Matthias (or Matthäus) Hipp’s – (Blaubeuren, 25 October 1813 – 3 May 1893 in Fluntern) –many inventions and adaptations include; Chronoscopes, Chronographs, Galvanometers, railway signalling equipment, watch and clock mechanisms, Telegraphic time detectors, telexes, networked electronic clocks, fire alarms, Microphones, Seismographs, electronic Gyroscopes and possibly the first electro-magnetic musical instrument.
Hipp described his invention in the 1867 edition of the Polytechnisches Journal – Das elektrische Clavier; von M. Hipp, Director der Telegraphen-Fabrik in Neuenburg (Schweiz). 1Polytechnisches Journal. Herausgegeben von Dr. Emil Maximilian Dingler. Hundertdreiundachtzigster Band. Jahrgang 1867. Hipp’s instrument, a confluence of the technologies of watch mechanics, telegraphy and electro-magnetism, was an electro-mechanical player-piano, controlled by a perforated paper role. (and itself an improved version of an earlier (1861) attempt at building an electrical piano by Herr Andrea of Sindelfingen, Baden-Württemberg Germany). Music was encoded into the paper by cutting variable length perforations – pitch and duration– with a separate track for volume. The paper roll traversed over a set of brushes or ‘feathers’ which they made contact through the perforations, closed a circuit and triggered the piano hammer mechanism of a standard acoustic piano:
2The electric pianino. Author: Anonymous. Dingler’s Polytechnisches Journal. Herausgegeben von Johann Zeman in Augsburg und Dr. Ferd. Fischer in Hannover. Zweihundertundachtzehnter Band. Jahrgang 1875.volume 218 (pp. 457-458)
“A small instrument serves as a player–machine, in which there is a resilient metal tip for each key; these tips rest on a metal roller with corresponding pressure and send the electric current through the associated electromagnet every time this roller is touched, thus causing the relevant note to strike. Over the roller and between it and the tips runs (as in Bain’s telegraph) a wide, perforated paper tape; the position of the holes across the strip determines the height or depth of the notes to be played at the same time, the length of the holes in the direction of the length of the strip determines the duration of each note. The correct guidance of the paper tape on the Hipp’s Piano is effected by guide tips on the metal roller, by engaging the same in guide holes on the two edges of the paper tape.”
Hipp’s instrument –or more correctly, piano-player–was sent to the Paris World Expo exhibition in 1878 but, according to the Polytechnisches Journal it took six weeks to travel to Paris, arriving just before the end of the exhibition and therefore failed to attract much publicity. Hipp made two further electric pianos, one for the music dealer ‘Heller in Bern’ which was displayed at the 1873 Vienna World’s Fair. A similar instrument was then developed by Hermann Spieß who worked with Hipp on the original instrument. Spiess produced an instrument for F. Kaufmann und Sohn in Dresden which was on public display from 1872 playing ‘large and small pieces to the visitors’.
Walczyk3 “Electroacoustic Music A brief historical outline and recorded anthology”. Kevin M Walczyk , Western Oregon University. 1997, Keveli Music also suggested that Hipp used electronically controlled dynamos to produce electro-acoustically generated sound, presumably the same tone-wheel method deployed later by Cahill in his Telharmonium of 1897 – this however, is unlikely because there would have been no way of amplifying or hearing the electronic sound. It is more likely that the instrument was based on the activation of metal tines in a magnetic field akin to Elisha Gray’s Musical Telegraph of 1874.
“Going back to the first electrical instruments, the conception of the electromechanic piano is due to Hipps (whose first name is unknown). This instrument was essentially composed of a keyboard which would activate some electrical magnets.These in their own right would activate some dynamos (small electrical current generators), the devices actually responsible for sound production. They were the same dynamos which, almost a century later, would be used in Cahill’s Telharmonium”
It is possible that Hipp extended the mechanism of the ‘Hipp Chronoscope’. The Chronoscope was an electronic clock designed to measure micro-events based around an escape mechanism regulated by a high frequency vibrating metal tine (rather than a pendulum):
“We all know that some piano tuners are prodigiously accurate, and we can presume that similar paragons staffed the tuning fork manufactures of 19th century Europe. However, any physics course will show you that tuning forks have an easier potential for high accuracy of frequencies than many other devices. This potential is found in the audible phenomenon of beats, in which two tuning forks which are very slightly different will produce a signal of varying loudness. The frequency of this varying loudness is the difference in frequency of the two forks, thus permitting easy adjustment of the erring fork.” 4 ‘The Controversy between G. E. Müller and Wilhelm Wundt over the proper measurement of reaction time’. Edward J. Haupt , Montclair State University 1999.
By simply changing the voltage supply to the metal tines via a keyboard, Hipp would have been able to create a scaled set of frequencies. Whatever technique Hipp used, the Electromechanical Piano seems to have been a one-off curio for Hipp, it doesn’t appear anywhere alongside the more commercial inventions in his illustrated catalogues of the period or in the inventory of the Neuchatel Telegraph factory.
- 1Polytechnisches Journal. Herausgegeben von Dr. Emil Maximilian Dingler. Hundertdreiundachtzigster Band. Jahrgang 1867.
- 2The electric pianino. Author: Anonymous. Dingler’s Polytechnisches Journal. Herausgegeben von Johann Zeman in Augsburg und Dr. Ferd. Fischer in Hannover. Zweihundertundachtzehnter Band. Jahrgang 1875.volume 218 (pp. 457-458)
- 3“Electroacoustic Music A brief historical outline and recorded anthology”. Kevin M Walczyk , Western Oregon University. 1997, Keveli Music
- 4‘The Controversy between G. E. Müller and Wilhelm Wundt over the proper measurement of reaction time’. Edward J. Haupt , Montclair State University 1999.
7 thoughts on “‘Electromechanical Piano’ Matthias Hipp, Switzerland,1867”
There is a description of the Piano in “Rapport sur le piano électrique de M. Hipp à la Société commerciale et industrielle de Neuchâtel / [collab.: Ed. Dubied, L. Kurz, Léopold Lenz]
Neuchâtel : Impr. de H. Wolfrath et Metzner, 1869”. If somebody is interested, I can send him a scan of the article (in French),
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I was researching the history of electronic instruments for an assignment and found this site very helpful. During my extended research on this particular instrument I stumbled upon a very interesting site that digitalizes old archives and found an abstract that seems to have been written by Hipp himself, in which he describes how the electromechanical Piano was developed and how it functions.
You can find it here: http://dingler.culture.hu-berlin.de/article/pj183/ar183053 (the text is in old german)