The Music of Radio is a history series showcasing the relationships between radio and electronic music. This episode tunes in to sounds created by the sparks of a "wireless organ" designed by the Canadian amateur, early broadcaster and reverend Georges Désilets.
Georges was born to farming parents in 1866 in Nicolet, Quebec. As a young adult he joined the seminary. By the age of 27 in July of 1893 he was ordained into the ministry. As part of the work of his spiritual vocation he began to teach astronomy, chemistry and physics at the seminary. Later he focused his instructional efforts on music and natural history. Around this time it was very common for those in the clergy to be involved in scientific and technological pursuits as hobbyists. Supported by a church or parish these men were often set up in well appointed homes, had access to books, and the prime resource of any hobbyist: free time to tinker.
Somewhere around the year 1908 he became the Bishop of Nicolet. At this time Georges became active in working with a library, as well as monitoring installations of electrical apparatus and photography works. During this time period his keen and active mind turned to the field of radio-telegraphy. His amateur radio laboratory was assembled in the turret of the Bishopric. What ham wouldn't like to have a shack in a turret with an antenna on top?
From the turret he created the 9-AB broadcast radio station that transmitted an hour long orchestral and religious music program performed by musicians from the seminary once a week. Désilets was in need of an organ to accompany the choir and he began experimenting with the use of electronic sparks to create musical tones. This experimenting led to his invention of the Wireless Organ, and later a number of other patents in the field of radio communications. In doing so he joined the ranks of other reverends who had made contributions to science and the humanities including Rev. Edmund Cartwright, inventor of the power loom; Rev. George Garrett creator of the submarine; and Rev. John Michell who helped to discover the planet Uranus, among many others.
After the outbreak of WWI all non-government stations were closed down in Canada and his organ and station fell into the dread state of radio silence. Yet he continued to be active in the radio community, penning articles, and now doubt working in his radio lab. In the September 1916 issue of Wireless Age he wrote of his instrument:
“Those who have heard it agree that it is real music. Chords are produced by pressing two or three keys, and if the feeding transformer can supply the necessary power we have surprising results and pleasant effects. ... Unhappily my station was closed last year on account of the war, and my organ is now silent. I hope to resume my experiments later on; meanwhile, I wish I could, for a time, live on the free soil of the United States, paradise of the wireless amateur."
His set up used the standard pre-tube method of a spark-gap alternator and a number of studded 'spark-gap' disks attached to a rotating cone drum. The ratio interval between studs caused waveforms to be created in a series of prefixed pitches and was only able to be heard over wireless transmission, as there were still no instruments of amplification yet available. The first version only had a range of 1 1/2 octaves. After the war he lost no time in getting back on the air and continued his work, attaching a keyboard from an organ and a larger spark-drum that gave him a four octave range. He got the idea to use a rheostat attached to a footswitch for controlling volume and expression. In his improved device he also fitted a home-brewed oscillation transformer capable of delivering "10,000 volts at an imprest potential of 110 volts, 30 cycles A.C."
Georges story shows how curiosity, coupled with need, determination, the will to tinker and a bit of free time can unleash creative potentials. While the spurious emissions caused by spark-gaps may be frowned upon for the 21st century amateur it need not stop us from sitting at the workbench, the mixing board of a music studio, or at the controls of a transceiver where imaginative sparks are allowed to fly and signals of inspiration can be received.
Wireless Age, September 1916
Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 2012, Random House
The Music of Radio is a history series showcasing the relationships between radio and electronic music. This installment focuses on sounds created by arcs in the days before incandescent lighting cast its long and overshadowing glow.
The first source of electrical lighting was the arc lamp. It was also used as a means for producing an electrical form of singing. Invented by Humphrey Davy in the first decade of the 19th century the arc lamp created light from the electricity passing between two carbon electrodes in free air. To ignite a carbon lamp the rods were touched together allowing a low voltage to strike the arc. They were then drawn apart to allow the electric current to flow between the gap. This first means of electrical lighting also became the first commercial use for electricity beginning around 1850 but it didn't really take off until the 1870's when regular supplies of power became available.
