CLOSE
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

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Keystone/Getty Images
arrow
History
84 Years Ago Today: Goodbye Prohibition!
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
Keystone/Getty Images

It was 84 years ago today that the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the earlier Amendment that declared the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States. Prohibition was over! Booze that had been illegal for 13 years was suddenly legal again, and our long national nightmare was finally over.


A giant barrel of beer, part of a demonstration against prohibition in America.
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Prohibition of alcohol was not a popular doctrine. It turned formerly law-abiding citizens into criminals. It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime. In cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, the dismantling of breweries left thousands of people unemployed.


Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Homemade alcohol was often dangerous and some people died from drinking it. Some turned to Sterno or industrial alcohol, which was dangerous and sometimes poisoned by the government to discourage drinking. State and federal governments were spending a lot of money on enforcement, while missing out on taxes from alcohol.


New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition.

The midterm elections of 1930 saw the majority in Congress switch from Republican to Democratic, signaling a shift in public opinion about Prohibition as well as concerns about the depressed economy. Franklin Roosevelt, who urged repeal, was elected president in 1932. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in February of 1933, the sole purpose of which was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition.


American men guarding their private beer brewing hide-out, during Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

With passage of the Constitutional Amendment to repeal Prohibition a foregone conclusion, a huge number of businessmen lined up at the Board of Health offices in New York in April of 1933 to apply for liquor licenses to be issued as soon as the repeal was ratified.

The Amendment was ratified by the states by the mechanism of special state ratifying conventions instead of state legislatures. Many states ratified the repeal as soon as conventions could be organized. The ratifications by the required two-thirds of the states was achieved on December 5, 1933, when conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah agreed to repeal Prohibition through the Amendment.


Workmen unloading crates of beer stacked at a New York brewery shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

A brewery warehouse in New York stacked crates past the ceiling to satisfy a thirsty nation after the repeal of Prohibition.


Keystone/Getty Images

Liquor wouldn't officially be legal until December 15th, but Americans celebrated openly anyway, and in most places, law enforcement officials let them.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
arrow
Miss Cellania
10 Famous Birthdays in May
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Some of our favorite historical figures were born in May. We couldn't possibly name them all, so here are just a few of the notable people we'll be celebrating.

1. SIGMUND FREUD: MAY 6, 1856


Getty Images
Getty Images

Sigmund Freud is known as the Father of Psychoanalysis. The Vienna psychiatrist developed a theory of the unconscious mind, where the id, ego, and superego struggle to balance each other out in the human psyche. Freud attributed his patients' neuroses to childhood trauma, often cloaked in a sexual conflict. His work was at first deemed perverted, but his ideas started to spread after a series of lectures in the U.S. in 1909. After Freud's death in 1939, Freudian theory was hailed as genius in mainstream culture. But beginning in the 1960s, Freud's theories started to fall out of favor in academia and are largely discredited today. However, his attempts to map the psyche gave us the language we still use to discuss personality and mental health.

2. FRED ASTAIRE: MAY 10, 1899


Getty Images
Getty Images

Fred Astaire began dancing when he was just four years old. Soon he and his sister Adele were in a performing arts school and started dancing professionally. First came vaudeville, then Broadway, and when Adele married, Fred headed to Hollywood. Producers were at first reluctant to cast Astaire as a leading man because of his looks, but his dancing soon won them over. Astaire appeared in dozens of films between 1933 and 1981, 10 of them with with dance partner Ginger Rogers. Although his later films did not revolve around dance numbers, Astaire was seen dancing in an episode of Battlestar Galactica as late as 1979, when he was 80 years old.

3. MARTHA GRAHAM: MAY 11, 1894


Getty Images
Getty Images

Martha Graham wanted to dance from an early age, but her parents disapproved, so she didn't study dance until college. Her wildly emotional dancing led her to performances in New York, and in 1926 she established the Martha Graham Dance Company. Through the company, Graham promoted modern dance as a spiritual and emotional outlet. Over time, she came to be seen as a genius of the genre. Graham danced until she was in her '70s, and continued to choreograph dances until her death at age 91.

4. KATHARINE HEPBURN: MAY 12, 1907


Getty Images
Getty Images

Katharine Hepburn caught the acting bug in college and headed to the stages of New York upon graduation. She was spotted in a Broadway production and was offered the lead in RKO's 1932 film A Bill of Divorcement. That kicked off a movie career of more than 60 years, in which she was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won four. Hepburn was a certified box office draw, but off screen she refused to behave like a Hollywood star. She spoke her mind, wore pants, and even appeared in public without makeup occasionally. Hepburn was also known for her devotion to the love of her life, actor Spencer Tracy, who was separated from his wife but refused to divorce her. The last of nine films they made together was Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in 1967, just before Tracy died. Hepburn continued making movies through 1994, when she was 87 years old.

