Dracoswinsauer
Dracoswinsauer

10 Obscure Electronic Musical Instruments

Dracoswinsauer
Dracoswinsauer

You are no doubt familiar with the Moog synthesizer, the 1960s instrument that came to represent electronic music for most people, and the Theremin, which gave us spooky electronic sounds since the 1920s. But along the way, there were dozens of other instruments using various technologies that combined talent and technical developments to synthesize music. Here are a few you may not be familiar with.

1. Orchestrion 1805

Photograph by Jayron32.

Orchestrion is a name for an instrument that reproduced the sounds of many instruments. These music machines were powered by electricity and read music from a roll, much like a player piano. The first such instrument was the Panharmonicon, invented in 1805 by Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, a friend of Ludwig van Beethoven. The idea was expanded on by companies like Wurlitzer and Seeburg, until they became huge music machines that contained multiple instruments such as pipe organs, percussion, violins, and pianos. Large and expensive, they were used in saloons and other public places, where they were the precursors of the jukebox. Although they were electric, they produced music mechanically, so do not really fit the definition of electronic music. However, it’s a good starting place, as these instruments inspired others to recreate orchestral sounds by machine.

2. Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer c. 1890

The Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer is a steampunk wonder. Controlled by a tiny keyboard, it generated sound by manipulating tuning forks with magnets. It was designed by German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz sometime in the late 19th century while he was working on many other things. By combining overtones and varying the frequencies, he was able to mimic the sound and tone of a human voice, as well as other instruments. This particular model, from 1905, will go up for auction in October. 

3. Telharmonium 1897

Thaddeus Cahill invented the instrument he called the Telharmonium in 1897. The huge instrument produced music electronically by turning different-sized tone wheels with electric generators (dynamos). The tones generated were sent down telephone lines. The tone wheels could be adjusted to sound like different musical instruments, so the player at the keyboard could imitate an entire orchestra. The Teharmonium took up a lot of room: the first version weighed over 200 tons and required twelve train cars to move it! But the Telharmonium didn’t have to be moved often; concerts were arranged to be heard over telephones. There were only three Telharmoniums ever built before it was eclipsed by other, less expensive instruments. Unfortunately, no recording of the Telharmonium exists.

4. Ondes Martenot 1928

Maurice Martenot invented the Ondes Martenot in 1928. The electronic sound was generated by oscillation inside vacuum tubes, the frequency of which was varied by a keyboard or a band stretched across the keyboard. Above is a 1934 performance by Martenot himself.

5. Trautonium 1929

Photograph by Matthias Kabel.

German engineer Friedrich Trautwein introduced the Trautonium in 1929. It is played by pressing one’s fingers on a resistance wire onto a metal bar, with the volume depending on the pressure. The sound is reminiscent of a theremin. The sound was produced by frequency oscillations in vacuum tubes, which were later changed to transistors. In fact, Trautwein’s colleague Oskar Sala continued to develop and improve the Trautonium until 2002! Hear the Trautonium in this video

6. Clavivox 1956

Photograph by Flickr user Brandon Daniel.

Composer Raymond Scott was a pioneer of electronic music. He patented the Clavivox in 1956, which was a synthesizer containing a theremin built by his young assistant Robert Moog. Scott built several version of the Clavivox, each with different features.

7. Electronium 1969

Scott started working on a machine that would compose its own music in the late ’50s. The only working model of his Electronium was unveiled in 1969. It could not play written music, and indeed had no keyboard, but it was programmed to compose music on the fly and play it simultaneously. Berry Gordy bought it for Motown, and ended up hiring Scott to run Motown’s electronic music division. During those years, Scott never actually finished working on the Electronium, and it is unknown whether the instrument was ever actually used in any Motown recording. The Electronium now belongs to Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo, but it’s not in working order.

8. Eigenharp 2001

Photograph by Thomas Bonte.

The Eigenharp is promoted as a replacement for a piano, guitar, and woodwind all in one instrument. The Eigenharp has only been in use by the public since 2009. John Lambert began research on the electronic instrument in 2001, with the expressed goal of creating an instrument that would be more expressive than conventional electronics, and more versatile than the array of instruments that musicians have to haul to live performances. The Eigenharp is close to a classic instrument in that the keys respond to pressure and velocity and the breath pipe can also be used to control the sound. It also has the advantages of electronic instruments in that there are controllers that add effects and drums and a sequencer that can be programmed for accompaniment. There are three models available with different levels of features, priced accordingly. Hear an Eigenharp trio at YouTube.

9. Zeusaphone 2007

Photograph by Dracoswinsauer.

A Zeusaphone is what you get when you create music with Tesla coils, although some called this instrument a Thoremin. Both names are puns made by applying mythological gods' names to earlier instruments (Sousaphone and Theremin). The best-known Tesla coil band is ArcAttack. They use two homemade Tesla coils to send arcs up to twelve feet long between them, and lately they even include humans wearing Faraday suits in the coils' performances. Hear a variety of tunes at the band's website.

10. Otamatone 2009

The Otamatone is an electronic instrument that resembles a musical note with a cartoon face. It was invented by Novmichi Tosa of Maywa Denki, an art collaboration of the Tosa family that specializes in nonsense machines. You can buy an Otamatone here. Hear this cute little instrument in this video

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8 Surprising Uses for Peeps
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You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.

1. S'MORES

Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.

2. WREATHS

Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)

3. PEEPS-KABOBS

If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.

4. ART SUPPLIES

With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).

5. CAKE TOPPERS

Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.

6. PEEPS POPS

There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.

7. PEEPS KRISPIES TREATS

We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.

8. DIORAMAS

Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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