Three major advances in the technology occurred during the 1880's that helped to spread the adoption of the arc lamp. The first was a mechanism to automatically adjust the electrodes. The second was the placement of the arcs in an enclosure to cause the carbon to burn at a slower rate. Last salts and tiny amounts of metals were added to the carbon to create flames of greater intensity and different colors. At this time a number of companies became involved with the manufacturing of these lamps and they began to be used for lighting on streets and other public places. Yet there was one feature about the light source that many folks found disagreeable. These were audible power-frequency harmonics caused by the arcs negative resistance. Nikola Tesla was one of the guys who set to work on this problem of noise. In 1891 he received a patent for an alternator that ran at 10,000 cycle per second that was to be used to suppress the undesirable sounds of humming, hissing and howling emitted by the lamp.
Tesla's invention must have been impractical or just never caught because over in London in 1899 the Victorian electrical engineer William Duddell had been appointed to tackle the problem of the lamps dissonant electrical noise. Duddell was an illuminated man and he took a different angle than Nikola. Instead of suppressing the sounds he transformed them into music. In the course of his experimentation Duddell found that by varying the voltage supplied to the lamps he could control the audible frequencies by connecting a tuned circuit that consisted of an inductor and capacitor across the arc. The negative resistance of the arc was excited by the audio frequency oscillations from the tuned circuit at its resonant frequency. This could be heard as a musical tone. Duddell used another one of his inventions, the oscillograph, to analyze the particular conditions necessary for producing the oscillations. He demonstrated his invention before the London Institution of Electrical Engineers by wiring up a keyboard to make different tones from the arc. Being a patriotic fellow he played a rendition of God Save the Queen. His device came to be known as "Singing Arc" and was one of the first electronic oscillators. It was noted that arc lamps on the same circuit in other buildings could also be made to sing. The engineers speculated that music could be delivered over the lighting network, but this never became a reality. Duddell toured his instrument around Britain for a time but his invention was never capitalized on and so remained only a novelty.
Duddell's Singing Arc had been very close to becoming a radio. Marconi's spark-gap transmitter had already been demonstrated in 1895, yet Duddell thought it was impossible to leverage his Singing Arc to produce radio frequencies instead of audio frequencies. The AC current in the condenser was smaller than the supplied DC current so the arc never extinguished during an output cycle, making it impractical to use as an RF transmitter. With this set up it was not possible to reach the high frequencies required for transmission of Radio-telegraphy. If he had managed to increase the frequency range and attached an antenna his invention could have become a CW transmitter.
His oscillator was left for other experimenters to imrpove upon. This was done by Danish physicists Valdemar Poulsen and P.O. Pederson. In 1903 they patented the Poulsen arc wireless transmitter that was the first generate to continuous waves, and one of the first pieces of technology to transmit through amplitude modulation. Poulsen's version was used for radio work around the world up into the 1920's when it became replaced by vacuum tube transmitters.
Poulsen had previously demonstrated his inventive flair with the world's first magnetic recording device, the Telegraphone, at the Paris World Fair in 1900. Applying his skills he was able to raise the efficiency and frequency of Duddell's Singing Arc up to 200 kilohertz. His method of oscillation made use of an AC current from the condenser that was large enough to extinguish the arc but not so great that it caused the arc to restart in the opposite direction. A third method of oscillation was used in spark gap transmitters where the arc is extinguished but might reignite when the condenser reversed, producing damp oscillations.
The method of operating a Poulsen arc transmitter required frequency shift keying. On-off keying could not be used because of the time it took for the arc to strike and re-stabilize. With the arc staying on throughout operation the keying frequency needed to be adjusted anywhere from one to five percent. The signal at the unwanted frequency was deemed a compensation wave. Two keys were used, a "mark" or closed key, and a "space" or open key. This mode took up quite a chunk of bandwidth, as it also transmitted on the harmonics of the frequencies. Since around 1921 the use of the compensation wave method for CW has been prohibited. One way of working around this used a dummy antenna, or back shunt, tuned to the same frequency as the transmitter to absorb the load from the arc while keeping it running.
