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]

_________________________________________________
Sources:

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 ‘Luminaphone’, Harry Grindell Matthews & Bernard.J.Lynes. UK, 1925

The Luminaphone (image: Illustrierte Technik für Jedermann: Heft 18 1926)

The Luminaphone of 1926 was one of a long line of inventions by the British inventor Harry Grindell Matthews, well known at the time for his much publicised invention of a ‘Death Ray’ in 1923 – an unsubstantiated or proven method of destroying objects and stopping electric engines through an invisible ray-gun. Matthew’s roster of inventions included a light controlled submarine (from which he received a £25,000 prize from the British admiralty), a mobile projector for projecting images onto clouds, an early method of recording sound on to film (1921), an underwater submarine detector, ground-to-plane radio-telephone, and a self-righting flying machine, amongst many others.

Diagram showing the operation of the light beams through the perforated dome to a selenium cell, an arrangement that optimised the use of the photo-cells.(image: Illustrierte Technik für Jedermann: Heft 18 1926)

The Luminaphone, patented in 1925 (Patent GB254437A ), was an early example of a photo-electric technique for creating pitched tones (originally derived from optical sound film technology); in this case a series of light beams – each light beam representing one frequency or note – were projected through a rotating perforated metal dome onto a selenium photo-cell that generated a pitched voltage pulse. The frequency of the pitch was determined by the frequency of the perforation in the metal dome. The luminaphone’s three octave keyboard had one lamp per key (a total of 36 keys and lamps) – when a key was pressed the assigned lamp would illuminate and project through the rotating perforated dome onto the photo-cell, generating the relevant pitch.

Functional diagram of the Luminaphone. (image: ‘Science and Invention’ February 1926)

The size and shape of the perforations determined the pitch, intensity and tone quality of the instruments tone – although, presumably, this would require stopping the machine and manually changing the rotating dome to change the sound or intensity.

Matthews planned to produce a commercial version of the instrument but the Luminaphone never evolved beyond the one prototype model.

(image:Technik für Jedermann: Heft 18 1926 )

Harry Grindell Matthews. Biographical Details:

Harry Grindell Matthews. born on 17 March 1880, at Winterbourne, South Gloucestershire.UK. Died:11 September 1941, Swansea, Wales UK.

Harry Grindell Matthews, a prolific British inventor, became an electronic engineer while serving in the Second Boer War (1900). Matthews many  and often fantastical inventions provoked controversy due to his penchant for publicity and unwillingness to reveal his methods – most famously with his military ‘Death Ray’ gun of 1923.

After being rejected by the British military, Matthews travelled to France with the apparent aim of selling his Death Ray invention to the French army and after he was again rejected he travelled to the USA with his new invention, the Luminaphone, to raise funds and generate publicity for his new projects. In 1938 Matthews married the (extremely wealthy) Polish opera singer Ganna Walska and constructed a well protected laboratory and airstrip in  Tor Clawdd north of Swansea in the South Wales hills. Matthews later projects included liquid fuelled rockets and a high flying ‘Stratoplane’. Matthews died of a heart attack on 11 September 1941 before any of his inventions were put into practical production.

A 1925 image that purports to show Matthews ‘Death Ray’ in action on the Welsh island of Flat Holm.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle. July 20, 1924

Sources:

UK Patent GB254437A.
‘Popular Science’ Magazine March 1926 p55
‘The Light Beam Piano’; Science and Invention. USA. magazine February 1926. P896
‘Lichtstrahlen Musik’ Illustrierte Technik für Jedermann: Heft 18 1926 p199

 

 

 

 

The ‘Fotosonor’. La Société Française électro-musicale, France. 1955.

fotosonor-1

The ‘Fotosonor’ was a photo-electrical organ built in France during the 1950s and was designed to replace a traditional pipe organ liturgical music. Several models of the instrument were built;

fotosonor-4

fotosonor_chasis
The moveable tone units and amplifier of the Fotosonor Choir Organ

