The ‘Rhythmicon’ Henry Cowell & Leon Termen. USA, 1930

Henry Cowell and the Rhythmicon
Henry Cowell and the Rhythmicon

In 1916 the American Avant-Garde composer Henry Cowell was working with ideas of controlling cross rhythms and tonal sequences with a keyboard, he wrote several quartet type pieces that used combinations of rhythms and overtones that were not possible to play apart from using some kind of mechanical control- “un-performable by any known human agency and I thought of them as purely fanciful”.(Henry Cowell) In 1930 Cowell introduced his idea to Leon Termen, the inventor of the Theremin, and commissioned him to build him a machine capable of transforming harmonic data into rhythmic data and vice versa.

“My part in its invention was to invent the idea that such a rhythmic instrument was a necessity to further rhythmic development, which has reached a limit more or less, in performance by hand, an needed the application of mechanical aid. The which the instrument was to accomplish and what rhythms it should do and the pitch it should have and the relation between the pitch and rhythms are my ideas. I also conceived that the principle of broken up light playing on a photo-electric cell would be the best means of making it practical. With this idea I went to Theremin who did the rest – he invented the method by which the light would be cut, did the electrical calculations and built the instrument.”

Henry Cowell

“The rhythmic control possible in playing and imparting exactitudes in cross rhythms are bewildering to contemplate and the potentialities of the instrument should be multifarious… Mr. Cowell used his rythmicon to accompany a set of violin movements which he had written for the occasion…. The accompaniment was a strange complexity of rhythmical interweavings and cross currents of a cunning and precision as never before fell on the ears of man and the sound pattern was as uncanny as the motion… The write believes that the pure genius of Henry Cowell has put forward a principle which will strongly influence the face of all future music.”
Homer Henly, May 20, 1932

The eventual machine was christened the “Rythmicon” or “Polyrhythmophone” and was the first electronic rhythm machine. The 17 key polyphonic keyboard produced a single note repeated in periodic rhythm for as long as it was held down, the rhythmic content being generated from rotating disks interrupting light beams that triggered photo-electric cells. The 17th key of the keyboard added an extra beat in the middle of each bar. The transposable keyboard was tuned to an unusual pitch based on the rhythmic speed of the sequences and the basic pitch and tempo could be adjusted by means of levers.Cowell wrote two works for the Rythmicon “Rythmicana” and “Music for Violin and Rythmicon” (a computer simulation of this work was reproduced in 1972). Cowell lost interest in the machine, transferring his interest to ethnic music and the machine was mothballed.

Rhythmicon Discs
Rhythmicon Discs
After Cowell, the machines were used for psychological research and one example (non working) of the machine survives at the Smithsonian Institute. The Rhythmicon was re-discoverd twenty-five years after its creation by the producer Joe Meek (creator of the innovative hit single ‘Telstar’, 1961) apparently discovered abandoned in a New York pawnbrokers. Meek brought it back to his home studio in London where it was used on several recordings. This Rhythmicon was used to provide music and sound effects for various movies in the Fifties and Sixties, including: ‘The Rains of Ranchipur’; ‘Battle Beneath the Earth’; Powell and Pressburgers’ ‘They’re a Weird Mob’; ‘Dr Strangelove’, and the sixties animated TV series ‘Torchy, The Battery Boy’.The Rhythmicon was also rumoured to have been used on several sixties and seventies records, including: ‘Atom Heart Mother’ by Pink Floyd; ‘The Crazy World of Arthur Brown’ by Arthur Brown, and ‘Robot’ by the Tornadoes. Tangerine Dream also used some sequences from the Rhythmicon on their album ‘Rubicon’.
Rhythmicon Discs
Rhythmicon Discs


“Henry Cowell: A record of his activities” Compiled June 1934 by Olive Thompson Cowell.

The ‘Terpsitone’ Leon Termen, USA & Russia,1932

Termen's Terpsitone 1936
Termen’s Terpsitone 1936

The Terpsitone, named after the muse of dance Terpsichorè, was a dance controlled instrument using the same capacitance principles of the Theremin. The Terpsitone was designed built by Leon Termen for his wife who was a dancer. The Terpsitone removed the control antena of the Theremin and replaced it with a large metal sheet hidden under the floor. Movements of the dancers in the area above the sheet caused variations in pitch of the Terpistone’s oscillators due to the capictance of the dancers bodies. This instrument was used for several ‘exotic’ dance, music and light shows throughout the 1930’s.


“During his long and bright life, Leo Sergeyevich Termen made numerous discoveries and inventions. Among the different kind of brilliant inventions was the Terpsitone – which makes it possible for dancers to combine movement of body with music and light. Idea of the Terpsitone occured to L.Termen at the beginning of the 20th century, probably, immediately after the creation of Thereminvox. But as opposed to the Thereminvox where the pitch of tone and loudness depends on the position of the hands of the musician, the Terpsitone frequency and amplitude of sound are determined by a change in the position of entire body of a dancer. The operating principle of the Terpsitone is very similar to the operating principle Thereminvox, based on obtaining audio beat-frequencies, formed by theinteraction of high-frequency fluctuations of two oscillators. One has frequency rigidly fixed, while in the second is variable. In the second oscillator the frequency depends on a change in the distance between the capacitor plates of oscillatory circuit. One of the capacitor plates is an isolated, metallic plate placed on the floor of dancing hall, and second facing the body of the dancer. By moving through the space the dancer affects a change in the capacity of oscillatory circuit and, correspondingly, a change in the difference audio frequency. This signal is amplified and sent to the loudspeaker. Thus the motions of the dancer is converted into sound, which change synchronously with a change in the position of body.