5. PIERRE CURIE: MAY 15, 1859


Getty Images
Getty Images

French physicist Pierre Curie is often overlooked in favor of Marie Curie, his brilliant student and later wife. Together they discovered radium and polonium, and did extensive research into radioactivity. Pierre, Marie, and Henri Becquerel jointly won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics for their research. Curie might have gone onto many further discoveries, but he was killed in 1906 when a horse-drawn cart ran over him in Paris. If he had lived longer, Curie might have also succumbed to illness caused by radiation, as did his wife, daughter, and son-in-law—all Nobel Prize winners.

6. MARY CASSATT: MAY 22, 1844


Mary Cassatt via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Renowned American painter Mary Cassatt wanted to become an artist, but her parents objected and her Philadelphia art school didn't take women students seriously. So she went to Paris and studied privately under teachers from Ecole des Beaux-Arts, as the school did not admit women. Gradually, Cassatt's works sold and her reputation grew. She drew the attention of Impressionist Edgar Degas, and worked with him for years. By 1886, she left the Impressionist movement behind, and afterward refused to be defined by any art genre. Cassatt's body of work often featured women and children in their everyday lives. Her most memorable painting, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, broke with tradition by portraying a child in a naturalistic, casual pose instead of a formal portrait.

7. SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE: MAY 22, 1859


Getty Images
Getty Images

Arthur Conan Doyle is best remembered for his many short stories and novels featuring the detective Sherlock Holmes. But Conan Doyle worked full time as a medical doctor until an illness convinced him he had to choose between writing and medicine. Years later, Conan Doyle volunteered with the British army to fight in the Second Boer War, but because of his age (40), he was only allowed to serve as a medical doctor. Upon his return from South Africa, he entered politics in Scotland, but he lost his only race. In 1907, Conan Doyle became involved in a real criminal case in which he helped George Edalji, a solicitor of Indian heritage, beat an animal cruelty conviction by employing the observational technique that Sherlock Holmes used. The fallout from that case led to the establishment of the appeals system in Britain. Conan Doyle also wrote a science fiction novel The Lost World, published in 1912. It was so successful that he wrote four sequels.

8. MARGARET FULLER: MAY 23, 1810


Getty Images
Getty Images

Born in Massachusetts in 1810, Margaret Fuller was a precocious child who learned several languages but was not welcome at college because of her sex. She became friends with both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who admired her philosophical thinking. Fuller became a literary critic for the New-York Tribune and a well-known intellectual.

In 1845, Fuller made history with Woman in the Nineteenth Century, often considered the first major feminist work published in the United States. This groundbreaking book began as an essay in Emerson's transcendentalist journal The Dial called "The Great Lawsuit. Man versus Men. Woman versus Women," in which Fuller argued that men and women must see each other as equals before they can transcend to divine love. Fuller reasoned that ignoring our commonality was the base of much of America's sins, from the slaughter of Native Americans to the slavery of African Americans.

Fuller went on to become a foreign correspondent and the first American female war correspondent, covering the Italian revolution. She also fell in love with an Italian man and had a child with him. On their return trip to the U.S. in 1850 aboard a merchant ship, a hurricane struck the ship near Fire Island, killing all three. Only Fuller's 20-month-old son was found.

9. SALLY RIDE: MAY 26, 1951

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1983, Sally Ride became the first American woman to travel into space, aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Ride was a nationally ranked tennis player when she was a teenager. Billie Jean King urged her to turn pro, but Ride went to Stanford University instead. She earned both a bachelor of arts in English and a bachelor of science in physics in 1973, and a PhD in physics in 1978. Ride then immediately applied for NASA's astronaut program. She flew two shuttle missions, in 1983 and '84, and was scheduled for a third, but that mission was canceled after the Challenger explosion in 1986. After leaving NASA in 1987, Ride devoted her life to encouraging students to study science—especially girls. She founded the organization Sally Ride Science for just that purpose, and wrote five children's books encouraging interest in science. Ride died of cancer at age 61 in 2012.

10. "WILD BILL" HICKOK: MAY 27, 1837


Getty Images
Getty Images

James Butler Hickok was a farmer, soldier, stagecoach driver, spy, lawman, scout, sharpshooter, gambler, and Wild West showman. Many of those occupations came after "Wild Bill" Hickok gained publicity for killing three men in an 1861 shootout. The newspapers followed his exploits from that time on, often embellishing the details until Hickok was more of a legend than the adventurer he was. His various occupations took him to different parts of Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Wyoming, and South Dakota. Hickok was playing poker in Deadwood, South Dakota, when Jack McCall shot him in the back of the head and killed him in 1876. The hand Hickok was holding at the time—a pair of black aces and a pair of black eights—became known as the "dead man's hand."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios