Melvin L. Severy was an American engineer and inventor from Arlington Heights, Massachusetts – probably best known as the inventor of the Choralcelo; a huge hybrid electronic and electro-mechanical organ and the culmination of many years research and experimentation with electro-acoustics1 See US patents US1098983, US1104282, US1137544, US1181486, US1190332, US1196401,US1201513, US1218324, US1245518, US1899884, US2155741. Severy was also responsible for numerous patents on inventions as diverse as typewriters (1903), bottling machines (1882), piano-tuning devices (1912), telegraphic systems, steam boilers (1893), steam engines (1894), cameras (1907), orthopaedic shoes, thermo-chemical batteries (1899), solar panels for generating electricity (1894), an iron-lung (1916) and what is probably the first audio ‘sampling’ instrument, which he described simply as ‘Sound Producing Device’ in 1912:2US Patent Office. Melvin L Severy US1218324 A. Publication date 6 Mar 1917
“The object of the present invention is the construction of an improved musical instrument in which the sonorous vibrations are produced electromagnetically by the movement of phonograms of magnetic material past electromagnetic sound producing mechanism.”3 M L Severy, Sound producing device, application filed mar, 22 1913. Patented mar 6, 1917 p1, part 10.
It is unknown whether the ‘Sound-Producing Device’ was actually built – Severy didn’t use any similar mechanisms in the Choralcelo – yet the ‘Sound-Producing Device’ predicted the future of sampling instruments such as the Chamberlin and Mellotron by half a century and perhaps invented the concept of sampling.
Severy’s device was based around the concept of printing numerous magnetic spectrogram or recorded sounds as endless loops on rotating wheels. A magnetic pick-up would be placed near the spectrogram disk and in turn, transmit a variable magnetic pulse that would active a speaker membrane – or, in a manner similar to Cahill’s Telharmonium, transmit the signal through the newly established telephone network.
The instrument was to have numerous spectrogram for each note representing the various fundamentals and timbres of the recorded sound – a concept that was new for the time and most likely inspired by H. Helmholtz’s ‘On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music‘ (first published in English in 1875). These different timbres could be mixed using organ-style stops. Variation in pitch was achieved simply by altering the speed of the disc for each note and the volume of each note by keyboard pressure which moved the pick-up nearer to the sonogram disc.
Each note of the instrument had its own speaker making the ‘Sound-Producing Device’ fully polyphonic as well as velocity sensitive.
Severy suggested several possible formats for encoded spectrograms including a (fig 11) paper-roll strips for long recordings, (fig 14, 14) disks with multiple pick-ups and an Edison type tube (fig 13):
“There are many ways in which the timbre forms may be made, such as stamping them from thin sheet metal; printing them on the cylinder with a magnetic ink; printing them with a sticky ink and then dusting the impression with iron filings or other magnetic particles; by electroplating, or by using a coating of paste impregnated with magnetic filings and various other methods, as will be obvious. The main idea is to secure a uniform layer of magnetic material whose lateral extent varies according to the variations of the sound waves to be produced.” 4Melvin Severy. U.S. Patent notes. US1218324 A.2 March 1913
Severy had already, In 1910, patented an automatic spectrogram or ‘Harmonograms’ recorder that mechanical wrote a sound recording to a rotating disc that would allow the recording and production of spectrograms for his instrument:
Severy explained how the instrument could be used to record and playback any sound:
“It is evident that by having some fine singer deliver into a phonautograph one or more complete octaves of musical notes, singing the broad A, for instance, and then having these phonautographs reproduced into timbre forms the instrument can be adapted for the repetition of the tones of the human voice. It is only necessary to secure a phonautograph of a single octave of the original notes for the reason that the other tones required are the mere variable speed of the first.”5Melvin Severy. U.S. Patent notes. US1218324 A.2 March 1913
Melvin Linwood Severy. Biographical Notes.
Melvin Linwood Severy; born August 5, 1863 Melrose, Mass; died. Los Angeles, California 1951.
Severy was educated at Walpole, Mass. high school, Boston; grad school and Monroe Coll. of Oratory. Severy worked as a florist and as a teacher teaching elocution and oratory and as an actor (where he acted with Edwin Booth, brother of the assassin of Abraham Lincoln) Severy began his lengthy and successful career as an inventor in 1882 and eventually held over 80 patents including the Severy Printing Process (which won him John Scott medal of Franklin Institute in 1898), the Choralcelo, Vocalcelo and Vocalsevro (later name for the Choralcelo), fluid transmission for cars, telegraphic devices, engines, Health devices, typewriters and so-on.
