Story of an Inventor: Laurens Hammond


IN the dusky, high-vaulted University of Chicago chapel sat a small but curiously intent congregation. Fifteen of the group were university students. Another nine, if one were to judge from their interesting hands and sensitive faces, were musicians. Among the scattering belonging to neither group sat a young man of strong features and erect bearing whom no casual observer would have identified as the principal of this drama. Certainly no human being whose fate hung upon a thread of music could appear less perturbed than this composed individual.

‘Larry’s mighty confident,’ said one of his lawyers nervously. ‘He doesn’t seem to realize what he’s up against — a $75,000 Skinner, with nine of the best musicians in the Middle West on the


His friends shook their heads. How could $2500 worth of tubes, condensers, and electrical gadgets, collectively known as the Hammond Electric Organ, hope to compete in this blindfold test with one of the finest pipe organs in mid-America?

If the conductors, violinists, and vocalists on the jury could tell which was which, Laurens Hammond’s future would be no longer brilliant.

‘Aren’t you nervous?’ Hammond was asked.

‘Not as nervous as the experts,’ he said.

At this moment the first deeply moving chords of ‘ Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring’ issued from the fingertips at one of the hidden consoles, rolled from the chancel wall (where both the pipes of the Skinner and the speakers of the electric organ were situated), and flooded the chapel with a concord of sweet sound. The court was now in session, and the strangest trial in musical history was under way.

This contest of ‘pure science against pure æsthetics’ as one observer phrased it, staged as it was beneath the Gothic arches designed by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, had at least one other aspect of mediæevalism. The battle of the organs was, in fact, a trial by combat. It was a tilt between an inventor who knows hardly a single note of music and musicians who would be equally lost among the synchronous motors, tubes, condensers, coils, and cones of his electrical engineer’s laboratory.

On one side were ranged figures of tradition, shades of the great musicians and organ architects. On the other stood the Edisons, Marconis, and Hammonds who have learned to send such delicately controlled electrical impulses through networks of wires that tones of any color, intensity, or duration may be initiated at the touch of a platinum contact.

The Past grappled with the Future that evening in March 1937. But on a more prosaic plane the disinterested officials of the Federal Trade Commission present at this trial confronted Laurens Hammond in an honest effort to determine the musical merits of the Hammond Organ. Hammond had proposed the unique tests at the University chapel in which thirty selections of sixteen bars each would be played on one organ or the other in an unannounced sequence. The subpœnaed jury of musicians and the volunteer jury of students were given tally sheets, each printed with thirty numbers. Jurors were to determine, if possible, which organ selections were played on the Skinner pipe organ and which on the Hammond electric. Organ manufacturers throughout America, their business hit by the Hammond, had maintained that only instruments using pipes and reeds could produce ‘organ music.’ Hammond, taking up the challenge, was betting his future on this performance. He does not deny that as he heard the strains of Widor’s ‘Toccata,’ Bach, Franck, Guilmant, and Dubois swelling from the chancel, and as he watched the jury of musicians marking their tally cards, an emotion arose within him not primarily inculcated by the music.

Thirty times the great composers and others spoke from the resounding stone of the chapel and the ‘experts’ marked their tally cards, the students listened and guessed. And when the score cards were turned in the students were wrong almost exactly as often as they were right — in other words, their score was almost exactly the average of chance. The musicians fared slightly better. Yet even they were wrong in from 10 to 90 per cent of their opinions. Inventor Hammond, vindicated by this performance, could thank modern science for a miracle.

Yes, the Federal Trade Commission spoke softly in their decision.


Laurens Hammond had come to this place — this moment in his life — by an interesting and circuitous route. He was born in Evanston, Illinois, on January 11, 1895, fourth and youngest child of an artist mother and banker father. The father died soon after his son’s birth, and Idea Strong Hammond took her four children to Europe and resumed her painting.

Eunice Tietjens, the poet, who conversationally refers to Laurens as ‘my baby brother,’ tells of that trip to Europe in her autobiography, The World at My Shoulder. The Dreyfus case was stirring Paris when they arrived, and students went through the streets shouting ‘ Conspuez Zola, conspuez Zola, conspuez! ‘ Mother Hammond prudently retreated to Geneva, where ‘the sharp mountains, as purely cut as mathematical formulæ,’ may have proved to the fourteen-year-old poet (if not to the four-year-old incipient engineer) that ‘Euclid alone has looked on beauty bare.’ Laurens was doubtless more interested in dabbling his toes in what his eldest sister calls ‘the sliding, pellucid waters’ of Lake Geneva. At Dresden all four children, each to become well known in later years, were immersed in Wagner and in the educational technique of Father Froebel — author of the kindergarten. It would be interesting to know whether the self-expression thus nurtured was not paramount in aiding Eunice to become a famous poet, Louise a distinguished missionary and musician, Elizabeth a fine violoncellist who played as soloist with several symphony orchestras before her death in 1935, and Laurens Hammond an inventor.

