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


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





Yamaha GS1& GS2 Yamaha Corp, Japan, 1981

Yamaha GS1 FM Synthesiser
Yamaha GS1 FM Synthesiser

In 1960 the composer, musician, percussionist and mathematician, John Chowning taught computer-sound synthesis and composition at Stanford University’s Department of Music and developed a version of Max Mathews MUSIC audio programming language, MUSIC II for the PDP8 computer. During this period he began experimenting with high frequency modulation of a sine tone and discovered that by using audio-rate modulation (rather than a lower frequency control-rate LFO type modulation) he could create new tones rich in harmonics. In 1973 Chowning published his research in a paper ‘The Synthesis of Complex Audio Spectra by Means of Frequency Modulation’ which eventually lead to the creation of a new approach to audio synthesis known as ‘Frequency Modulation Synthesis’ or FM Synthesis and to the development of the world’s best selling synthesiser; yamaha’s DX range ( Stanford university is rumoured to have collected more than $20 million in license fees and enabling it rebuild the Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) department).

Yamaha GS1 programmer
Yamaha GS1 external programmer

In 1971 Max Mathews suggested to Chowning that he create a library of recognisable sounds exploiting FM Synthesis’ ability to emulate harmonic rich timbres – brass, percussion, strings and so-on – and to use Stanford University to approach companies for him. After being turned down by several US based companies such as Wurlitzer and Hammond, Chowning and Stanford approached, somewhat desperately, Yamaha in Japan. Yamaha were looking for a new type of electronic instrument having failed to capitalise on the success of the CS80 and GX1 Synthesisers. Yamaha’s Organ Division bought a license for one year; enough to investigate the commercial potential of FM synthesis. The first application of Chownings FM algorithm was in 1975; a monophonic prototype digital synthesiser called MAD. This was soon followed by a polyphonic FM synthesiser prototype released as a production model in 1981 as the Yamaha GS1.

Advert for the GS1 in 1982
Advert for the GS1 in 1982

The GS1 was an expensive (around £12,000 in 1981) FM synthesiser (but not the first FM synthesiser, this was the even more expensive New England Digital Synclavier released in 1978). The arrival of FM synthesis was greeted with confusion and horror by electronic musicians who had just become used to subtractive modular analogue systems. FM synthesis is a radically different approach to sound synthesis; subtractive starts with a complex waveform and subtracts harmonics and tone with filters and modulation to produce the desired timbre whereas Additive Synthesis has no filters but creates varying timbres through the application of combinations of modulators or ‘operators’.

Advert for the GS1 in 1981
Advert for the GS1 in 1981

The GS1 had eight operators arranged as four modulators per voice (two on the GS2 model) – which was a very basic implementation of FM. Despite this, the sound quality of the instrument was very impressive, and, despite the perceived complexity of programming FM (alleviated by yamaha supplying a bank of 500 preset sounds on a data stick) the GS1 found favour amongst the large recording studios who could afford them (only around 100 units were sold).

Yamaha ce20 preset FM synthesiser
Yamaha ce20 preset FM synthesiser

The GS1&2 were superseded in 1982 by the more affordable (£850) mass-market, preset CE20 and CE25 FM keyboards and then a year later in 1983 by the legendary DX7 FM synthesiser.



john m chowning
john m chowning

John M Chowning Biographical notes

Chowning was born in Salem, New Jersey in 1934. Following military service and four years at Wittenberg University, he studied composition in Paris with Nadia Boulanger.  He received the doctorate in composition (DMA) from Stanford University in 1966, where he studied with Leland Smith.  In 1964, with the help of Max Mathews of Bell Telephone Laboratories and David Poole of Stanford University, he set up a computer music program using the computer system of Stanford’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Beginning the same year he began the research that led to the first generalized surround sound localization algorithm.  Chowning discovered the frequency modulation synthesis (FM) algorithm in 1967. This breakthrough in the synthesis of timbres allowed a very simple yet elegant way of creating and controlling time-varying spectra. Inspired by the perceptual research of Jean-Claude Risset, he worked toward turning this discovery into a system of musical importance, using it extensively in his compositions.