The ‘Choir Organ’ was a large traditional wooden panelled , two manual church organ. This modular version had up to eleven optical tone units – each unit reproduced the sound of a traditional organ; Drone, Flutes, Trumpets and so-on. The large tone units were housed in a separate moveable cabinet so that only the ‘traditional’ keyboard part of the instrument was visible.

fotosonor-3
The two unit Fotosonor ‘Quatre Jeux’

The ‘Deux Jeux’ and Quatre Jeux’ were of a more modern metal-clad design each with two or four tone units respectively. In this design the tone units were integrated into the keyboard part of the instrument alongside an amplifier and loudspeaker system. The manufacturers also suggest that a turntable “…can be easily incorporated to accompany the organ, allowing the study of liturgical works in general; particularly Gregorian chant, choral singing hymns”

4jeux
The four unit ‘Quatre Jeux’

The pipe-organ sound of the Fotosonor was generated using a photo-electrical technique; rotating glass discs printed with looped sound-waves interrupted a light beam trained on a photo-electrical cell thereby generating a reproduction of the tone ‘recorded’ on the disc. This had the added benefit of the organist being able to ‘update’ the instrument with optical recordings of new sounds.


 

Sources

‘Fotosonor’ Promotional booklet. La Société Française Electro-musicale. 23 Rue Lamartine, Paris 9.

The ‘Hugoniot Organ’. Charles-Emile Hugoniot . France, 1921.

Hugoniot's patent for a tone-wheel sound generator December 1919
A diagram from Hugoniot’s patent for a tone-wheel sound generator December 1919

CharlesEmile Hugoniot ( died; France, 1927 ) was a French mechanic, researcher and inventor of early electronic musical instruments. Hugoniot was awarded seven patents in France from 1919-1923 for various methods of sound generation including tone-wheels and photo-electrical tone generators.

Starting in 1919, Hugoniot began a process of improving existing sound generation devices of the period, first; Thaddeus Cahill’s electro-magnetic tone-wheels (from Cahill’s patent’s that would have been known to him in France) and continuing to electromagnetic steel discs and photo-electrical methods possibly influenced by the South African physicist, Hendrik van der Bijl’s patents from 1916. By doing so, Hugoniot introduced these new methods to a French group of electronic engineers.

Hugoniot Appears to have constructed only one instrument–  a photo-electric organ described in his patent (FR550.370) In 1921. The instrument was one of the first to use a photoelectric technique to generate sound: Hugoniot projected a light beam onto a selenium photo-voltaic cell through an array of 12 rotating discs cut with with concentric rings of radial slits. The frequency (and speed of rotation) generated an electrical pulse from the photo-voltaic cell that equated to an octave pitch.

Hugoniot’s died in 1927 before he could develop his ideas any further than prototypes yet he left behind a legacy of innovation that influenced a new generation of French pioneering instrument designers including Pierre Toulon and Givelet & Coupleaux.

Hugoniot's patent for a photo-electrical sound generator August 1921
Hugoniot’s patent for a photo-electrical sound generator August 1921

With this scheme the various types of wave forms for different timbres may be placed in radial sectors on a disk; another disk carrying the scanning slits in circular tracks rotates before this wave-form disk. A source of light and photocell complete the translating arrangements. Each slit track scans its corresponding wave cycle at a speed corresponding to one pitch of an approximate tempered scale. Thus, one wave and one slit track serve for each tone frequency of the tempered scale. Naturally the lowest pitch tracks are nearest the center and the highest are nearest the circumference of the scanning disk.

