“Technological” musical instruments before the 20th century: magnetic harpsichord and electromechanical piano

    Earlier we talked about the history of well-known manufacturers of audio equipment and instruments from the history of electronic music . This time we decided to go even further into the past.

    To the first inventions and early developments. Today we will tell you what musical instruments looked like “at the cutting edge of technology” in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the uniqueness and uniqueness of the musical tradition only began to be questioned.

    Photo by Frédéric Bisson / CC BY

    Of course, two or even three hundred years ago we couldn’t talk about any “electronic tools” we were used to. Nevertheless, many followers of the ideals of the Enlightenment were keenly interested in not only physics and the extremely popular electricity in the 18th century, but also lyrics (more precisely, music) —and they tried to combine the two directions.

    Musical instruments often became a “by-product” of scientific research by their authors in the 19th century (a typical example is the music telegraph of Elisha Gray).

    So the first instruments appeared, the purpose of which was not more convenient for the performer or not in the new sound. These were rather experimental instruments designed to show the possible practical application of the discoveries made by their creators: physicists, engineers, and inventors.

    XVIII century: magnetic and electric harpsichords

    One of the first tools working on the force of magnetic attraction was a simple acoustic carillon , a mechanical construction with several bells, which is often installed on the belfries of churches and municipal buildings.

    Photo Oliver Raupach / CC BY SA The

    tool appeared in 1785 thanks to exploration of the possibilities of magnetism and electricity, conducted by Abbé Pierre Bertholon de Saint-Lazare, a French mathematician and scientist.

    Despite the name (harpsichord), the instrument of Bertolon was not stringed in the direct sense of the word. The Clavecin Magnetique device was as simple as possible: metal hammers hit the bells under the influence of magnets, which approached and were removed from the hammers by pressing keys on the keyboard.

    In his work on magnetism, Bertolon recalled a device developed earlier by a Jesuit Jean-Baptiste de Laborde. In 1759, he assembled Clavecin Électrique, the first instrument documented in history to make sound using electricity. The static electric charge was developed using the "Leyden jar" - the first electric capacitor invented by the Dutch scientist Peter van Muschenbruck in 1745. He provided the vibration of metal bells of different sizes and tonalities. The tool worked on the principle of proto-organ.

    The name (harpsichord), later used by Bertolon, was deceptive and was intended to "enhance the status" of inventions: the carillons, which in fact were both instruments, did not enjoy a serious reputation in the music world. Electric "stuffing", in the opinion of de Laborde, was "the soul of the instrument." Moreover, during a performance in a dark room, the instrument became “audiovisual” because sound extraction was accompanied by sparks from static electricity: “The listener's eyes,” said de Laborde, “lit up in surprise at the sight of amazing flashes.”

    He did not develop the instrument further, although he was popular with the audience. The model, built by him, is still stored in the National Library in Paris.

    But while de Labord was looking for a soul in the confluence of music and electricity, his follower, Bertolon, was more inspired by how his discoveries could enrich human history through the interrelation of art and science. Moreover, he had to defend the reputation of his scientific research, which nourishes the arts and develops them: “Things that arouse curiosity often have practical value. In the history of science and art there are many similar examples: when the philosopher Thales of Miletus, six hundred years BC, discovered that if you rub a piece of amber, he will begin to attract small objects to himself, everyone believed that his discovery was superficial and useless. People did not assume that this property, so seemingly insignificant, would one day lead to the fact that a courageous generation of Prometheus would be able to subdue the fire of heavenhe wrote .

    “The discovery of a magnetic harpsichord is interesting because it is the result of curiosity, and any open truth is valuable; and it will have beneficial consequences, even if it is not so soon that our weak eyes cannot see it yet. ”

    XIX century: electromechanical piano

    The German Matthias Hipp was a “serial inventor”: he was engaged in chronoscopes, chronographs, galvanometers, signaling equipment for railways, watches and gyros. He was probably the inventor of the world's first "real" electronic musical instrument.

    It is interesting that the specific descriptions or sketches of the Hipp device did not survive: we know about its electromechanical piano from fragments of descriptions that have come down to us by contemporaries, later processed by other authors.

    Andrea Baroni, author of A Brief History of Synthesizers, describes the mechanism as follows: “Pressing the keys set in motion electromagnets. They, in turn, set in motion the dynamos (small DC generators), which produced the sound. A similar principle will subsequently form the basis of Thardeum Cahill's Teleharmonium. ”

    Another theory was that the piano became a “by-product” of the development of a much more well-known invention of Gipp - the chronoscope of the same name .

    He, in particular, was actively used by physiologists and psychologists of the time - to measure the speed of mental reaction. One of the components of the chronoscope was a thin plate (lamella) that vibrated at a frequency of strictly 1000 Hz and produced a characteristic sound (due to this property, the piano tuner could calibrate the chronoscope). In theory, Gipp could create a musical instrument, using this principle, and combining records into one device that are tuned to vibrate at different frequencies.

    The tool, quite possibly, was created by Gipp in the process of designing some other developments. Nevertheless, his “electromechanical piano,” described in the 1867 region, remained forever in the history of electronic music.

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