In 1973 Stanford University licensed the FM synthesis patent to Yamaha in Japan, leading to the most successful synthesis engine in the history of electronic musical instruments. Chowning was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1988. He was awarded the Honorary Doctor of Music by Wittenberg University in 1990.  The French Ministre de la Culture awarded him the Diplôme d’Officier dans l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres in 1995 and he was awarded the Doctorat Honoris Causa in 2002 by the Université de la Méditerranée and in 2010 by Queen’s University, Belfast. He taught computer-sound synthesis and composition at Stanford University’s Department of Music.  In 1974, with John Grey, James (Andy) Moorer, Loren Rush and Leland Smith, he founded the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), which remains one of the leading centers for computer music and related research.



‘The Synthesis of Complex Audio Spectra by Means of Frequency Modulation’ Chowning J.  Journal of the Audio Engineering Society.J. Audio Eng. Soc. 21 (7), 526-534. 1973

The ‘Coupigny Synthesiser’ François Coupigny, France, 1966

Coupigny Synthesisier
Coupigny Synthesisier

During the late 1960’s an intense intellectual animosity developed between the GRM and WDR studios ; The French GRM, lead by Pierre Schaeffer championed a Gallic free ‘Musique Concrete’ approach based on manipulated recordings of everyday sounds contrasting with the Teutonic German WDR’s ‘Electronische Musik’ approach of strict mathematical formalism and tonality (probably a simplistic analysis; read Howard Slater’s much ore insightful essay on the schism). This divergence in theory meant that the studios developed in diverging ways; the Parisian GRM based on manipulation of tape recording and ‘real sound’ and the WDR studio on purely electronically synthesised sound.


Part of the Coupigny Synthesiser and EMI mixing desk
Part of the Coupigny Synthesiser and EMI mixing desk

After this rivalry had subsided in the early 1970’s Groupe de Recherches decided to finally integrate electronic synthesis into the studio equipment. The result of this was the  ‘Coupigny synthesiser’ designed and built by engineer François Coupigny around 1966 and was integrated into the 24 track mixing console of Studio 54 at the GRM. Despite this, the synthesiser was designed with ‘Musique Concrete’ principles in mind:

“…a synthesiser with parametrical control was something Pierre Schaeffer was against, since it favoured the preconception of music and therefore deviated from Schaeffer’s principal of ‘making through listening’ . Because of Schaeffer’s concerns, the Coupigny synthesiser was conceived as a sound-event generator with parameters controlled globally, without a means to define values as precisely as some other synthesisers of the day”
(Daniel Teruggi 2007, 219–20).

Pierre Schafer by the console of Studi 54 with the Coupigny Synthesisier
Pierre Schaeffer by the console of Studio 54 adjusting  Moog, the Coupigny Synthesiser is built into the panel directly below.

The Coupigny Synthesiser was a modular system allowing patching of it’s five oscillators using a pin matrix  system (probably the first instrument to use this patching technique, seen later in the EMS designs) to various filters, LFOs (three of them) and a ring modulator. Later versions were expanded using a collection of VCA controlled Moog oscillators and filter modules. The instrument was completely integrated into the studio system allowing it to control remote tape recorders and interface with external equipment. Unlike many other electronic instruments and perhaps due to Schaeffer’s concerns over ‘parametrical control’, the Coupigny Synthesiser had no keyboard – instead it was controlled by a complex envelope generator to modulate the sound. This made the synthesiser less effective at creating precisely defined notes and sequences but better suited to generating continuous tones to be later edited manually on tape. The Coupigny Synthesiser continues to be used at the GRM studio to this day.

The console of Studio 45 at the GRM
The console of Studio 45 at the GRM


Click to access slater_heterozygotic.pdf

Gareth Loy ‘Musimathics: The Mathematical Foundations of Music, Volume 2’

‘From magnetic tape to mouse’ by Daniel Teruggi


the ‘Clavier à Lampe’ (1927), ‘Automatic Electrical Musical Instrument’ (1929) and ‘Orgue Radioélectrique’. Joseph Armand Marie Givelet, France. 1927

Armand Givelet behind the early monophonic Clavier a Lampe: “Les premiers essais de musique radio-électrique avec clavier ont été faits par Givelet qui construisit, avec des moyens plus que rudimentaires, un appareil fonctionnant parfaitement.” Image from: Phonographes et Musique Mécanique, Eugène-H. WEISS. Bibliothèque des Merveilles, Librairie Hachette. 1930.(édition de juin 1930), 16.