Another interesting arrangement is that used by Lesti and Sammis in the Polytone. Here, instead of using a series of similar wave-form cycles on a continuous track, with a single scanning device, only one complete such cycle is used with periodic scanning by a series of similar scanning slits, equispaced on a continuous track. The slit spacing is precisely equal to the wave-form lengths, so that this wave form is repeated at the scanning frequency; i.e., the number of slits passing it per second. The same method was disclosed as early as 1921 by the French inventor Hugoniot, who described an electrical musical instrument of this type in his patent’

A description of Hugoniot’s photo-electrical sound generation method from ‘Electronic Music and Instruments’ Institute of Radio Engineers, 1936


Sources

Bush, D., & Kassel, R. (2004;2006;). The organ: An encyclopedia. London: Taylor and Francis. doi:10.4324/9780203643914 P.167

‘Electronic Music and Instruments’ By Benjamin F. Miessner (Miessner Inventions, Inc., Millburn, New Jersey) . Institute of Radio Engineers. 1936. (http://www.discretesynthesizers.com/archives/miessner/em1936.htm)

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

sss
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.

Sources

‘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.”

Marimbalite


Sources:

‘Modern Mechanix Magazine’ Archive. September 1935

‘Popular Science’ Magazine. May 1949

Telelux and rastus: Westinghouse’s forgotten robots

 

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.

hardy
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

 


Sources:

‘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 ‘Nivotone’ Alexei Voinov. Russia, 1931

The Nivotone optical reader
The Nivotone optical reader

The animator Nikolai Voinov (1900-1958), part of Arseney Avraamov‘s group ‘Multzvik’ in Moscow, 1931, started his own method of optical synthesis. Instead of drawing or printing to film Voinov cut wave forms from strips of paper which were then optically read by his machine the ‘Nivotone’ (‘Paper-Sound’) and translated into sound by a photo-electric process.

The Multzvuk group

Multzvuk group was formed in 1930 by Arseney Araazamov to conduct research into graphical sound techniques. The group was based at the Mosfilm Productions Company in Moscow (one of the leading film production companies in Moscow, renamed Gorki Film Studio in 1948) and consisted of composer and theoretician, Arseney Araamov, cameraman and draughtsmen  Nikolai Zhelynsky, animator Nikolai Voinov, painter and amateur acoustician Boris Yankovsky. In 1931 the group moved to ‘NIKFI’,  the Scientific Research Institute for Photography for Film. Moscow, and and was renamed the ‘Syntonfilm laboratory’. In 1932 NIKFI stopped funding the group who then moved to Mezhrabpomfilm and finally closed in 1934.

From 1930-34 more than 2000 meters of sound track were produced by the Multzvuk group, including the experimental films ‘Ornamental Animation’, ‘Marusia Otravilas’, ‘Chinese Tune’, ‘Organ Chords’, ‘Untertonikum, Prelude’, ‘Piruet’, ‘Staccato Studies’, ‘Dancing Etude’ and ‘Flute Study’. The Multzvuk archive was kept for many years at Avraamov’s apartment, but destroyed in 1937.


Sources

Electrified Voices: Medial, Socio-Historical and Cultural Aspects of Voice …edited by Dmitri Zakharine, Nils Meise

‘Graphical Soundtrack’, Arseney Avraamov, Russia, 1930

Arseny Avraamov in Moscow 1923. (Russian: Арсений Михайлович Авраамов), (born Krasnokutsky [Краснокутский], 1886 died Moscow, 1944)
Arseny Avraamov in Moscow 1923. (Russian: Арсений Михайлович Авраамов), (born Krasnokutsky [Краснокутский], 1886 died Moscow, 1944)
Methods of synthesising sound using a photo-electrical system flourished during the late 1920s, particularly after the development of sound-film techniques around 1926. In brief, the technique involved projecting a light beam through a transparent strip (or glass plate or rotating disk) onto a selenium cell. A graphic representation of a sound wave drawn onto the transparent surface varied the intensity of the light beam which in turn generated a variable and corresponding voltage output from the selenium cell i.e. a variable pitch corresponding to the drawn graphic. This technique was much used in Germany during the 1930s – for example: Oskar Fischinger’s sound-film based Tönende Ornamente (1932),  Rudolph Pfenninger’s similar Tönende Handschrift (1932), Spielmann’s glass-disc keyboard, the Superpiano (1928) and Welte’s Licht-Ton Orgel (1936) with other examples from around the world including the Luminaphone (UK/USA 1925), the Hardy Goldthwaite Organ (USA 1930) and Pierre Toulon’s Cellulophone (F 1927). However it was in 1930s Soviet Russia that light-sound synthesis was explored with particular interest, possibly because of the mystical synaesthetic theories of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1871–1915) who, even in the 1930s, exerted an immense influence over young soviet musicians.