For those interested in creating a lethal high-voltage Plasma Arc Speaker based on Duddell's Singing Arc John Iovine has written an article on how to do just that for Make Magazine. The core of his project is a 555 timer and an insulated gate bi-polar transistor. Schematics, instructions and a video of it in operation are available at:
Today those of us with access to cell phones and data plans tend to take things like streaming music, news, on-demand videos and face time for granted. Yet the impulse to do more than just talk over the wires has been part of the spirit of telephony since its earliest days. In the 1890's the telephonic playground was still in its infancy and commercial applications for the technology could have gone in many different directions. During this time entrepreneurial types were coming up with creative experiments for using telephones as a news delivery system or for musical entertainment.
Two years after Elisha Gray's playing of the musical telegraph in 1874, other folks decided it would be a swell idea to transmit music concerts along the commercial telegraph lines. This was done initially for the entertainment of the operators. In 1881 the first "stereo" concert was given via telephone. Clément Ader used dual lines to pass music from a local theater to two separate phone receivers. At the time this was dubbed "binauriclar auduition" a name that for some reason didn't stick. Later in 1890 AT&T was at work on a service to provide music for mealtimes. Though there were some issues with sound quality they stated that "When we have overcome this difficulty we shall be prepared to furnish music on tap." AT&T also had other development plans for the phone lines. Used for business during the day they hoped to "stream" music, lectures, and various oral entertainments to all the cities of the East coast at night.
Stateside most of these types of efforts didn't take hold but a few in Europe did. The first permanent service was an outgrowth of Clement Ader's work, known as the Paris Theatrophone. This was a subscription based service launched in the 1890's. The "Theatraphonic network" provided Parisians with "programs dramatic and lyrical" and held its own until 1932. In Hungary the concept of a telephone newspaper caught on, with the Budapest Telefon Hirmondo, which began service in February of 1893. It included news reports, original fiction, and other entertainments. Still going strong in 1925 it added a radio station while still offering a telephone relay to customers all the way up to 1944.
It was within this milieu that Thaddeus Cahill obsessed over and created what must be considered the ultimate behemoth of a musical synthesizer, the Telharmonium, a type of electrical organ. It was specifically intended to be played over the phone lines. Amplifiers hadn't been invented yet and the phone receiver was still the only available technology that could make an electronic sound audible. The Telharmonium implemented sinuosoidal additive synthesis via mechanical means using tonewheels and alternators rather than an oscillating circuit. The discs on a tonewheel have specific numbers of bumps on the edge. These generate a specific frequency through induction as the bumps move past an electromagnetic coil. Frequency and waveform are determined by the shape of the wheel, the number of bumps on it and how often they pass the tip of the magnet. Using multiple tonewheels a single fundamental frequency can thus be combined with one or more harmonics to produce complex sounds. Later the tonewheel was used in radio work during the pre-vacuum tube era as a BFO for CW.
Cahill is credited with coining the phrase "synthesizer" for describing his instrument. It was patented in 1897. Five years later he founded the New England Electric Music Company with two partners. The Telharmonium or Dynamaphone as it was also called was first demonstrated in 1906. The instrument was a true boat anchor. The Mark I version weighed in at a hefty 7 tons and could be considered light compared to the Mark II and III which weighed around 200 tons, and took up thirty train box cars when shipped to New York for assembly in what Cahill called his "Music Plant". The instrument looked like a power generator and took up an entire floor on 39th street and Broadway in New York city. Indeed the machine itself put out 670-kilowatts of power. Each generator rotor produced a pitch and a 60-foot chassis held 145 rotors.