The possibility of adding automated colour is an additional special feature of the invention. The “visual sound display” is a panel with  lamps, painted in different colours where the lamps light up to the motion of the dancer, moreover lamps with the specific colour corresponds to each note. However, this is ensured partially mechanically.

The Terpsitone in the acoustic laboratory, Moscow, 1966 consists of:

1) the electronic-music block, which works on the principle of Thereminvox with heterodyning high frequencies, with the device for vibrato and by a change in the loudness of sounding loudspeaker

2) An  electrical capacitance dancing platform with the size of 2 X of 1,8 X of 0.2 meters with that placed under it along entire its length and width by the electrode, connected through the resonance involving system with one of the high-frequency generators of musical block;

3) A dynamic loud-speaker with control of intensity and timbre. A Range-tool for the performance of melody by the motions of arms, head and legs of the dancer who stands on the platform – 2 octaves. More low-pitched sounds correspond to the locked position of hands and housing of that dancing, high to a maximally opened position, with the large external overall sizes. This experimental device adapts for training the executors of this new form of choreographic- musical skill. Are developed also the electrical circuits of the additional devices:

3.1) movement of executor forward gives audio gain, and its presence in the background ceases sound by means of the electrical capacitance influence on the electrode, fastened on the rear wall of dancing platform

3.2) the invariability of the pitch of tone with the displacement of that dancing and the appearance of that corresponding to the position of the executor of the new height of sounding with the cessations of motion.

Executors: Heads by the laboratory of acoustics and sound recording – Yurchenko A.D, the supervisor of sector – Termen L.CH., engineer – Rudakov YE.A., engineer – Matveyev V.N., technician

Termen’s “Terpsitone” by gimazutdinov K.N., Kazan, NII – SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH INSTITUTE “Prometheus”, 1996



The ‘Sonar’ Nikolai Anan’yev , Russia, 1933

The Sonar 1933
The Sonar 1933

The “Sonar” was a monophonic heterodyning vacuum tube instrument developed by Nikolai Anan’yev at the GIMN Acoustic Laboratory in the USSR from 1930. The Sonar used the same  heterodyning principles of Termen’s Thereminvox but with the addition of a fretted fingerboard to vary the pitch of the oscillator. This addition made the Sonar more popular (at the time in the early Soviet period) with musicians than the Thereminvox due to it’s familiarity and playability. The Sonar was said to have been able to reproduce violin like timbres as well as simple speech phrases such as “mama”, “papa” as well as conventional instrumental sounds and became known for it’s use in ‘proletarian’ outdoor events. Anan’yev  gave over six hundred concerts to around five hundred thousand people with the Sonar during his lifetime.


Sensor Technology and the Remaking of Instruments from the Past. Emmanuelle Gallin, Marc Sirguy

Sound in Z: Experiments in Sound and Electronic Music in Early 20th-century Russia. Published by Walther König, Köln. Edited by David Rogerson, Matt Price. Foreword by Jeremy Deller. Text by Andrei Smirnov.


The ‘Saraga-Generator’ Wolja Saraga, Germany,1931

The Saraga Generator
The Saraga Generator. Photo; Saraga family archives

The ‘Saraga-Generator’ was developed by the electrical engineer and physicist Wolja Saraga at the Heinrich-Hertz Institut Für Schwingungsforschung (HHI) in Berlin, Germany around 1931. The Saraga Generator was an unusual photo-electrical vacuum tube instrument originally designed to be used for theatrical production where the sound would be triggered by movement in front of the instrument.

Wolja Saraga working on the 'Saraga Generator' at the HHI, Berlin in 1932
Wolja Saraga working on the ‘Saraga Generator’ at the HHI, Berlin in 1932 (Photo; Saraga family archives )

The original instrument consisted of a single photoelectric cell mounted on the white painted inside surface of a box with a small ‘V’ shaped slit cut on one face. A low voltage neon lamp was placed at some distance from the box on a stage and the performers movements interrupting the light beam causing variations in pitch in a tone generated using the well established  heterodyning effect of two vacuum tubes. Later versions were designed to be played in a way similar to the Theremin with one hand held in the air controlling the pitch by interrupting the light beam –Envelope and timbre were controlled by manipulating a hand held switching device, the overall volume being driven by a foot pedal. The Saraga Generator was monophonic with a tonal range of four octaves.

The Saraga Generator was patented in 1932 and demonstrated at the Berlin Radio Exhibition (IFA Berlin) in the same year.

Wolja Saraga. Berlin, 1930s
Wolja Saraga. Berlin, 1930s

Saraga took a version of the Generator to London after he left Berlin for the UK in 1938 ( He also brought a Volkstrautonium purchased as a promotional model from Telefunken) . He gave several presentations of the instrument for the Institute of Musical Instrument Technology (Holloway Rd, London N7) in May 1945 entitled “A Homophonic or single-note electronic musical instrument with a photo electric cell as playing manual – demonstration of an experimental model” and searched for commercial applications for the instrument including film soundtrack music and musical therapy for blinded war veterans.

