Triumphs & Trials of an Organ Builder
The Birth of the Electronic Organ
During the early 1930s, my radio projects taught me much about the emerging field of electronics. This put me into a knowledgeable position regarding electronic oscillators. As events in my life unfolded, this knowledge of oscillators was ultimately put to use in the development of the first commercially successful electronic organ.
As a youngster, I grew up hearing pipe organs in movie theaters and on the radio; I had always liked their sound. Later on, while attending Muhlenberg College in Allentown, I enjoyed the mandatory chapel on Thursday mornings when Dr. Marks, the Chairman of the Music Department, played the organ. The intricate patterns of sound created by the big, sustained chords especially fascinated me. Of course, in those early days, I didn't have the facility to fully understand what I was hearing. Deeper insight into sound structures in terms of their spectral components would come later.
Interestingly, the pursuit of an amateur radio operator's license indirectly introduced me to my first tone generator. Getting the license required learning the Morse code. I learned the code, as most people did, by practicing on a device consisting of a key-switch connected to a simple tone generator. As I tapped out the code pattern on the key, the tone generator would beep back at me, faithfully generating an on/off pattern in synchronism with whatever patterns I chose to "key in". That's when the idea hit me. If I built a group of oscillators similar to those I built for my radio equipment but tuned to the various musical frequencies, I could connect these oscillators to the keys of an organ keyboard. The whole thing flashed through my mind. I could build an organ using electronic oscillators!
Some quick experiments with hardware convinced me that I was on to something, and I decided to find out more about organs and previous attempts at building "non-pipe" organs or organ-like instruments.
I found out that there were two electromechanical, organ-like instruments in existence at the time. One was an experimental device I'd heard on the radio which was constructed and played by a former military man, Captain Ranger. He referred to the instrument he played as the "Rangertone". I found out that its method of tone generation was based on a complex arrangement of rotating, electromechanical disks. The other was the Hammond Organ, which was just beginning to appear on the market and rapidly gaining a following, especially in the field of popular music. It was also based on a variation of the rotating disk concept. At that time, finding and hearing a Hammond presented a bit of a challenge because only three or four such organs existed in all of New York City in 1936. However, I finally located one in a tavern in Queens. In my judgment, the instrument had a very ear-tickling sound, but my ears were also telling me that the sound it made was quite different from the sound of a pipe organ.
I continued to work on my own oscillator-based idea not knowing exactly where it would end; my first attempts were most crude. Eventually my apparatus functioned well enough for me to risk the scrutiny of some local organists. Luckily, their remarks were quite encouraging. They told me that my instrument "suggested" the sound of a pipe organ.
I remember, around that same time, talking to a boyhood friend, Bill Lenahan, who had become a church organist. He took me to his church where I had my first chance to hear a pipe organ at close range. Clearly, my rudimentary instrument sounded more like that pipe organ than a Hammond. I pressed on encouraged.
My immediate goal became clear. I was going to design and build a practical, electronic organ based on vacuum tube oscillators which would closely emulate the magnificent sound of the pipe organ. I was driven mainly by my technical curiosity; however, admittedly, fantasies of someday marketing an electronic organ began fluttering through my mind at this point. I learned that this idea had been approached by others but never marketed because of various technical flaws.
As I persevered, the main problem I encountered with the oscillator-based organ was tuning drift. Pipe organs have a similar problem, but my early oscillator designs were so drift prone that the instrument would not stay in tune long enough to be practical. Finally, after considerable effort, I discovered the solution to the tuning problem. A major breakthrough. I applied for a patent on my "stable oscillator" on October 27, 1937. The patent was granted on December 13, 1938. The brand-new, electronic organ technology was in my hands. I now was faced with what to do with it.