One floor up was Telharmonic Hall, a concert space where the instrument was controlled and played. Two to four musicians could sit at the controls to play the Telharmonium from the listening hall. It was a unique arrangement of four keyboard banks each with 84 keys. Before the minimalist composers La Monte Young and Terry Riley brought just intonation back into the fold of Western music, it was possible to play the Telharmonium using just intonation. Just intonation differs from equal temperament in that it occurs naturally as a series of overtones where all the notes in a scale are related by rational numbers. In just intonation the tuning depends on the scale you are using. Equal temperament was developed for keyboard instruments so that they could be played in any scale or key. The Telharmonium through additive synthesis, and the ability to control timbre, harmonics, and volume was an extremely flexible instrument.
Though there was no channel separation the Telharmonic hall was fitted with eight telephone receivers augmented with paper horns. These were arrayed behind ferns, columns and furniture. An electrician at the company suggested splicing the current from the Telharmonium into the arc lamps hanging from the ceiling which then resonated at the same frequency as that being played to create “singing arc.” The Telharmonium could also be piped to any number connected to the AT&T phone system.
Thomas Commerford Martin wrote of the new sounds of the Telharmonium as an alliance of electricity with music. Cahill "has devised a mechanism which throws on the circuits, manipulated by the performer at the central keyboard, the electrical current waves that, received by the telephone diaphragm at any one of ten thousand subscribers' stations, produce musical sounds of unprecedented clearness, sweetness, and purity."
Cahill had ambitious plans for his "Telharmony". He advocated that a form of "electric sleep-music" could be tapped at any time for the cure of modern nervous disorders. The electric drones could also be used to relieve boredom in the workplace. But his plans were not to bear fruit in the manner he thought. His instrument sometimes caused interference or crosstalk on the phone lines, electronic music interrupting business and domestic conversation. It also required vast amounts of power. When vacuum tubes started to appear and in the 1920's other less expensive electronic instruments, that did not require the infrastructure provided by Ma Bell, started being built. Finally with the advent of broadcast radio many of these types of ventures ceased to be profitable. No known recordings of the Telharmonium exist.
In the 1930's Hammond patented the electrically amplified organ which was essentially a smaller and more economical version of the Telharmonium. This was much to the chagrin of Cahill's family as the patent on his instrument had not yet run out. Synth pioneer Robert Moog later recognized the genius of Cahill's work and his seminal place in the history of electronic music.
In William Peck Banning's 1946 book, Commercial Broadcasting Pioneer: The WEAF Experiment 1922-1926, he wrote that "historians of the future may conclude that if there was any 'father' of broadcasting, perhaps it was the telephone itself".
The history of electronic music is intimately tied up with the history of radio and telecommunications. Many of the same breakthroughs and devices invented by electrical engineers for communicating in morse code, telephone and radio were adapted for use by musicians. Electricity opened up new worlds of sound beginning in the 19th century. This series on the music of radio will explore the ways telegraphy, telephony and radio have impacted the creation of electronic music from the late 19th century and onwards into the 20th and 21st. It will also explore the ways radios and the signal and sounds they receive and emit have been used by electronic musicians and composers in the creation of new music. Our story begins with the Musical Telegraph.
Elisha Gray, co-founder of the Western Electric Company, is perhaps most well known as a developer of a prototype telephone. Some scholars consider Gray the true inventor of the telephone. Both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray used liquid transmitters in their experiments with voice transmission over wire. The telephone seems to be one of those ideas that was floating around in the ether at the time, and it is my view that each inventor developed the work independently. In fact Gray arrived at the patent office to file his apparatus "for transmitting vocal sounds telegraphically" just two hours after Bell. After a number of years in the courts, it was Bell's patent that the lawyers held up in a number of decisions.
Though Gray may only be considered a kind of begrudged step-father in terms of telephony, it is clear that the electric synthesizer is the fruit of his seed. In 1874 after Gray had retired from Western Electric to focus on independent research he came up with one of the seventy patents attributed to him. In this case, the Electro-harmonic Telegraph. It was a chance by product of his work on the telephone.