Wolja Saraga working at the HHI, Berlin 1932. (Photo; TU Archives, Berlin)
Wolja Saraga working at the HHI, Berlin 1932. (Photo; TU Archives, Berlin)

Difficulties in sourcing electronic components in post-war Britain hampered development of the instrument which was eventually overtaken by more sophisticated and versatile electronic instruments of the 1950s


Wolja Saraga (Born:3rd September 1908 Berlin; Died 15. February 1980, London)
Wolja Saraga (Born:3rd September 1908 Berlin; Died 15. February 1980, London)

Wolja Saraga: Biographical Notes

Saraga was a German Jewish Physicist, born in Berlin to a Romanian father and a Russian mother. Saraga studied telecommunications at the Heinrich Hertz Institute (‘Heinrich-Hertz Institut Für Schwingungsforschung’ or ‘HHI’) at the Technical University, Berlin under Prof Gustav Leithäuser – alongside luminaries such as Oskar VierlingHarald Bode , Winston Kock and Friedrich Trautwein.

It was during his time at the HHI that he began investigations into electronic musical instruments, his published papers detailing; a dual oscillator Aetherophone or ‘Theremin‘ , a ‘Poly-rhythmic Electronic Musical Instrument’ , The workings of the Volkstrautonium and his design for a photo-optical instrument, the ‘Saraga Generator’ first built in 1931. Saraga became a research assistant at the institute and later  a lecturer from1929-1933. He also studied physics and mathematics at the Humboldt University of Berlin , where he was awarded a Dr. phil. in physics in 1935.

Wolja Saraga’s ticket for the 1936 ‘Great-German Radio Exhibition’ (image; Saraga Family Archive 2016)

During his time in Berlin, Saraga was very energetic in promoting the potential of electronic music; He made several public presentations and demonstrations of electronic instruments including Theremins, Trautoniums and his own ‘Saraga Generator’. Saraga was also present playing the ‘Saraga Generator’ at the 1932/3 International Funkaustellung (IFA) where the first ever electronic musical orchestra performed (Das ‘Orchester der Zukunft’).

"Electric Concerts" with the electroacoustic "orchestra of the future", 1932/1933 On the occasion of the 9th and 10th IFA in Berlin 1932 and 1933 for the first time found concerts with "Electric Music" instead. They played by the so-called "Orchestra of the future" all electroacoustic musical instruments then available. The "Elektischen concerts" made at the time an exceptional level of interest and broad support in the public, as the cooperating with private Theremingerät Erich Zitzmann-Zerini [second right] the engineer Gerhard Steinke told while gave him this original image. The orchestra consisted of two theremin instruments Trautonium [by Trautwein], Heller desk [of B. and P. Helberger Lertes], a neo-Bechstein grand piano [for suggestions of O. Vierling, S. Franco, W. Nernst and H . Driescher], Vierling piano [electro Acoustic piano by O. Vierling], electric violin, electric cello and Saraga generator [a light-electric device by W. Saraga, in principle, similar to the Theremingerät]. Photo: archive Gerhard Steinke
A concert by the electroacoustic “Orchestra of the Future” at the 9th and 10th IFA in Berlin 1932. Consisting of: (L-R) Bruno Hellberger playing his ‘Hellertion’, unknown playing the ‘Electric Cello’, unnown playing the ‘Hellertion’ (?) Oskar Sala playing the ‘Volkstruatonium’, unknown playing the ‘Neo Bechstein Electric Piano’, Oskar Vierling playing the ‘Electrochord’ unknown playing the ‘Electric Violin’ Wolja Saraga (back of stage) playing the ‘Saraga Generator’ Erich Zitzmann-Zerini with the ‘Theremin’ Unknown playing the ‘Volkstrautonium’ (Photo: archive Gerhard Steinke)
It became clear to Saraga in 1935-6 that as a Jewish scientist he would have no future in the new National Socialist German Reich and began to apply to leave the country, first of all to Switzerland and then to the UK. Saraga finally left Berlin in 1938 at the age of 29. he was initially held for six months on the Isle Of Man Hutchinson Camp as a German internee but was given a position working for the ‘Telephone Manufacturing Company’ (or ‘TMC’) in St Mary’s Cray, Kent where, despite his unhappiness at his employers lack of interest in research, he remained until 1958.

A press card for a presentation by W.Saraga entitled 'Electronic Music'
A press card for a presentation by W.Saraga entitled ‘Electric Music – a presentation and musical demonstration of the Trautonium’. Berlin 1933. (Photo; Saraga Family Archive 2016)

Saraga then joined The Associated Electrical Industries Research Laboratory in Blackheath, London as a Research Scientist and Group Leader where he specialised in telephony filter design. In 1962, Saraga’s key contributions were recognised by the award of the Fellowship of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, ‘for contributions to network theory and its application in communications’. In 1972, Saraga moved full time to Imperial College, London where he became a postgraduate lecturer and researcher in network theory and mathematics.

Saraga wrote a number of books and filed several patents on network theory and telephony.