The Russian avant-garde composer and theorist, Arseny Mikhailovich Avraamov is probably best known for his “Simfoniya Gudkov” or “Symphony of Sirens” (November 7, 1922, Baku, USSR – an epic production which involved a score that coordinated navy ship sirens and whistles, bus and car horns, factory sirens, cannons, the foghorns of the entire Soviet flotilla of the Caspian Sea, artillery guns, machine guns, seaplanes, a specially designed “whistle main,” and renderings of Internationale and Marseillaise by a mass band and choir.) Later, however, through his pursuit of new sounds and particularly microtonal tuning, Avraamov became a central figure in soviet optical sound synthesis.

Avraamov studied at the music school of the Moscow Philharmonic Society from 1908-11 but fled the country when the first world war broke, working, among other things, as a circus artist. Avraamov returned during the revolution of 1917 where he developed his own  “Ultrachromatic” 48-tone micro tonal system ( “The Universal System of Tones,” 1927). Avraamov later (1930) began to develop a technique of optical sound synthesis which involved hand-drawing geometrical representations of sound shapes and then repeatedly printing these shapes onto the audio-optical strip on a cine-film. 1Smirnov, Andrey, Sound In Z: Experiments In Sound And Electronic Music In Early 20th Century Russia, Walther Koenig, 2013, pp28-37. Avraamov’s technique bore a striking resemblance to those developed simultaneously by Fischinger and Pfenninger (circa 1930) in Germany, despite this similarity,  it seems that both soviet and German techniques were developed in isolation.

An example of Avraamov’s hand-drawn graphic soundtrack Moscow 1930-1. image:Smirnov, Sound In Z, p179.

“By knowing the way to record the most complex sound textures by means of a phonograph, after analysis of the curve structure of the sound groove, directing the needle of the resonating membrane, one can create synthetically any, even most fantastic sound by  making a groove with a proper structure of shape and depth”.2 Avraamov A. ‘Upcoming Science of Music and the New Era in the History of Music’. Musical Contemporary Magazine, 1916, No.6, p.85 

“Composer Arseny Avraamov at the scientific-research institute conducts the interesting experiments on a creation of the hand-drawn music. Instead of common sound recording on film by means of microphone and photocell, he simply draws on paper geometrical figures, then photographing them on sound track of the filmstrip. Afterwards this filmstrip is played as a common movie by means of film projector. Being read by photocell, amplified and monitored by loudspeaker, this filmstrip turns out to contain a well-known musical recording, while its timbre is impossible to relate to any existing musical instrument. Comrade Avraamov conducts now a study in recording of more complicated geometrical figures. For instance, to record graphical representations of the simplest algebraic equations, to draw molecular orbits of some chemical elements. In this research composer is assisted by a group of young employee of the Research Institute for Film and Photo. By the end of December Avraamov will finish his new work and to show it to the film-community. Quite possibly the listening of the abstracts of “Hand Drawn Music” will be organized in radio broadcast”3‘Drawn Music’. Kino, Moscow, 16.12.1931. Trans. AS. in: Smirnov, Sound in Z, 178

The Multzvuk group

Multzvuk group was formed in 1930 by Arseney Araazamov to conduct research into graphical sound techniques. The group was based at the Mosfilm Productions Company in Moscow (one of the leading film production companies in Moscow, renamed Gorki Film Studio in 1948) and consisted of composer and theoretician, Arseney Avraamov, cameraman and draughtsmen Nikolai Zhelynsky, animator Nikolai Voinov, painter and amateur acoustician Boris Yankovsky. In 1931 the group moved to ‘NIKFI’,  the Scientific Research Institute for Photography for Film. Moscow, and and was renamed the ‘Syntonfilm laboratory’. In 1932 NIKFI stopped funding the group who then moved to Mezhrabpomfilm and finally closed in 1934.