In the course of his work Gray learned he could control sound from a self-vibrating electromagnetic circuit. This led him to the invention of a basic oscillator made of steel rods whose vibrations were created and transmitted over a telegraph line. The instrument consisted of a number of single-tone oscillators that could play over a range of two octaves. Each tone was controlled with a separate telegraph key.
After giving several private demonstrations of the instrument he gave a public performance at the Presbyterian Church of Highland, Illinois on December 29, 1874. A newspaper announcement stated that it transmitted "familiar melodies through telegraph wire". In later models of the instrument he added a simple diaphragm speaker that amplified the tones to a louder volume.
To be fair Bell came at the telephone also through his work as a teacher of the deaf and adjacent studies of music, hearing, sound, and human anatomy. While working for Western Union Telegraph he had been obsessed with solving the problem of creating a "multiple telegraph" -or a way to transmit a number of messages over the same wire. It was this work on the harmonic telegraph that spurred him on to his own invention the telephone.
Antennas and monochords have a lot in common. A monochord is an ancient musical and scientific lab instrument made of one long string, similar in that respect to a long single wire antenna, only the string is stretched over a sounding box of equal length. One or more movable bridges are then moved up and down the string to demonstrate the mathematical relationships among the frequencies produced and for measuring musical intervals. Though it was first mentioned in Sumerian clay tablets, many attribute it's invention to Pythagoras around 6 BCE. These ancients saw within the monochord a mystic holism in which notes, numbers, ratios and intervals combined with the sense of hearing and mathematical reason. Monochords are related to other instruments such as the Japanese koto, the hurdy-gurdy, and the Scandinavian psalmodikon this last used as an accompaniment to voice in sacred music. In medicine the sonometer, a variation of the monochord, continues to be used to diagnose hearing loss and bone density for those who may be at risk for osteoporosis.
The discovery of the precise relationship between the pitch of a musical note and the length of the string that produces it is also attributed to Pythagoras. If he had been able to put electricity into wire strings it might have been Pythagoras who discovered the principle of resonance that makes an antenna match a frequency. What Pythagoras did propose was the idea of the Music of the Spheres, a philosophical concept that conjectures that the movement of celestial bodies creates a form of heavenly music. This theory has continued to haunt the imagination of the West since it was first proposed. Later Plato described astronomy and music as "twinned" studies of sense recognition that both required knowledge of numerical proportions. Astronomy was for the eyes and music was for the ears. Now millenia later astronomy can be studied with the ears of a radio receiver and number crunching supercomputers.
In 1618 the physician, scientist and mystic Robert Fludd conceived a divine or celestial monochord linking the Ptolemaic conception of the universe to musical intervals, suggesting that the instrument could also be used to demonstrate the harmony of the spheres. In Fludd's picture a divine hand reaches down from out of a cloud to tune the monochord to the celestial frequencies of the planets and the stars. Around two and a half centuries later scientists unknowingly started tuning into the terrestrial frequencies that were unknowingly being picked up by telegraph and telephone lines.
In his masterful book Earth Sound Earth Signal Douglas Kahn writes that "radio was heard before it was invented". He goes on to describe how the first person to listen to radio was Alexander Graham Bell's assistant Thomas Watson. He tuned in with a telephone receiver "during the early hours of the night on a long metal line serving as an antenna before antennas were invented." Other telephone users also listened to radio for two decades before Marconi made his first transmission. Watson enjoyed listening to the natural VLF signals given off by the earth, though he did not know it's origin or that it was even radio at all. The natural signals were picked up on the telephone line acting as an extremely long wire that was resonant in the VLF range, from around 3 kHz to 30 kHz and corresponding to wavelengths of 100 to 10 kilometers. Watson's own line from the lab stretched a half mile down the street. Since he wasn't transmitting it didn't have to be fully resonant to pick up the VLF signals. I like to think of these long antenna wires as a type of terrestrial monochord that tunes in to the harmony of the Earth.
