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