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Dead medium: Pre-Digital Electronic Instruments
From: Bruce Sterling
Source(s): Victoria Vesna (

(((bruces remarks: the subject of dead musical instruments has always been problematic for us in Dead Media Project. Are dead instruments dead "media"? I would suggest that musical instruments are of direct interest to us if they have certain qualities. 1. They have inbuilt information-processing capacity (computer- assisted music). 2. They have automatic playback capacity (disks, paper tapes, punchcards, scrolls, etc). 3. They are an inherent part of some larger telecommunication process (postal horns, tribal drums, Cahill's Telharmonium, etc.).

(((Professor Victoria Vesna of University of California Santa Barbara has compiled a remarkable list of early electronic instruments, on a website dedicated to the history of art and computing. Though many of these sonic devices are clearly "not dead media," this timeline, and especially the charming names of these bizarre inventions, have great appeal for the Necronaut. Note that the following is a mere excerpt of a far more extensive list! I recommend her website and its links highly.)))

"Victoria is an Associate Professor at UC Santa Barbara teaching Electronic Intermedia and Computer Image and has been instrumental in fostering an interdisciplinary collaboration between the College of Engineering and Art Studio. Currently, she is one of five artist fellows in an online Ph.D. program at CAIIA Centre for Advanced Inquiry in Interactive Arts at the University of Wales."

Date invented, "device" inventor(s) [description]

1899 "Singing Arc" W. Duddell [early electric keyboard


1903 "Choralcello" Electric Organ; Farrington, C.

Donahue, and A. Hoffman [electromagnetic instrument]

1906 "Telharmonium" T. Cahill [rotating tone generators,

massive synthesizer]

1915 Audio oscillator and "Audion Piano" L. De Forest

[first vacuum tube instrument]

1918 "Synthetic Tone" musical instrument S. Cabot

[rotating tone wheels to generate current, the current

drove metallic resonating bars]

1920 "Theremin" L. Theremin [antenna instrument played

with hands in air; based on heterodyne tone generator]

1921 "Electrophon" J. Mager [heterodyne tone generator

with filter]

1923 "Staccatone" H. Gernsback [sharp attack, inductance-

controlled keyboard instrument]

1926 "Sphaerophon" J. Mager [improved Electrophon with


1926 "Electric Harmonium" L. Theremin [1200 divisions per


1926 "Pianorad" H. Gernsback [polyphonic, based on

vacuum tube oscillators]

1927 "SuperPiano" E. Spielmann ["Light-chopper"


1927 "Electric Guitar" prototype Les Paul [solid body

construction with electromagnetic pickups]

1927 "Electronic Violin" E. Zitzmann-Zirini [space

control of pitch like the Theremin, but switched control

of volume]

1928 "Spielman Electric Piano Harp" J. Bethenod

[microphone and speaker feedback to sustain oscillations]

1928 "Ondes Martenot" M. Martenot [first of many


1928 "Dynaphon" R. Bertrand [multivibrator oscillator]

1928 "Hellertion" B. Helberger and P. Lertes [vacuum-tube

oscillator with feedback, continuous linear controllers]

1930 "Crea-tone" S. Cooper [electric piano with feedback

circuits for sustain]

1930 "Givelet-Coupleux organ" J. Givelet and E. Coupleaux

[automated additive synthesis, oscillators controlled by

paper tape]

1930 "Trautonium" F. Trautwein [neon-tube sawtooth tone

generators, resonance filters to emphasize formants]

1930 "Magnetoelectric organ" R. H. Ranger

1930 "Westinghouse organ" R. Hitchcock [research

instrument based on vacuum tube oscillators]

1930 "Ondium Pechadre" ? [Theremin-like instrument with a

volume key instead of antenna]

1930 "Hardy-Goldwaithe organ" A. Hardy and S. Brown

[electro-optical tone generators]

1931 "Radiopiano" Hiller [amplified piano]

1931 "Trillion-tone Organ" A. Lesti and F. Sammis

[electro-optical tone generators]

Bruce Sterling (