Watson did not try to do anything about the noises he heard on the line, as they did not interfere with voice communication. In fact he actually enjoyed listening to spherics, whistlers, dawn chorus and other VLF phenomenon he likely picked up, even as he didn't know or understand their cause. I like to listen to this form of natural radio myself. There are a number of live internet streams from people who have set up VLF listening posts, such as those found at http://abelian.org/vlf/. I think those sounds are as relaxing as listening to the surf of the ocean or a gentle breeze in the trees. Kahn goes on to write that nature "has always been the biggest broadcaster, bigger than all governments, corporations, militaries, and other purveyors of anthropic signals combined." May it remain so.
Fludd's image of the celestial monochord was made famous in 1952 when it came to adorn the cover of The Anthology of American Folk music compiled by Harry Everett Smith and released by Smithsonian Folkways. I think some divine inspiration was passed on to Harry Smith, from the same hand that tunes the instrument, and from him it passed on to all the lives his massive compilation touched. The six-album set brought new levels of cultural awareness to musicians such as Blind Lemon Jefferson, the Carter Family and Mississippi John Hurt and went on to kick start the folk music revival of the 50's and 60's. It had a strong influence on Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, who are acknowledged as disciples of the anthology. It continues to touch new generations of musicians today.
Avant-garde composer and father of minimalism La Monte Young found early inspiration from another type of electrical monochord. He recalled as a child listening to the droning sound of the power plant next to his Uncle's gas station. He became fascinated by the 60-cycle hum of electricity as it moved along the lines. This inspired such pieces of music as "the Second Dream of the High Tension Line Stepdown Transformer". John Cale and the late Tony Conrad are among the many influenced by Young's work. Both were involved in Young's Theatre of Eternal Music. Cale went on to a long and varied career and is notable for being a founding member of the Velvet Underground. During rehearsals with Young, Cale and Conrad would tune their instruments to the 60-cycle electrical hum, what Young called the "underlying drone of the city".
In the late 70's composer Alvin Lucier started working with physicist John Trefny on a musical acoustics course they were teaching at Wesleyan University. They had set up a monochord and placed an electromagnet over one end while an audio oscillator drove the wire. This created an interaction between the flux field of the magnet and the frequency and loudness of the oscillator, causing the stretched wire to be observed vibrating by the naked eye. This demonstration captivated Alvin's imagination and he started thinking about building a monochord to be used on the concert stage or in galleries. After getting some metal piano wire, clamps and a horseshoe magnet he had a built a portable version whose length could be varied depending on the size of the space. This became his classic piece Music on a Long Thin Wire. What he did was extend the wire across a room, clamping it to tables at either end. The ends of the wire were connected to the speaker terminals and a power amplifier placed under the table. The amplifier in turn had a sine wave oscillator connected to it, and a magnet straddled the wire at one end. Wooden bridges with embedded contact mics were put under the wire at both ends, and these were routed to a stereo systems. This electrified monochord is played by varying the frequency and loudness of the oscillator to create slides, frequency shifts, audible beat frequencies and other sonic effects. Lucier eventually discovered that the instrument could be left to play itself by carefully tuning the oscillator. Air currents, human proximity to the wire, heat or coolness and other shifts in the environment all caused new and amazing sounds to be heard, sometimes spontaneously erupting into triadic harmonies. This electric monochord is an instrument that can play itself just as the long thin wires of the early telephone and telegraph system tuned into the terrestrial harmonies continuously being broadcast by Mother Earth.
Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Magnitude in the Arts by Douglas Kahn
The Hum of the City: La Monte Young and the Birth of NYC Drone by Alan Licht
The Anthology of American Folk Music compiled by Harry Everett Smith
Alvin Lucier, Music on a Long Thin Wire, Lovely Music LCD 1011
Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.