Photo of a red synthesizer, just before the concert started. An important innovator of the instrument was Moog.
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It may surprise you to learn that the earliest seeds of modern electronic synthesizers began in the twilight years of the 19th century. In 1896/1897, an American inventor named Thaddeus Cahill applied for a patent to protect the principle behind an instrument known as the Telharmonium, or Dynamophone. Weighing in at a staggering 200 tons, this mammoth electronic instrument was driven by 12 steam-powered electromagnetic generators. This behemoth was played in real time using velocity-sensitive keys and, amazingly, was able to generate several different sounds simultaneously. The Telharmonium was presented to the public in a series of “concerts” held in 1906. Christened “Telharmony,” this music was piped into the public telephone network, because no public address systems were available at the time.

In 1919, Russian inventor Leon Theremin took a markedly different approach. Named after the man who masterminded it, the monophonic Theremin was played without actually touching the instrument. It gauged the proximity of the player’s hands, as they were waved about in an electrostatic field between two antennae, and used this information to generate sound. This unorthodox technique made the Theremin enormously difficult to play. Its eerie, spine-tingling (but almost unvarying) timbre made it a favorite on countless horror movie soundtracks. Incidentally, R. A. Moog, whose synthesizers would later garner worldwide fame, began to build Theremins at the tender age of 19.(

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