Archives of the Heinrich Hertz Institute/Heinrich-Hertz Institut Für Schwingungsforschung, Berlin, Germany

CIRCUIT THEORY AND APPLICATIONS, VOL. 8, 341 (1980) Obituary of Wolja Saraga by J. 0. SCANLAN

Saraga, W. “Elektrische Klangfarbenerzeugung, in FUNK-Bastler” 1932, Heft 38, S. 594, zit. nach STANGE-ELBE 1993a, S. 15( “Electrical Timbre generation, into radio hobbyist” )

[Wolja] Saraga: Die “tönende Handschrift”, in: Funktechnische Monatshefte 1933, H. 10, S. 403-406, hier S. 406

W. [Wolja] Saraga: An Electronic Musical Instrument with a Photo-Electric Cell as Playing Manual, in: Electronic Engineering 17 (1945), Juli, S. 601-603

Obituary: IEEPROC, Vol. 128, Pt. G, No. 4, AUGUST 1981

Documents from the Saraga Family Archive 2016

The “Ekvodin”, Andrei Volodin , Soviet Union, 1931

Designed and built by the Russian inventor Andrei Volodin (1914-1981) the Ekvodin was a sophisticated and versatile electronic keyboard instrument. The instrument was unique at the time in allowing the player a high level of control over the timbre and shape of the sound. Apart from the standard keyboard manual the player was given extra control with various knee levers, sliders and foot pedals. The player could add vibrato effects to the note by manipulating the pressure sensitive keyboard directly. The instrument was also one of the first instruments to include what would become a standard feature in much later synthesisers, a bank of preset sounds which was said to accurately imitate musical instruments of the symphony orchestra including percussion. Volodin continued developing the instrument throughout the 1940s which culminated in a commercial model in the 1950s. However Volodin’s instrument was at the mercy of the Soviet Government who decided to stop funding the project in the mid 1960s after only twelve of the instruments were sold. Volodin continued research into musical acoustics and teaching at the Moscow State Conservatory as well as privately developing a polyphonic version of the Ekvodin and other electronic instruments, none of which were ever built.

EKVODIN is a professional musical instrument intended for universal use in various ensembles and orchestras and for solo performances including concerts with the accompaniment of piano and other instruments. The EKVODIN is suitable for different musical genres.The sound is produced in the EKVODIN on purely electrical principle. The instrument is noted for wide variety and brightness of timbres, broad range and high limit) power of the sound, and also for rational and highly-developed system of reproduction means (vibrating keyboard, loudness pedals, portamento, etc.). This ensures expressiveness and accuracy of performance. The profession of a piano player is closest to that of a man playing the EKVODIN. This similarity, however, does not determine the application of the EKVODIN which is, first of all, an ensemble and orchestra instrument.The EKVODIN comes in two design versions : one-voice and two-voice versions. A thoroughly developed system of timbres, varied with the aid of a special switch (and also depending upon the methods of performance), makes it possible to obtain an expressive and pleasant sound. The EKVODIN imitates quite fully the sound of symphonic orchestra instruments (bow, wood and brass groups, as well as certain percussion and pizzicato instruments) and also folk instruments. The EKVODIN allows to obtain sound personality in new timbres of modern style. The instrument can be used in mixed ensembles and orchestras for supporting and emphasizing different groups of solo parts performed on the usual (mostly string and brass) instruments, when their natural power is not quite sufficient for overruling the orchestra and for creation of new sounds. In incomplete orchestras and ensembles the EKVODIN can handle practically any part (the two-voice will handle two parts) of the bow, wood or brass groups. A special ensemble consisting of EKVODINS allows to obtain, for a very small number of instruments (sextet or octet), a multifarious, fluent and high – power sound in original and common timbres.Both design versions of the instrument come in semi-stationary (dismountable-transportable) construction and high-class finish. The extension loudspeaker unit, supplied with the instrument, can be located independently up to a distance of 5 m. The loudspeaker unit is installed depending upon the location of listeners. When carried or transported from place to place, the instrument is packed in two units of suitcase type. For operation the instrument is connected to alternating current mains (127 or 220 V).

The EKVODIN is not sensitive to fluctuations of the mains voltage. The one-voice version weighs about 35 kg, and its power consumption does not exceed 90 VA. The output power of the sound channel reaches 10 V. The two-voice version weighs about 65 kg, and its power consumption does not exceed 200 VA. The output power is up to 10 Win each channel, the timbre setting being independent for each voice. To double the. power of solo parts and timbre effects the voices can merge in unison, octave and two octaves.

Details from the Moscow Theremin Centre


Theremin Centre, Moscow. interview with A.Smirnov by Simon Crab
Theremin centre website:
Volodin, A. “Generation of sounds controlled by the force of the blow on the keys of electronic musical instruments (Electropiano),” Invention certificate, No. 66, USSR Cl. 154 (1946).
Volodin, A. “Acoustical-psychological aspects of the evaluation of musical sounds,” in Proc. of the 7th USSR Acoustical Conference (L., 1971).
Volodin, A. “Electrical synthesis of musical sounds as a basis for research on perception,” Voprosi psychologii, No. 6, p. 54-69 (1971).
Volodin, A. “Multifunctionality of the formants of musical sounds,” in Proc. of the 8th USSR Acoustical Conference (M., 1973).
Volodin, A. “Perception of vibrato in musical sounds,” in New research in psychology and age physiology, No. 2 (M., 1972).
Volodin, A. “Psychological aspects of the perception of musical sounds,” Candidate dissertation (M., 1972).
Volodin, A. “Perception of vibrato in musical sounds,” in New research in psychology, p. 3-5 (M., 1974).
Volodin, A. “The role of harmonic spectrum in perception of pitch and timbre,” in Musical Art and Science, issue 1, p. 11 (M., 1970).