Severy founded numerous businesses from his own inventions including the Ex-pres Severy Impression Process Co., Choralcelo Mfg. Co., Choralcelo Co., dir. Solar Power Co., and the Automatic Tympan Co.
As well as inventing, Severy found time to write books of fiction and non fiction including: ‘Fleur-de-lis and Other Stories’, ‘Materialization and Other Spiritual Phenomena from a Scientific Standpoint’ (1897), ‘The Darrow Enigma’( 1904), ‘ ‘The Mystery of June Thirteenth’ (1905), ‘Maitland’s Master Mystery’ and ‘Gillette’s Social Redemption (1907), ‘Gillette’s Industrial Solution’ (1903) both commissioned by King Gillette the inventor of the safety razor.
In ‘The Darrow Enigma’( 1904) Severy accurately predicts the use of light beams (lasers) as a surveillance method:
“The device whereby I secure this at such a distance is an invention of my own which, for patent reasons–I might almost say ‘patent patent reasons’–I will ask you to kindly keep to yourself. To the diaphragm there I fasten this bit of burnished silver. Upon this I concentrate a pencil of light which, when reflected, acts photographically upon a sensitised moving tape in this little box, and perfectly registers the minutest movement of the receiving diaphragm. How I develop, etch, and reproduce this record, and transform it into a record of the ordinary type, you will see in due time–and will kindly keep secret for the present.” 6 Severy, Melvin L. The Darrow Enigma, Project Gutenberg Australia, Chapter III.
- 1See US patents US1098983, US1104282, US1137544, US1181486, US1190332, US1196401,US1201513, US1218324, US1245518, US1899884, US2155741
- 2US Patent Office. Melvin L Severy US1218324 A. Publication date 6 Mar 1917
- 3M L Severy, Sound producing device, application filed mar, 22 1913. Patented mar 6, 1917 p1, part 10.
- 4Melvin Severy. U.S. Patent notes. US1218324 A.2 March 1913
- 5Melvin Severy. U.S. Patent notes. US1218324 A.2 March 1913
- 6Severy, Melvin L. The Darrow Enigma, Project Gutenberg Australia, Chapter III.
2 thoughts on “‘Sound-Producing Device’ Melvin Linwood Severy, USA. 1913”
My aunt used to play in her grandfather Melvin’s lab when she was a child. She said he “had to” invent fluid drive in order to reduce the size of the electric motor that drove the heavy ceramic tone wheels on one of the organs; otherwise it was too difficult to get them moving. He started with ball bearings, then buck-shot, and eventually got it to work by ditching those, and using a viscous liquid instead.
She said he built one of the instruments upstairs in his house in L.A. It was so large, he had to remove the front of the house to get it out.
When he got home, he would drive his 1918 Chrysler up the steep driveway, into his garage, where he had built a turn-table for the car to sit on, so he could spin it 180, and drive forward down the hill when leaving.
Melvin was also a partner in The Gillette Severy Company. It was on Orange street (in Hollywood, CA). My dad said it was “the best equipped machine shop this side of the Mississippi”.
Somewhere.. I saw an old hard cover book of “Fantasia” images, that was autographed by Walt, thanking Melvin for his help (synchronizing the sound … via one of his patents from a decade earlier).
Interesting that some of the inventions shown above on this page (one with the paper tape) could be the basis for the Mellotron [a keyboard instrument the Beatles used]. Coincidently, a great-granddaughter of Melvin’s (Jann Haworth) co-designed the cover art for the “Sgt. Peppers” album.
I saw what was left of Melvin’s Laboratory about a half century ago, but by then, it had been integrated into my grandpa’s lab, so it wasn’t always easy to discern who had invented any particular device. It was as you might imagine… lots of dust and spider webs.
Melvin Severy was my great grandfather who died the year I was born so I never had the chance to meet him. I have heard some stories about him from my mother who was familiar with his house (which burnt down) and told me about the wonderful library and beautiful paintings which were lost in the fire. It is great to see a photo of Melvin as I didn’t know what he looked like before now.