Armand Givelet was one of several post ww1 military radio operators who coincidentally discovered the musical possibilities of body capacitance to control the radio howl generated by vacuum tube radio feedback – in essence using the body as a variable capacitor to change the pitch of an audio oscillator. Alongside Maurice Martenot (The Ondes Martenot), Leon Termen (The Theremin) and others, Givelet exploited the feedback howl effect to generate a controllable sine pitch for an electronic instrument. Givelet’s instrument christened the Clavier à Lampe. This instrument was a simple a battery powered, monophonic, single oscillator device controlled by a two octave keyboard which Givelet designed to circumnavigate the poor audio fidelity of 1920s microphone technology by directly connecting the output of the instrument into a radio transmitter – the ‘direct injection’ method. The Clavier à Lampe premiered at the Trocadero Theatre, Paris in 1927  1 Hischak claims, probably in error, that Givelet took the Piano Radio Èlectrique on a promotional tour to the United States starting with a performance at the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia on June 9th 1927: Hischak. Thomas, S.  A Day-by-Day Chronicle of the Jazz Age’s Greatest Year, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 127.. The first broadcast using Givelet’s direct injection method was made on the 27th March 1928 at the “Société des Ingénieurs Civils, Paris.

Givelet’s ultimate ambition, however, was to create a multi-tube polyphonic organ for use in radio broadcasts and liturgical music. To achieve this, Givelet began a lengthy collaboration with Eloi Coupleux of Coupleux Frerès – organ manufacturer and distributor based in Tourcing near Lille. The first fruit of this collaboration was the prototype Automatic radio-electric piano – essentially a five note polyphonic version of the Clavier à Lampe combined with a pianola style punch-paper controller (Coupleux Frerès had the monopoly for the distribution of Aeolian player-pianos in France). The coupleux-Givelet Automatic radio-electric piano was successfully demonstrated to an enthusiastic audience at the Congrès de la Radiodiffusion at the Salle Pleyel  (252 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, 75008 Paris) on 16 November 1929:

The 1929 version of the ‘Automatic Radio Electric Piano’:  Eloi Coupleaux on the Left and Armand Givelet on the right. Image from: Phonographes et Musique Mécanique, Eugène-H. WEISS. Bibliothèque des Merveilles, Librairie Hachette. 1930. (édition de juin 1930), 14.

“After the remarkable speeches of M M. Mantoux and Ricard, organizers of the Congress were vigorously applauded by more than two thousand spectators, MM. Eloi Coupleux and A. Givelet, presented a musical wave (‘ondes musicales’) device of their own invention which automatically produces orchestral polyphony thanks to the unwinding of a perforated roller. […]

Eloi Coupleux and A. Givelet have succeeded in producing simultaneous notes thanks to several oscillating circuits operating at the same time with the help of a piano keyboard. From there to associating the automatic control of a piano, there was only one step: the strip (or the perforated cardboard) acts on a pan flute and controls the operation of the keys with more precision and accuracy using its electrical contacts instead of the ‘sledgehammers’ (of an organ or piano).

The extremely ingenious combinations of the device make it possible to obtain tremolo and other variable characteristics of the oscillating circuit of the corresponding note. Timbral variations are also created by the actions of filters, or superimposed oscillations. We also have at will a hard or soft, progressive attack of the note.

The re-creation of a piano or a radio organ obviously requires a large number of oscillating circuits and lamps but this number is considerably reduced by bringing in frequency doublers, for example, which make it possible to immediately obtain the notes of the upper scale.”2Lallemant, Paul, ‘En Marge De La Profession’ , Le Moniteur des architectes : organe… de la Société nationale des architectes de France, Paris, 01/04/1933, 66-70.

A third prototype from the Givelet-Coupleux collaboration was a was a fully polyphonic organ with 2 manuals and pedals known as the Orgue radio-électrique which was shown at the Académie des Sciences, Paris on October 6th, 1930. This instrument was developed into what became the final instrument from the Givelet–Coupleux team, a huge multi-oscillator polyphonic organ christened the Orgue des Ondes.

