January 11 – Happy Birthday, Laurens Hammond

Posted on January 11, 2016

When you think “engineer,” do you think trains? Or bridges, or spaceships, or...?

You probably do not think “MUSIC!”

And yet, why not? An engineer is someone who uses knowledge of science and math in order to come up with solutions to technical or commercial or even social problems. An inventor is often considered an engineer, and there are chemical engineers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, people who work with civil engineering or computer engineering, engineers who work on extracting metals or developing new materials.

So an inventor / innovator who creates new ways to make or record or enjoy music might very well be an engineer.

Today we celebrate an engineer who invented an electric organ and the world's first polyphonic musical synthesizer.


In music, sometimes there is just one simple melody, or perhaps a melody accompanied by a few chords. Music with just one “voice” is called monophony (one sound), and music with one melody plus chords is called homophony (same sound). On the other hand, some music has a “texture” with more than one simultaneous and independent melody. This kind of music is called polyphony (many sounds).

A synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument that creates sounds by directly generating electric signals that can be converted to sound through amplifiers or loudspeakers or headphones. Non-electronic instruments create sounds by causing air to move, or vibrate, usually by causing something ELSE to vibrate – strings, a drum skin, a piece of wood or metal, and so on. Of course, we typically covert these air vibrations to electric signals to be played louder through amplifiers and loudspeakers and headphones.

So a synthesizer basically cuts out the middle of the sound-making process.

Back to Hammond...

When Hammond and another engineer first created their electric organ, in 1935, they wanted to copy the sounds made by a wind-driven pipe organ. Their electric organ was a lower-cost way of creating organ or piano music, and Hammond marketed his organ almost entirely to churches.

However, the organ really took off with professional jazz musicians. Jimmy Smith used the Hammond B-3, for example, and many other organ players were inspired by and influenced by the electric organ. Hammond organs became even more widespread in the 1960s and 1970s, in rhythm and blues, rock, and reggae.

However, musicians began to switch to more electronic instruments during the 1970s, and in 1985 the Hammond Organ Company went out of business. When Suzuki purchased the Hammond name, it released a new, electronic version of the B-3.

Hammond and a few others created their synthesizer, called the Novachord, in 1938. It was introduced at the 1939 World's Fair, in New York City and the very first instrument produced was, in 1940, delivered to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a birthday gift.

Apparently the Novachord was better at making otherworldly sounds than it was sounding like normal musical instruments, and it found its niche years after it was first invented in making sounds for science fiction movies and TV shows. I read that it actually shaped the sound we associate with sci-fi!

Production had to stop during the World War II, in 1942, and Hammond never went back to manufacturing the Novachord. There were only 1,069 Novachords built during the four years of production, and fewer than 200 are still in existence!

Still, the Novachord was important historically, and of course now synthesizers are used for many different types of music and for sound effects as well.

Hammond was an engineer and an inventor, not a musician. He invented lots of things other than his organ and synthesizer. For example, he invented an automatic transmission for autos, a silent spring-driven clock and a non-self-starting clock motor, a sort of 3-D shutter glasses, an electric bridge table, guided missile controls, bomb guidance systems, a camera shutter, and a new type of gyroscope. Altogether, he held 110 patents in his life!

Also on this date:

Anniversary of the Grand Canyon becoming a National Monument

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