The ‘Variophone’ Yevgeny Sholpo. Russia, 1932

Sholpo's Variophone
Sholpo’s Variophone 1949 Model

Developed in the Soviet Union in 1932 by Yevgeny Alexandrovitch Sholpo and Georgy Rimsky-Korsakov at the Central Laboratory of Wire Communication in Leningrad after several years research into performer-less music; the Variophone was an photo-electrical electronic instrument. The particular method used by the Variophone was a type of optical audio recording designed to allow the composition of lengthy polyphonic pieces of music. This was achieved by cutting sound waves into cardboard discs rotating in synch with a 35 mm movie film. This was then re-filmed and played back on a normal movie projector that and amplified through a speaker. In a simple ‘overdubbing’ process the process could be repeated to create multiple layered tones.

Soundtracks were able to contain up to twelve voices, recorded as tiny parallel tracks inside the normal soundtrack film area. By 1931 with the help of Rimsky-korsakov, Sholpo produced soundtrack to the film ‘The Year 1905 in Bourgeoisie Satire’ and again in 1932 a synthesised soundtrack for ‘A Symphony of Peace’ and many other soundtracks for films and cartoons throughout the Thirties and Forties. At the end of the long 1941 Siege of Leningrad, the Variophon was destroyed during a missile attack. After World War Two, Evgeny Sholpo became the director of the new ‘Scientific‐Research Laboratory for Graphical Sound’ with Boris Yankovsky at the State Research Institute for Sound Recording, in Leningrad..

Early version of the Variophone
Early version of the Variophone

The fourth and final version of Variophone was never finished, despite promising experiments in musical intonation and the temporal characteristics of live musical performance. The laboratory was moved to Moscow and Sholpo was removed from his position as director. In 1951, after a long illness, Evgeny Sholpo died and his laboratory was closed.Archive material from the Variophone was recently transferred in 2007 to the Theremin Center.

Variophone diagram
Variophone diagram
Tone discs
Tone discs
Sholpo's Variophone
Sholpo’s Variophone 1949 Model

In Russia from the 1920’s until the  1970’s there was a particular interest in photo-electrical synthesis; probably due to the influence of the theories and writings of Alexander Scriabin who proposed a uniting theory of sound and light.  The first ‘drawn’ soundtrack ever created by the avant-garde composer Arseny Avraamov who produced film soundtracks created by photographing series of drawings such as “Plan Velikikh Rabot” (Plan of great works) and “Kem Bit” (‘who to be’) in 1930. Boris Yankovsky was developing a more complex spectral analysis, decomposition and re-synthesis technique, resembling the recent computer music techniques of cross synthesis and the phase vocoder. This process was also seen as a way of liberating the composer from the practical restrictions of instrumentation and musicians:

While most inventors of electronic musical instruments were developing tools for performers, the majority of methods and instruments based on Graphical Sound techniques were created for composers. Similar to modern computer music techniques, the composer could produce the final synthesised soundtrack without need for any performers or intermediates.”
Smirnov, Andrey, 2011 “Graphical Sound”

Sholpo's drawing of waveforms
Sholpo’s drawing of waveforms

The hand drawn optical synthesis technique was also used later in the 1960’s by Daphne Oram in England.


Smirnov, Andrei. Sound Out of Paper. Moscow, November, 2007

Izvolov Nikolai.From the history of painted sound in USSR. Kinovedcheskie Zapiski, no.53, 2001, p.292

“Sound In Z: Experiments In Sound And Electronic Music In Early 20th Century Russia,”  Andrei Smirnov, Koening Books, ISBN 987-3-86560-706-5


The ‘Emicon’. Nicholas Langer & John Halmagyi , USA. 1931

The Emicon at the
The Emicon at the National Music Museum (Vermillion, South Dakota, USA)

‘The Emicon’ (Model S) was developed in the USA by electronics engineer Nicholas Langer and Hungarian instrument designer, John Halmagyi. The Emicon was a monophonic 32 note keyboard controlled instrument based on the same type of heterodyning vacuum tube oscillator technology first used in the  Thereminvox a decade earlier. Langer designed the instrument to be able to create more complex tones than the standard vacuum tube sine wave and therefore used neon gas-discharge tubes to produce a type of sawtooth wave with richer harmonics; “In general, pure sinusoidal  oscillations, when converted into sound, are not satisfactory from the musical  point of view as they impress us as empty and meaningless” – Langer’s Emicon was said to be able to produce tones similar to a cello, saxophone, oboe, trumpet, mandolin, guitar and bagpipe and was said to be the instrument that inspired Harald Bode to start designing electronic musical instruments.

Charles D. Stein shows a model how to play the emicon at the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas in June 1936.
the Emicon at the Texas Centennial Exposition in Dallas in June 1936.
Langer's patent for the Emicon
Langer’s patent for the Emicon

The instrument was manufactured and marketed by Emicon, Inc., Deep River, Connecticut, CA from 1932. A later portable travelling model was built into case with an amplifier in separate case similar to later instruments such as the Ondioline. A single example of the Emicon survives at the ‘Charles D. Stein Collection of Early Electronic Instruments’ National Music Museum, Vermilion, South Dakota, USA.


