Pioneers of Electro-Acoustics

Elisha Gray, Armand Givelet, Eloy Coupleux, Lev Termen

In days long ago, when there were not even telephones amongst men, but when telegraphs were already clicking information all over the world, a seeming brick wall that stood awhile in the path of the entire evolution of communications was the straightforward problem that telegraph lines and technology could handle only singlular communications streams at a time. Many inventors and telegraphists of the time therefore dreamt of and worked towards devising some new means by which multiple messages could be simultaneousely transmitted along a single line-pair.

One such was a man named Eisha Gray, who was inspired to the endeavour by a fascinating exepriment that his nephew showed him in 1874. By the unique combination of a bath-tub, an electric oscillator and a hand, the experiment generated a sound ~ in fact, the oscillations transformed into acoustic vibrations through the electrified hand transformed the hand's owner for the purpose into his very own amplifier!

Elisha Gray's Electric BathroomWithin a year, the inventor awoken in Elisha Gray by this had improved upon the concept by condensing the principles involved into the body of a violin with a metal plate,.. which produced a quality of new sound that he likened to something between the violin and the "electric bathroom".

Having thus cracked the basic mysteries of how to generate (and therefore transmit) sounds using electricity, the now-restless inventor began to fantasize of transmitting "chords, i.e. many notes, or signals, on a single telegraph line..."

Accordingly, and again within the year, Elisha Gray built a bank of eight oscillators, controlled with a pianolike keyboard,.. and as word of the technical demonstrations spread amongst people interested in music, Gray was inspired to develop a two octave version of this "harmonic telegraph" with which he toured all over the USA, presently hugely successful recitals and demos.

Having achieved success with sound generation and transmission, Gray's interests moved on, and he became interested in sound,.. and especially the voice.

Elisha Gray patented the telephone two hours after Alexander Graham Bell...

...and the story of electro-acoustics moved on almost 50 years later, in the early 1920s, with the pioneering works of Armand Givelet, a radio enthusisast and engineer who created the first Radio Club in France and the TSF engineering school amongst other wide contributions to entertainment, music and news broadcasting of his time.

As a prominent pioneer at the dawn of electronics engineering, Givelet encountered all sorts of fantastic new devices at what was then the cutting-edge of technology, including sound generation with heterodyne circuits ~ concepts he carried forward in audio frequency and low power oscillator circuits of his own design that proved to be more stable and more reliable with cleverly underpowered tubes.

This led to the first demonstration of his "piano radioÈlectrique", a monophonic instrument, in a public performance of "La Marseillaise" in 1927.

At the end of the day, Givelet's goal was to build an electronic organ capable of replacing classical organs, leading him on to develop and patent many electronic and electromecanic devices (include the "Hammondish" "Tone Wheels"), and eventually collaborate with Eloy Couplex, an enthusisastic organist and organ builder, on the electronic organ project from early 1929.

From this came the first generation of electronic organs ever built to be marketed, of which four are well known to have been supplied to churches in France,.. but no trace remains of them today. They were built of a console with two or three keyboards, controlling one or many oscillator banks and one or many amplifier/filter banks. By a combination system, these filter banks allowed the organs to generate a wide variety of classical tones, thus also heralding the ubiquitous multiple-voice capabilities of all electro-acoustic instruments today.

A far more futuristic device was being developed at the same time by young Lev Termen of the USSR, who'd learnt music at 9, electricity at 13, and began working at the Laboratory of Oscillation at the Institution of Physics, Technology and Radio Sciences, in 1920.

The young Russian's first system, called a Theremin or "aetherophon," was actually designed as a proximity-sensing alarm system that generated a buzz when someone drew near an antenna, but it didn't take long for Lev to realize his device could become a new kind of muscical instrument, for he was already able to play tunes by waving his hands arround the antenna!

In May of 1922, Lev began a long tour through Eurpoe and the USA with a visit to Vladimir Ilyitch Lenin who played the instrument himself. In 1928 he got married and established a laboratory in New York, where he developed The "Thereminvox," an electro-acoustic instrument that was eventually commercially produced by RCA from 1930 to 1937.

In 1938, Lev Termen "decided" to go back to the USSR, where he designed non-musical electronics devices during World War II, and then "bugs" for the NKVD through the 1950s...

above: an Elisha Gray synth concert 133 years ago (1877)