Armand Givelet Biographical notes

Armand Givelet (born: 21 07 1889 Reims France – died: 09 11 1963 La Varenne St-Hilaire, St-Maur-des-Fossés) was originally  an engineer in the French military during the First World War but  soon recognised the potential of Lee De Forest’s triode technology. He founded and became president of the Radio-Club de France (1921) and the T.S.F. (‘Transmission sans fil’ or Wireless) engineering school. Givelet became a recognised authority on radio technology and an inventor who held many patents for radio and broadcast equipment as well as his work with electromechanical (tone-wheel) and valve based electronic musical instruments; His particular contribution was a stabilised audio oscillator that used much less power than previous triode circuitry.

Givelet’s first complete instrument was the The monophonic Piano Radio-électrique unveiled in 1927. In early 1929 Givelet began a lengthy collaboration with the organ Builder Eloi Coupleux and the Coupleux-frères company  that produced some of the earliest polyphonic electronic organs – designed primarily for the church and religious music market. The largest of the Coupleux-Givelet instruments was the Orgue des Ondes built initially for Le Poste Parisien – a huge instrument which comprised of 200 oscillator tubes producing 70 different timbres or stops. Despite their unique features, The Coupleux-Givelet organs were rapidly made obsolete by much smaller and cheaper organs such as the Hammond Organ. Only four Orgue des Ondes were sold by Coupleux-frères to churches in France.

Givelet also wrote radio plays under the pseudonym Charles de Puymordant.3 Poincignon, Jean-Gabriel , La Renaissance du Radio Club de France, Le Haut-Parleur, N° 820, Juillet 1948, 359. and published a number of books on physics and music.

An article in Parole Libre (29-10-1927) describes the character and appearance of Armand Givelet:

“Mr. Armand Givelet has produced a number of inventions, including some outside the the wireless industry.  As early as 1917 he built a spark-gap transmitter without valves and the first commercial amplifier in 1918 . The silhouette of M. Givelet is amusing: very long, dry, a little bent. Author of magazines on the T.S.F., he always appears smiling. Very short-sighted, with wrinkled eyelids, he is constantly browsing. Very dark, he has a thick goatee, short mustache, high hair. He is gesticulating, active, endearing. Vice President short mustache, high hair. It is wide, overflowing, a little diffuse. At 38, he not only has a magnificent past, but the whole future of the most knowledgeable, most disinterested and most deserving scientist, despite being… French!”

Caricature of Armand Givelet: Armand Givelet Inventeur. La Parole libre : supplément du Journal parlé…. 10-29-1927, 2.


Carpentier, Olivier .’L’ Aventure industrielle des frères Coupleux, 1900-1935′ Préface de Douglas Heffer, éditions de l’ Inoui, 2004.

La Vie et les ondes : l’oeuvre de Georges Lakhovsky / Michel Adam et Armand Givelet, 1936.

Givelet, A. ‘L’Orgue Electronique Système Coupleux-Givelet de l’église de Villemomble, près Paris, Le Genie Civil: revue générale des industries françaises et étrangères, 1932-03-05. 244-246.

‘Instrument de Musique synthétique (Piano Radioélectrique), Le Genie Civil: revue générale des industries françaises et étrangères, 18/02/1928. 175.

Le Monde, 1989-07-21, 23.


  • 1
    Hischak claims, probably in error, that Givelet took the Piano Radio Èlectrique on a promotional tour to the United States starting with a performance at the Trocadero Theatre in Philadelphia on June 9th 1927: Hischak. Thomas, S.  A Day-by-Day Chronicle of the Jazz Age’s Greatest Year, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 127.
  • 2
    Lallemant, Paul, ‘En Marge De La Profession’ , Le Moniteur des architectes : organe… de la Société nationale des architectes de France, Paris, 01/04/1933, 66-70.
  • 3
    Poincignon, Jean-Gabriel , La Renaissance du Radio Club de France, Le Haut-Parleur, N° 820, Juillet 1948, 359.


‘Clavecin Électrique’ or ‘Clavessin Électrique’. Jean-Baptiste Delaborde, France. 1759.

The ‘Clavessin Electrique’ from Jean-Baptiste Laborde’s  “Le Clavessin électrique; avec une nouvelle théorie du mécanisme et des phénomènes de l’électricité” 1761.