‘Charles D. Stein Collection of Early Electronic Instruments’
Shrine to Music Museum
University of South Dakota
414 East Clark Street
Vermillion, SD, USA
‘Radio News’ December 1943

The ‘Rangertone Organ’. Richard H.Ranger, USA, 1932

Richard Ranger at the Rangertone Organ
Richard Ranger at the Rangertone Organ

The Rangertone Organ was a large electronic tone-wheel based organ developed by the electronics engineer and pioneer of audio recording Richard Ranger in the 1930’s. The instrument was marketed by Ranger from his own company ‘Rangertone Incorporated’ on Verona Ave. in Newark, NJ. Very few of the instruments were sold, one of which was installed at the Recital hall of Skinner Hall of Music, Vassar College. After the failure to sell the instrument Ranger went on to develop a series of high fidelity phonograph devices that never went into production. During WW2 Ranger spent time investigating German electronic equipment for the US Army and it was here that he picked up and removed for his own use the German AEG Magnetophone tape recorder. Ranger returned to the U.S. and in 1947 announced his new Rangertone Tape recorder, based on the Magnetophone, which finally gave the Rangertone Inc the financial success it needed until squeezed out of the domestic market by larger companies such as Ampex.

AEG Magnetophone. The first tape recorder, Germany 1944
Richard Ranger with the  wireless facsimile system
Richard Ranger with the wireless facsimile system. in 1924, Richard Ranger invented the wireless photoradiogram, or transoceanic radio facsimile, the forerunner of today’s fax machines. A photograph of President Calvin Coolidge sent from New York to London in November 1924 became the first photo picture reproduced by transoceanic radio facsimile.
The Rangertone Organ was one of the early tone wheel organs, similar to the Hammond Organ and much earlier Telharmonium (1906). Uniquely, the Rangertone Organ had its pitch stability controlled by tuning forks, therefore it was possible to change the temperament by changing the tuning of the forks. Timbre was controlled by push-buttons to the right of the keyboard, and/or by switching between six different amplifier/speaker combinations, which had different tremolo and tonal qualities.The original version was a huge machine, with more than 150 valves. A portable single-keyboard model was built for concert performance.
Ranger made the first public demonstration of his huge  ‘pipeless organ’ at Newark, New Jersey in 1931.
Press telegram announcing Ranger's new instrument
Press telegram announcing Ranger’s new instrument in 1931
Pitch controls of the Rangertone Organ
Pitch controls of the Rangertone Organ

“Ranger’s apparatus consisted essentially of twelve separate sets of motor-driven alternators precisely maintained at given rotational speeds, by tuning-fork control apparatus. One of these sets of alternators, as shown in Fig. 5, generated all the required C’s; another all the C sharps; another the D’s, and so forth. From these alternators he obtained all the desired fundamentals and their true harmonic frequencies for the tempered scale. Timbre control switches selected the partials and their amplitudes for any desired tone quality. Amplifiers were, of course, used with reproducers to translate the feeble audio currents into sound.

Ranger’s improvements over the basic work of Cahill were made possible by the advent of the vacuum tube. For example, he provides means for automatic selection of different amplifiers, for different simultaneously produced tones, to prevent cross modulation in a single amplifier; means for avoiding keying transients, for accentuating high or low frequencies, for restricting tremolo to specific components of a complex tone, and at different tremolo rates, means to provide glissando effects, for regulating the temperament, for providing damped wave trains in simulation of percussive tones, and numerous other details.”

Proceedings of the institute of Radio Engineers November 1936 Volume 24

Richard Howland Ranger 1899, Indianapolis, Indiana, d 1961
Richard Howland Ranger 1899, Indianapolis, Indiana, d 1961


Biographicall details by: Dr. David L. Morton, Jr. Research Historian IEEE Center for the History of Electrical Engineering
Proceedings of the institute of Radio Engineers November 1936 Volume 24
ELECTRONIC MUSIC AND INSTRUMENTS. By Benjamin F. Miessner. (Miessner Inventions, Inc., Millburn, New Jersey)

The ‘Givelet’ or ‘Coupleux-Givelet Organ’ Armand Givelet & Edouard Eloi Coupleux, France. 1930

Armand Givelet & Edouard Coupleux at the paper-punch controls of the 'Givelet'
Armand Givelet & Edouard Coupleux at the paper-punch controls of the ‘Givelet’ c1932

The last instrument of the Givelet – Coupleaux collaboration was the ‘Coupleaux -Givelet Organ’ or ‘Givelet’. The Givelet was a unique instrument that combined vacuum tube oscillators with a sound control system using a punched paper roll in a way similar to a player piano to define the sound synthesis. Pitch, volume, attack, envelope, tremolo and timbre could be controlled by cutting and splicing paper rolls and like the “Wave Organ“, the Givelet was polyphonic. The technique of using punched paper “programs” was not exploited until fifteen years later in the 1950’s with the RCA Synthesiser.  Givelets and Coupleaux’s instrument was designed to be a commercial and cheap replacement for pipe organs and utilise the ability for ‘silent recording’ or direct injection into radio transmitter. The Givelets were installed in churches around France and at a broadcasting radio station in Paris. The Givelet eventually lost out commercially to the more efficient and less complex  Hammond Organ.