In offering her outline of the family’s accomplishments, Eunice Tietjens shows pardonable pride in her ingenious young brother, ‘who has to his credit the “Teleview ” (a three-dimensional movie), the “Shadowgraph” (the only effect Ziegfeld ever used for more than one season in the Follies), the Hammond Electric Clock, the bridge table which shuffles cards . . . and the new Hammond Electric Organ. He is young yet and may be expected to do still greater things.’

Since her book was hustled off to the publishers in 1937, Eunice’s ‘ baby brother’ has invented and successfully marketed the Novachord, generally admitted to be the world’s most versatile musical instrument, and, with the help of a brilliant assistant or two, the Solovox, still another musical instrument which is being publicly introduced this month.

An inventive American like Hammond habitually looks forward and is a little impatient when he summarizes tersely his forty-five years on this planet. He would rather make predictions as to the nature of the symphony orchestra of two decades hence (‘one quarter of the instruments will be electrical’) than tell of the days when, as an altar boy in an Evanston church, he began to dream of inventing a better organ.

Only with an effort can one turn Laurens Hammond’s mind to the past:

‘ Europe until I was ten . . . high school for three years in Evanston . . . engineering at Cornell ... to France with the 16th Engineers.’

One must overcome the inventor’s natural reticence with a specific question before he will admit that he held a commission as captain although only twentythree years of age. He discounts any rumors of bravery under fire.

Hammond was sent, to the Staff College. After the Armistice he rose to be chief engineer for the Gray Motor Company in Detroit. He skips lightly over these achievements, preferring to tell rueful or ironic stories of his ideas.

One of his earliest inventions was a tickless alarm clock. But the road to the patent office is paved with good inventions; an inventor, it seems, must have hundreds of brain children, hoping that one in ten will grow to profitable maturity. Perhaps the most sensational of Hammond’s early contrivances was Teleview, the three-dimensional movie. The young engineer and his associates actually produced a three-dimensional movie entitled ‘Hello Mars.’ Special cameras and projectors were necessary. The revolutionary aspect of the new form of entertainment, however, was the electrical device in front of each spectator. A synchronous motor alternately obstructed the vision of the left then the right eye at such a speed that no obstruction was apparent. This produced the necessary stereoscopic effect to a startling degree. The figures on the screen assumed three lusty dimensions. Close-ups of love scenes were almost embarrassing.

‘Even the little drops of perspiration on the face of the heroine shone like convex mirrors,’ Hammond recalls, ‘and in each drop could be seen a distorted reflection of the klieg lights.’

But the public did not want threedimensional realism. It wanted twodimensional illusion. America was not ready for Teleview, nor was Teleview completely ready for America. During its respectable run in New York City, the experimental film was considered a scientific success but an artistic and commercial failure.

There are playful aspects to many of Hammond’s inventions. His sense of humor and fanciful imagination, when added to his ability to read Albert Einstein for pleasure, suggest the Lewis Carroll type of mind. Certainly his Shadowgraph is an Alice-in-Wonderland creation, as all Ziegfeld Follies first-nighters will testify. A red spotlight and a green, stationed backstage, silhouette moving figures on a screen. The lorgnette furnished with each program has one red eyepiece and one green. The enforced color selection produces an illusion of three-dimensional shadows moving over the heads of the audience.

Hammond calls one set of controls on his organ ‘Izzy,’ another ‘Clarence.’ He has been known to amuse or at times annoy serious musicians when, in solemn tests of generators which produce ‘tempered’ harmonics and those which produce ‘natural’ harmonics, he has asked them to distinguish (if they can) between ‘Jack’ and ‘Jill.’ He once closed a business deal by telling the story of Rumpelstiltskin, and offering a reluctant patentee a sporting proposition not unlike that which the Dwarf in the story offered the Princess.

Hammond plays poker indecently well, particularly for a man who builds church organs. Yachting with his wife and two daughters is another pleasant pastime. But his most profitable hobby is puttering around his laboratory — which was for many years just a workshop in the basement.


‘Twelve years ago we were making a few clocks in a room above a grocery store in Evanston,’ Hammond told me. Today there are two large factories in Chicago capable of producing 75,000 electric clocks a week, more organs than all the rival organ factories in America, and a respectable number of Novachords and Solovoxes.

