Compton Melotone add-on unit
The Compton Melotone add-on unit

In 1938 Compton developed the Melotone concept into a stand-alone organ called the Electrone (or Theatrone) designed as a replacement for old pipe organs in churches and dance halls. This instrument had twelve tone generators and an organ-stop style range of voices. A post-war compact ‘economical’ version was brought out in 1952 also called the ‘Melotone’. Production of the organs continued until the 1960’s by which time tone-generator technology had become obsolete due to the arrival of cheaper and more dependable solid-state electronic circuitry.

One of the twelve tone wheels of the Compton Electrone
One of the twelve tone wheels of the Compton Electrone