Givelet of 1930
The Givelet-Coupleux Organ of 1930 played by Armand Givelet

Patent Documents


A.J.Givelet: ‘Les Instruments de Musique à oscillations électriques: Le Clavier à Lampes ‘, Génie civil, xciii(1928)

The ‘Electrochord’ and the ‘Kraft Durche Freude Grosstonorgel’. Oskar Vierling & Winston E. Kock, Germany, 1933

Oskar Vierling  born: 24. January 1904 in Straubing, Germany -  Died 1986
Oskar Vierling born: 24. January 1904 in Straubing, Germany – Died 1986

Oskar Vierling was an important figure in the development of electronic musical instruments and electro-acoustic instruments during the 1930’s to the 1950’s. Vierling was a trained electronic engineer who, after studying at the Ohm Polytechnic, Nuremberg filed over 200 patents. In 1935 Vierling moved to Berlin where he received his doctorate in physics at the Technical University and then continued to work at the  Heinrich-Hertz-Institute of Vibration Research (HHI) under Fritz Sennheiser.

The Electrochord

Electrochord at the Deutsches Museum in Munich
Electrochord at the Deutsches Museum in Munich

Vierling’s first musical instrument was the ‘Electochord’ an electro-acoustic piano designed and built in collaboration with  Benjamin Franklin Mießner and was commercially marketed by August Förster Piano Factory in Lõbau. The Elechtrochord worked by converting resonating piano strings via electro-magnets into electronic sounds in a similar way to Vierling’s Neo-Bechstien Piano (an early electro-acoustic piano designed by Vierling and Walther Nernst in 1931).

Oskar Vierling working on the first version of the ‘Electrochord’

The vibrations from a normal piano string were recorded and amplified electronically. Various register circuits enabled the player to change the sound’s timbre ranging from “a delicate Spinettte, the lyrical tone of a parlour organ to the powerful sound emission of a grand piano”. A restored model of the Electrochord is kept in the music collection of the Deutsches Museum in Munich. During the early 1930’s Vierling worked closely with Jorg Mager at his Darmstadt research centre on the construction of Klaviatursphäraphon amongst other instruments.

Jorg Mager and Oskar Vierling working on the Sphäraphon at Mager's laboratory in Darmstad.
Jorg Mager and Oskar Vierling working on the Sphäraphon at Mager’s laboratory in Darmstadt.
The Neo-Bechstien Electro-acoustic piano
The Neo-Bechstien Electro-acoustic piano

The ‘Kraft Durche Freude Grosstonorgel’

Keyboard fo the Grosstonorgel
Keyboard of the Kock-Vierlin KDF Grosstonorgel

Vierling went on to develop another large electronic organ; the ‘Grosstonorgel’ (together with  Karl Willy Wagner and the American engineer Winston E. Kock both at the Heinrich-Hertz-Institute. Winston Kock came to Berlin in 1933 as an exchange student at the Technical University of Berlin where he built an electronic organ for his diploma thesis. Since vacuum tubes were very expensive, he designed an instrument that relied instead on the smaller and cheaper neon tubes for the oscillators . He filed a patent for a use of inductive neon oscillators and sound-colour generation. It’s likely that the Grosstonorgel used similar neon or vacuum tube technology.

Joseph Goebbels at the GrosstonOrgel
Joseph Goebbels at the GrosstonOrgel. HHI Berlin 1935
The workshop at the HHI. The GroostonOrgel being built.
The workshop at the HHI. The GrosstonOrgel being built.
Winston Kock (seated) and Oskar Vierling at the keyboard of their Grosstonorgel.
Winston Kock (seated) and Oskar Vierling at the keyboard of their Grosstonorgel.

Work on the Grosstonorgel was funded by the National Socialist ‘Kraft Durche Freude’ cultural association (‘Strength Through Joy’  Set up as a tool to promote the advantages of National Socialism to the people,which became the world’s largest tourism operator of the 1930s) . The Grosstonorgel, as well as a Vierling designed 500 watt PA system, was a one-off instrument specifically designed to provide the musical accompaniment to the 1936 Olympic Games. A year later the instrument was also used at the Reich Party Congress of the National Socialist Party in Nuremberg. The new improved model was said to be able to produce “beautiful bell sounds” to accompany the Nazi propaganda spectacle.

Fritz Sennheiser (seated) and Oskar Vierling with the kdf Grosstonorgel. HHI Berlin 1935.
The first broadcast of a concert consisting exclusively of electric instruments orchestra, organized by the "Radio Hour ', Berlin, 19 10 1932  The instruments were a Neo-Bechstein piano, Trautonium Heller ion, electric violin and cello, and two theremin instruments. Behind each instrument the corresponding speaker
The first electronic group? an purely electronic orchestra  organised by  “Radio Hour ‘ broadcast, Berlin, 19.10.1932. The instruments were a Neo-Bechstein piano, Trautonium, Hellertion, electric violin, electric cello, and two Theremins with a corresponding loudspeaker behind each instrument.
Jospeh Goebels tries the Grosstonorgel. HHI Berlin 1935.
Jospeh Goebels tries the Grosstonorgel. HHI Berlin 1935.