This instrument was constructed by the Jesuit priest Jean-Baptiste Delaborde in Paris, France, 1759. The Clavecin Électrique or ‘Electric Harpsichord’ is one of the earliest documented instruments that used electricity to create musical sound. Despite it’s name The Clavecin Électrique was not a stringed instrument but a carillon type keyboard instrument using a static electrical charge (supplied by a Leyden Jar, an early form of capacitor invented by the Dutch scientist Pieter van Musschenbroek of Leiden around 1745) to vibrate metal bells – The mechanism based on a contemporary warning-bell device: The warning bell mechanism was based on an apparently unnamed method used in early electrical laboratories to audibly warn an experimenter of the presence of an electrical charge; it was probably invented by Andreas [Andrew] Gordon in Erfurt in 1741 and was described or demonstrated to Benjamin Franklin in Boston in 1746. An eight-bell instrument based on this principle was developed in about 1747 by Ebenezer Kinnersley, an associate of Franklin in Philadelphia, and the device subsequently received substantial publicity when it was mentioned in Franklin’s publication of his experiments with atmospheric electricity. Nearly 80 years were to elapse before the next sounds were produced by electricity 1 Davis, Hugh. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians . This method allowed the player to create a series sustained notes from the bells, similar to an organ:

Two metal bells tuned in unison are hung, one with a silk thread, one with a wire onto a metal rod itself both hanging free by means of a silk thread at each end. Based on the principles of static electricity a beater, also hung on a silk thread is alternately attracted and rejected by each bell as soon at is released through holding down a key, n  positive and negative fields being created in the bells.2De Hen, Ferdinand J. ‘The Harpsichord and Clavichord: An Encyclopedia’ Routledge 2007, p71

The cover of Delaborde’s ‘Clavessin Electrique’ of 1761 – A misleading name of the instrument was an intentional attempt to elevate his invention above that of a Carillon – a mere musical-box: 3 Image:
“The electrical matter has something of the soul, as air is to the body, the guardian of the bellows globe, and ‘the conductor of the wind-door. The key is in the organ as a brake, with which moderates the effect of the air, I posed the same brake on the electric matter, despite his sensitivity, his agility. The air trapped in the organ there groaning, so long as the organist, as another Aeolus, opened the doors of his prison. If at the same time he took away all the barriers that stop, another would not produce a great confusion and disorder, but he does it Sorting […] with discernment. The electrical matter abode even as it locked up, and you feel unnecessarily around the bells of the new harpsichord, to the extent that is given the freedom, coll’abbassare the keys: it then becomes with great rapidity, but ceases d ‘ operate, as soon as the keys reassemble. This kind of cymbal hath also an advantage that others do not have, that is that where it ‘cymbals ordinary the non-continuous sound weakening; electric organ and harpsichord retains all the strength that the fingers remain on the keys.” 4 De Hen, Ferdinand, J. ‘The Harpsichord and Clavichord: An Encyclopedia’ . Routledge, 2007, p71
Delaborde added that during a performance in a dark room the listener’s “eyes are agreeably surprised by the brilliant sparks” that were produced by the instrument and that “the clavessin became at the same time audible and visible” . This phenomena may have lead to the creation of the Clavecin Oculaire by the fellow Jesuit Louis Bertrand Castel, an early exploration of the relationship between pitch and colour. The Clavecin Électrique was well received by the press and the public but wasn’t developed further. The model Delaborde himself built survives and is kept at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

The Clavessin électrique at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris
The Clavecin électrique at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris

Description of the Clavecin by Marc Michel Rey, 1759 in his "Le journal des sçavans, combiné avec les mémoires de Trévoux"
Description of the Clavecin by Marc Michel Rey, 1759 in his “Le journal des sçavans, combiné avec les mémoires de Trévoux”



  • 1
    Davis, Hugh. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians 
  • 2
    De Hen, Ferdinand J. ‘The Harpsichord and Clavichord: An Encyclopedia’ Routledge 2007, p71
  • 3
  • 4
    De Hen, Ferdinand, J. ‘The Harpsichord and Clavichord: An Encyclopedia’ . Routledge, 2007, p71


Laborde, Jean-Baptiste de, “Le Clavessin électrique; avec une nouvelle théorie du mécanisme et des phénomènes de l’électricité”. Réimpression de l’édition de Paris, Guérin, Delatour, 1761. Genève, 1997. 1 volume in-16 de 192 pages, broché.

Rey, Marc Michel”Le journal des sçavans, combiné avec les mémoires de Trévoux”, 1759. Volumes 45-46

Sabatier de Castres, Antoine et Prefort (l’abbe Bassin de Prefort)”Dictionnaire des origines, decouvertes, inventions et …” Volume 1.

