The Extinction of Electronic Music Giants

“I predict that within 100 years computers will be twice as powerful, ten-thousand times larger, and so expensive that only the five richest kings in Europe will own them.”

— Professor Frink, The Simpsons

The year 2010 saw two iconic music medium figures go out of production. Panasonic’s Technics SL-1200 turntables, the primary tool of DJs since 1972, and Sony’s cassette-based Walkman, which put mobile music in over 100 million ears since 1979. Both went the way of the dodo. While vinyl sales have increased for years, and tape-only record labels have been increasing in the fringes of experimental, independent music, both mediums still constitute too small a market share for corporations to bother supporting them. They were simply no longer relevant with the majority.

However, one cannot discount the importance these formats played in the evolution of music history. In their day, both the SL-1200 and Walkman tape player were remarkable feats of engineering. They provided the highest mechanical performance in nearly impenetrable, efficient containers.

Nowadays, people get by with ubiquitous portable equipment like laptops (or notebooks) and their many i-accessories. It’s rare to go out to a club night or check out any act that uses electricity without seeing the visage of an apple with a bite out of it glowing somewhere on stage, while everyone in the crowd is texting and taking pictures with their mobiles, and occasionally holding up their lighter apps.

The ubiquitous laptop, or iPad, did not just appear in society, of course. It was an evolutionary process. The first commercially available scientific computer appeared in 1951, when IBM manufactured the 701 Electronic Data Processing Machine or Defense Calculator. It received programming through various buttons, switches, and keys, as well as punch cards and magnetic tape if you shelled out for those accessories. Each piece of this computer was about the size and weight of a hotel safe.

The first commercially available laptop hit the market in 1975. The IBM 5100 had a 5” monochrome screen, a 1.9MHz processor, and 16K RAM. That is all laughable by today’s standards, and even then the fact that this lumbering dinosaur weighed 55 pounds and, if you upgraded to 64K RAM, cost around $20,000US, it made the machine’s claim to portability unjustifiable. Musicians would not be able to turn laptops into portable studios until many years after the 5100 was a distant memory.

Yet such aural experimentation with electricity had been happening, especially at universities. For example, Paul Lansky produced “Mild und Leise” on the IBM System/360 Model 91 in 1973, a piece later sampled by Radiohead on their electronic album Kid A from the year 2000. When asked about the first electronic instrument, people most often think of the invention of Léon Theremin, and, indeed, the hands-free device that took his last name was a major development. His device defined the soundtrack for cinematic and radio-play genres of science fiction and horror, and eventually appearing on recordings by The Beach Boys and Portishead. Yet, developed in 1919 and patented in 1928, there was a groundbreaking machine developed over 20 years before the Theremin.

IBM System/360 Model 91

Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium

In 1897, Thaddeus Cahill harnessed the power of electricity and engineering to create the first Telharmonium. By the process of additive synthesis, the monstrosity used tone wheels to generate musical sounds as electrical signals. The original blueprints called for 408 cylinders, but the Telharmonium Mark 1 prototype only used 35. Regardless, Mark 1 easily took up an entire room, and weighed over seven tons. Updates to this version, Marks 2 and 3 were over 60 feet long, had over 145 driven alternators, and weighed almost 200 tons.

The sounds produced by these machines were then made available through daily ‘live’ performances at Telharmonium Hall, across from The Met in New York, run through phone lines as this was before the development of tube amps. Cahill had grand plans to service up to 20,000 subscribers via a telephone service. A deal was struck between Cahill’s New York Electric Music Company and the New York Telephone Company to lay cable for the Telharmonium broadcasts, and the music made its way into the odd café and hotel lobby around the Big Apple.

Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium

However, the powerful signals emitted by the machine caused crosstalk with the regular phone lines, despite being separated, which lost Cahill’s New York Electric Music Company the support of the phone company. Harsh financial times also took their toll. The Telharmonium failed to attract enough subscribers to make the Electric Music Company profitable, and by the time Cahill built the Mark 3, the passing years and the development of the Wurlitzer sucked all interest in the Telharmonium dry. Cahill’s company dissolved in 1914.

The Telharmonium was an electronic music giant in many ways, though. Many consider it to be the first synthesizer, while the essential mechanics behind it (additive synthesis using tonewheels) ended up in the far more popular Hammond organ in the ’30s. Telharmonium was also one of the first examples of the true commodification of music. It asked people to pay for actual sound rather than sheet music, and presupposing the notion of “Muzak” since the machine only performed simple, benign versions of popular music. Unfortunately, the last existing Telharmonium was destroyed in 1962, and there are no surviving recordings of the machine.

The Great Stalacpipe Organ

The Telharmonium was a big piece of work. Certainly, no one thought about throwing 200 tons in the back of a van and going on tour, but there exists an even bigger giant of electronic music. Nestled away in the Luray Caverns of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, The Great Stalacpipe Organ is just what its name suggests. Covering 3.5 acres of mineral sediment, this beastly feat of engineering made the 1988 Guinness Book of Records as the largest ‘natural’ musical instrument in the world.

It was built over several years in the early-’50s by a mad genius named Leland W. Sprinkle. He was a student of physics at American University and pipe organ at the Peabody Conservatory of Music. During World War II, he was a lieutenant commander in the Navy, and taught physics, math, and flight while researching analog computers for use in bombing. He later became a member of the Washington Society of Engineers, American Guild of Organists, and, just for kicks, the Steam Automobile Club of America. With all that knowledge and experience, and a young son he wished to impress, the Great Stalacpipe Organ took shape.

Where Leslie Hammond’s organs brought massive technological ideas into the home, Sprinkle’s organ took it back to nature. The Great Stalacpipe Organ worked by striking stalactites with rubber mallets, which are controlled by solenoids, themselves triggered by a normal-looking organ control. Some of the stalactites were found in perfect tune, but many of them were sanded down by Sprinkle to fill out the tempered octaves. Despite the vast distance between some of the notes, the highly reflective acoustics of the cavern make amplification essentially unnecessary, though it is typically used for large tour groups.

Jurassic Park, Jurassic Byte

While the Telharmonium is long extinct, the Great Stalacpipe Organ is undergoing an attempted resurrection. Remaining a significant draw to seekers of curiosities to this day, it has recently experienced years of renovation to make it fully functional again. Its monolithic sounds can still be enjoyed. Also unlike the Telharmonium, fossilized records (i.e., vinyl, cassette, compact disc) of the Great Stalacpipe Organ exist, either as bootlegs or as sold in their gift shop.

What’s more, where the Telharmonium only performed electronic versions of songs written for acoustic instrumentation, original works have been written for the Great Stalacpipe Organ. Finland’s psychedelic champions Pepe Deluxé composed the pièce de résistance for their long-awaited, heavily-anticipated follow-up to 2007’s critically lauded Spare Time Machine specifically for the Organ. At this time, they are working on the logistics of recordings the great machine. No word yet on when Pepe Deluxé is going to start cloning the Telharmonium, but it’s only a matter of time…