Since Hammond is literally unable to play the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ with one finger, his friends laughed when he told them he was trying to invent an organ. They began to take him seriously, however, when they heard the music of his first completed instrument, purchased in 1935 by George Gershwin.

A thorough understanding of the principles of either the Hammond Electric Organ or the Novachord would probably necessitate a five-year course in electrical engineering, plus additional study in harmonics.

Hammond tells an amusing story of an Italian engineer who waltzed airily through the laboratory and factory and then asked for a set of blueprints. ‘We might be interested in turning out a few of these instruments in Italy,’ he said.

Hammond figured a moment with pencil and paper and then said, ‘All right. But the bundle of blueprints for the organ will weigh 130 pounds and cost $160 merely to print.’

The shipment went by freight.

But if the layman puts his mind to the matter it is possible to grasp a few simple principles upon which the instruments operate.

Both the Hammond clock and the Hammond organ depend for their performance upon the standard alternating current with a frequency of sixty per second. Synchronous motors operating on this frequency literally keep the clock on time and the organ in tune.

Attached to a constant-speed shaft driven by the synchronous motor in each organ are ninety-one tone wheels slightly larger than silver half-dollars. The ‘humps’ on the peripheries of these tone wheels are the determining factor in the frequency of the alternating currents set up in adjacent coils. Thus, if 440 ‘humps’ pass a coil in any given second, the current in that coil has a corresponding frequency. Translated into sound in the cone of a loud speaker, this frequency is the note ‘A.’ In a similar manner all the notes are electrically produced — their color and modification electrically controlled, their ‘envelope’ (or ‘attack’ and ‘decay’) delicately adjusted, their volume strengthened by ordinary radio tubes, and their final effect conditioned to approximate anything that emerges from the pipes of the traditional organ.

How the overtones are produced, how the 253,000,000 tonal variations are accomplished through 38 drawbars (stops on a pipe organ), two manuals, pedals, tremulant and chorus devices — this, as I have said, requires 130 pounds of blueprint paper to explain.

In the Novachord and the new Solovox the complex alternations in current which are the electrical equivalent of any given note are regulated not by turning wheels but by grids in vacuum tubes which allow impulses to pass through at a desired frequency. The Novachord has seventy-two keys, is enclosed in a case which looks like a spinet, and has two sets of controls, one to vary tone color, the other to vary the ‘envelope.’

Walter Damrosch has called the Hammond an organ ‘ in all its finest and most intimate details.’ Its function is to produce organ music. The Novachord, on the other hand, produces music ranging from that of the piano or the organ to strings and wood winds, music distinct and characteristic of whichever instrument it is desired to represent. It can be ‘bright’ or ‘mellow,’ a sharp percussion note or a sustained and swelling organ note, or the ringing cry of a Hawaiian guitar.

Two thousand and six hundred pieces of platinum furnish the non-corroding contacts in each organ. The wires are a spiderweb of lace: brown, yellow, orange, green, violet, and blue, each wire carrying ‘one fly power’ of current on its complex mission. Strangely enough, the assembly-line technique has made it possible for hitherto unskilled workers to produce instruments which not more than five or six men in several hundred employed are able to understand. From bright piles of colored resistors, potentiometers, condensers, screws, and relays they fabricate an instrument geared to the motion of the earth in ratios which produce quite literally ‘ the music of the spheres.’

Naturally the layman is impressed. But so was the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, which this year bestowed on Laurens Hammond the coveted John Price Wetherill Medal. Perhaps it is little wonder that the inventor has had faith in his organ.

Hammond looks forward to a brave new world in which the technique and order of the machine age will overcome many of our difficulties. Instead of bemoaning the seeming apathy of the reading public who are turning to the movies and radio as forms of entertainment, he advances to meet the competition with the ‘self-reading’ book.

Although the invention is still in the experimental stage, it is safe to predict that many libraries of the future will be composed of row upon row of cellophane spools. Sixty-thousandword novels will be four and one-half inches in diameter and one and one-half inches wide. Such a spool placed in the little cabinet beside your chair will read itself aloud in an even, clear, and pleasant voice over a period of several hours. The reading can be stopped at any point (if the telephone rings), or it can be turned back to repeat a passage that may have slipped the mind. There will be no attempt at dramatization. The voice on the cellophane sound-track must be the vocal equivalent of fine, clear type on a printed page. Even the new illiterates— the people who can read but won’t — will be able to discuss the Self-Reading Book of the Month over the tinkle of teacups and cocktail glasses. Progressive educators who have already dropped writing and arithmetic may now banish the last of the three ‘R’s’ as we progress toward an effortless millennium.

Let us hope that the Hammonds of this planet, rather than the Hitlers, fashion the future of the Western Hemisphere.