Schiffer, M. B., Hollenback, K. L., & Bell, C. L. (2003). Draw the lightning down: Benjamin franklin and electrical technology in the age of enlightenment. Berkeley: University of California Press.

“Mémoires pour l’histoire des sciences et des beaux-arts”, Volume 236; Volume 1759


The ‘Sonothèque’. Léonce Lavallée, France. 1936

Léonce Lavallée’s ‘Sonothèque’ or “sound library” was a  “coded performance electronic instrument using photo-electric translation of engraved grooves”. The instrument was capable of reading music and sounds encoded graphically with conductive ink sensed by a set of electrically charged brushes – a graphic encoding method that was used a decade later by John hanert with the Hanert Electric Orchestra .

The instrument was patented (FR806076) in 1936 as ‘Dispositif pour la reproduction sonore d’une partition de musique avec utilisation d’enregistrement de sons élémentaires’ or ‘Device for the sound reproduction of a musical score using the recording of elementary sounds’ and, according to Le Caine was demonstrated in Paris in 1929:

“The first public demonstration of “synthetic music” made by electronic devices was at the Paris Exposition of 1929, where a roll-operated device consisting of four monophonic electronic oscillators was shown with great success. Following the basic patent covering this device,*” there are other similar French patents. In one of these,“ a number of different devices are described, that allow the composer or arranger to draw by hand the sound envelope. In one form of the invention, the arranger engraves a groove in a suitable support which varies either in depth or in position at right angles to the time axis. When the music is reproduced, a needle following the groove operates an optical wedge to control the light passing through a sound-on-film recording to a photocell. In another form of the invention, the arranger draws by hand in conductive ink, a mark of varying width or position which is read by a series of brushes to set up the sound envelope. As a sound source, the inventor uses a “sound library” (sonothéque) consisting of suitable supports on which are recorded by any known method the various notes of the various instruments, in addition to vocal sounds and other noises. As an alternative, synthesis from pure tones is mentioned.”


Thomas LaMar Rhea. ‘The Evolution of Electronic Musical Instruments in the United States’ 1972

Hugh Le Caine, ‘Electronic Music’, Proceedings of the IRE, 44 (1956), pp. 457–78.


The ‘Clavioline’ M. Constant Martin, France, 1947

The selmer Clavioline
The Selmer Concert Clavioline

The Clavioline was designed to be a light portable electronic keyboard aimed at pop musicians of the time and became one of the most popular electronic instruments during the fifties. The Clavioline was a monophonic, portable, battery powered keyboard instrument. The first version of the instrument appeared in 1947 and was originally designed by M. Constant. Martin in 1947 at his factory in Versailles, France. The Clavioline consisted of two units: the keyboard with the controllable sound unit and a carrying case box fitted with an with amplifier and speaker. By using an octave transposer switch the single oscillator could be set within a range of five octaves (six in the Bode version). The keyboard unit had 18 switches (22 in the Selmer version) for controlling timbre ( via a high pass filter and a low pass filter ), octave range and attack plus two controls for vibrato speed and intensity. The overall volume was controlled by a knee lever. Martin produced a duophonic model of the Clavioline in 1949 shaped like a small grand piano and featuring a 2 note polyphonic system, the duophonic model never went into production.

The selmer Clavioline
The Selmer Clavioline with stand, amplifier and loudspeaker cabinet

The Clavioline made brass and string sounds which were considered very natural at the time and was widely used throughout 1950’s and 60’s by pop musicians such as the Beatles, Joe Meek’s ‘the Tornadoes’ (on’Telstar’)and by experimental the jazz musician Sun Ra.

The Clavioline was licensed to various to various global manufacturers such as Selmer (UK) and Gibson (USA). An expanded concert version was produced in 1953 by René Seybold and Harald Bode, marketed by the Jörgensen Electronic Company of Düsseldorf, Germany. In the 1940’s Claviolines were also built into large dance-hall organs by the Belgian company Decap and Mortimer/Van Der Bosch.


M.C.Martin: ‘L’apport de l’électronique à l’expression musicale’, Science et vie, ixxviii(1950),161
‘The Electronic Musical Instrument Manual’ A.Douglas. (London/5/1968)152