From 1930-34 more than 2000 meters of sound track were produced by the Multzvuk group, including the experimental films Ornamental Animation, Marusia Otravilas, Chinese Tune, Organ Chords, Untertonikum, Prelude, Piruet, Staccato Studies, Dancing Etude and Flute Study. The Multzvuk archive was kept for many years at Avraamov’s apartment, but destroyed in 1937.4Smirnov, Andrey, Sound In Z: Experiments In Sound And Electronic Music In Early 20th Century Russia, Walther Koenig, 2013, p181.


References

Much of the biographical information is from Andrey Smirnov’s pioneering work Sound In Z: Experiments In Sound And Electronic Music In Early 20th Century Russia, Walther Koenig, 2013. It is currently out of print but available here as a pdf download.

  • 1
    Smirnov, Andrey, Sound In Z: Experiments In Sound And Electronic Music In Early 20th Century Russia, Walther Koenig, 2013, pp28-37.
  • 2
    Avraamov A. ‘Upcoming Science of Music and the New Era in the History of Music’. Musical Contemporary Magazine, 1916, No.6, p.85 
  • 3
    ‘Drawn Music’. Kino, Moscow, 16.12.1931. Trans. AS. in: Smirnov, Sound in Z, 178
  • 4
    Smirnov, Andrey, Sound In Z: Experiments In Sound And Electronic Music In Early 20th Century Russia, Walther Koenig, 2013, p181.

 

The ‘Superpiano’ and ‘Symphonium’. Emerich Spielmann, Austria, 1928

Emerich Spielmann playing the Superpiano
Emerich Spielmann playing the Superpiano and a standard piano

Spielmann’s Superpiano, patented in 1927, was based on the photo-optical principle used in a number of instruments during the 1920s and 30s  such as the  Cellulophone , the Radio Organ of a Trillion Tones, the Sonothèque’ , the Welte Licht-ton Orgel and others.  In general this principle worked by projecting a light beam through a spinning glass disk onto a photo-electrical cell. The regular interruption of the light beam causing an ‘oscillating’ voltage tone. Spielmann’s innovative instrument used two rows of twelve black celluloid disks. Each disk had a series of holes cut in seven concentric circles equating to the waveforms of the seven octaves of a note – the light beam being picked up by selenium photo-electrical cells.

Anni Spielmann (Emerich's daughter) playing the Superpiano
Anni Spielmann (Emerich’s daughter) playing the Superpiano

The Superpiano created complex tones by allowing a combination of  ‘pure’ and harmonic sound waves of the same note; each note was duplicated with contrasting sound wave and harmonics  – hence two rows of twelve disks –  allowing the player to mix the sound waves of each note with a knee lever. Volume control was achieved by variable pressure on the manual keyboard via variable resistors dimming and increasing the lightbulb brightness – and therefore the note volume. The instrument’s overall pitch could also be altered while playing, by adjusting the speed of the rotating disks. Spielmann intended the Superpiano to be used as an affordable ($300) home keyboard which could be played like a piano but also a type of early sampling keyboard – ‘drawings’ of different instrument’s waveforms could be made on the celluloid disks, allowing the player to reproduce the “entire instrumental range of an orchestra” – or so the advertising claimed.

The celluloid disks of the Superpiano for creating tones and harmonics
The celluloid disks of the Superpiano for creating tones and harmonics

Spielmann’s instrument had it’s debut in 1929 at a concert organised by the Österreichische Kulturbund (Austrian Culture Union) on January 9, 1929 played by the renowned composer and pianists  Erich Wolfgang Korngold who played a piano with one hand and the Superpiano with the other. Later, On February 14, 1929, Spielmann presented the Superpiano on the Vienna radio station RAVAG featuring lectures on the theme of ‘Das Licht spricht, das Licht musiziert’ (Light speaks, light makes music).