Vierling had joined the National Socialist Party (NDSAP)  in the late 1930s and in 1941 established the Vierling research group  with a staff of 200 employees co-operating directly with the Wermacht high command. The secret research establishment was located in Burg Feuerstein, Ebermannstadt disguised as a hospital with red-cross emblems on the roof to avoid allied bombing.

Burg Feuerstein home of the secret Vierling Research Group
Burg Feuerstein home of the secret Vierling Research Group

Research included audio-controlled torpedoes (codenamed “wren” and “vulture” where the torpedoes located their target from the propeller noises of enemy ships ), encryption technology (with Erich Hüttenhain and Erich Fellgiebel on a voice encryption method of the legendary SZ 42 cipher ), anti radar submarine coating (codenamed “chimney sweep”) as well as radio control equipment and electronic calculators. The Vierling company still exists as a family run business in Ebermannstadt.

The remains of the Vierling after Allied bombing in 145
The remains of the Vierling research laboratories in Burg Feuerstein after Allied bombing in 1945

After the fall of Nazi Germany the Burg Feuerstein castle was sealed-off by the British troops. Vierling revealed his previously secret work which he had hidden in secret walled off chambers in the castle and collaborated openly with the new occupiers:

“Another major opportunity arose in the capture of the Feuerstein Laboratory on a small mountain near Ebermannstadt, which conducted research and preliminary development of experimental communications equipment. Its director Dr. Oskar Vierling, was picked up and interrogated.  He proved cooperative, reassembled most of his staff and put them back to work, allowing TICOM to exploit the target.”

Report from TICOM Team 1.

At this time Vierling met the British mathematician and the ‘Father of Computing’  Alan Turing (then working for TICOM ; Target Intelligence Committee), to discuss details of encryption and specifically the Enigma machine and Vierlings work on encrypted radio transmissions. Vierling then worked at Gehlen Organisation (an American run espionage organisation employing hundred of ex-Nazis ) on the design of bugging devices for the American occupation (echoing the career trajectory of Lev Termen) and from 1949 to 1955, having escaped the De-Nazification process through his collaboration with the occupying powers, became professor of physics at the Philosophical-Theological College in Bamberg, Germany. Vierling continued working at Vierling AG in Ebermannstadt and died in 1986.

Vierling research laboratories in 1060
Vierling research laboratories in 1960


Kock and Vierling in Berlin

Excerpt from Hans-Joachim Braun’s ‘Music Engineers. The Remarkable Career of Winston E. Kock, Electronic Organ Designer and NASA Chief of Electronics’

“In the spring of 1933, after finishing his studies in Cincinnati, Kock became exchange fellow at the Technical University of Berlin. He had heard of Karl Willy Wagner’s work and wanted to conduct doctoral research with him at the Heinrich Hertz Institute. Kock’s counterpart as an exchange student from Berlin to Cincinnati was Sigismund von Braun, Wernher von Braun’s eldest brother. In Berlin Kock wrote a Ph. D. thesis on oscillations in inductive glow discharge circuits and, with Oskar Vierling, another student of Wagner’s, designed an improved electronic organ on the formant principle. Oskar Vierling, Kock’s collaborator on the Kock-Vierling organ, had studied electrical engineering at an engineering school and in 1925 joined the Laboratory of the German Research Institute for Telegraphy headed by Karl Willy Wagner. In 1928 he followed Wagner as his assistant to the newly founded ‘Institute for Vibration Research’ conducting acoustic research and designing electrified pianos and electronic organs. Together with the Nobel Laureate Walter Nernst he in 1931 designed the Neo-Bechstein piano, an electrostatic piano and from 1928 to 1935 developed his Electrochord for the piano manufacturer Förster. The National Socialist Strength through Joy organization sponsored Vierling’s ‘Strength through Joy Organ’ which was played at the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936. This enlarged and improved version of the Kock-Vierling model created a sensation as did his electrically generated bell sounds which he presented at the National Socialist Party Rally in Nuremberg a year later.8 Fascination by technology, electricity and electronics,surprising effects, glorious sounds, this was food for the masses and much appreciated by the party propagandists. Vierling’s mentor Karl Willy Wagner must have watched his former assistant’s success with very mixed feelings, having himself been forced to resign from his directorate of the Heinrich Hertz Institute in 1936. There is an irony in the fact that Kock,who played a significant role in the US War effort during World War II, contributed, although unintentionally, to enhancing Nazi propaganda efforts.”


Mariahilfer Strasse 212, 1140 Vienna

Hans-Joachim Braun ‘Music Engineers. The Remarkable Career of Winston E. Kock, Electronic Organ Designer and NASA Chief of Electronics’

‘Tarnname Schornsteinfeger’ by Thadeusz, Frank ‘Was wurde im Geheimlabor der Nazis auf Burg Feuerstein erforscht? Der Erfinder Oskar Vierling soll dort akustische Leitsysteme für die Wehrmacht entwickelt haben.’ Der Spiegel 18.04.2011

Wolfgang Voigt: Oskar Vierling, ein Wegbereiter der Elektroakustik für den Musikinstrumentenbau, in: Das Musikinstrument vol. 37, Nr 1/2, 1988, 214-221 und Nr. 2/3, 172-176.

Final Report of TICOM Team 1. National Archives and Record Administration, College Park (NARA). RG 457, Entry 9037 (Records of the NSA), Box 168.