Spielmann's Superpiano 1927
Spielmann’s Superpiano 1927 th e Museum of Technology, Vienna, Austria

The last Superpiano at the Vienna Technical Museum, Austria
The last Superpiano at the Vienna Technical Museum, Austria showing the celluloid disks and light bulbs

The last Superpiano at the Vienna Technical Museum, Austria
The last Superpiano at the Vienna Technical Museum, Austria

Several instruments seem to have been built but only one survived the ravages of WW2, sold to the Vienna technical Museum in 1947. Spielmann developed a modification of the Superpiano called the ‘Symphonium’;  where the Superpiano used organ-like sounds, the Symphonium was based on mixable combinations of orchestral sounds; woodwind, brass and strings allowing fifteen possible combinations of timbres (to the Superpiano’s two)

With the seizure of power by the National Socialists in Austria and Germany in 1933 the Superpiano project was disrupted and the instrument failed to become a commercial proposition; As an Austrian Jew, Spielmann’s situation became increasingly precarious , his license to practice as an architect was revoked in 1938. Spielmann fled to London with his daughter Anni, and then to New York where he became a naturalised US citizen in 1944. Spielmann seems to have continued the project in the USA but the instrument was probably overshadowed by the similar ‘Welte LichttonOrgel’ using similar technology (also Jewish escapees to New York), and dominance of the Hammond Organ in the home instrument market.

xx
Letter to Spielmann advocating the  Superpiano from Albert Einstein. USA 1944

Spielmann's patent for the photo-electrical sound generator
Spielmann’s 1928 patent for the photo-electrical sound generator

 

Video of Peter Donhauser – Head of Division Fundamentals of Technology & Science at the Vienna Technical Museum – with the Spuperpiano: http://klangmaschinen.ima.or.at/db/pv.php?id=2013&lang=en&table=Object

first show of the superpiano 2

Superpiano editorial in the Southeast Missourian Newspaper. 1929
Superpiano editorial in the Southeast Missourian Newspaper. 1929

Contemporary newspaper clippings The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 - 1954)
Contemporary newspaper clippings The Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954)

Contemporary newspaper clippings. Straights Times, Singapore 1929
Contemporary newspaper clippings. Straights Times, Singapore 1929

Front view of the Superpiano showing tone-mixing knee lever, pedals and loudspeaker
Front view of the Superpiano showing tone-mixing knee lever, pedals and loudspeaker

naturalisation papers of Emerich Spielmann. 1944
U.S. naturalisation papers of Emerich Spielmann. 1944

Emerich(Ernst) Moses Spielmann – 23.06.1873  Vienna, Austria – 1952 Elmhurst, Queens, New York USA. Biographical notes

Emerich Spielmann, was a Viennese architect born into a Jewish family in the mid-19th century in Moravia. His father was a merchant Hermann Spielmann (1842-1925), his mother Josephine Franzos (1850-1918). Spielmann studied after high school from 1892 to 1899 at the Institute of Technology at King Karl and Karl Mayr Eder . He then worked until 1903 in the Wilhelm Stiassny and Friedrich Ohmann architectural practise. In 1904  he began a collaboration with the architect Alfred Teller working in the Viennese secessionist style and later to neo-baroque and classical forms, until 1932,  when he worked independently with his own practice. As a Jew, in 1938 Spielmann’s  license to practice was revoked by the Nazi authorities. He fled to London 1939  with his daughter Anna on May 6 and arrived on August 22, 1944 in New York where he became a naturalised citizen in 1944. He l died in New York in 1952.


 Sources

Peter Donhauser, Elektrische Klangmaschinen, Vienna 2007.

The archive of  Regina Spelman, Deborah Lucas, Dan Lucas