Played Out and Sounded Out: The Instruments That Fell Silent

From the Polychord to the Fonosynth to the Thowiphon, these are the spectacular, bizarre innovations that hardly anyone remembers—a look into the cabinet of curiosities.

“Weltmeister“ Claviset 200 (1962/1966) by Klingenthaler Harmonikawerke, KlingenthalDeutsches Museum

They Pulled the Plug!

The Trautonium. The theremin. The Minimoog. The Yamaha DX7. These are unique innovations and legendary instruments that have long held a place in the electronic music hall of fame. But, of course, not every invention has been a big hit. Across the 20th century, there have been countless electronic instruments where huge efforts have gone into designing, constructing, and producing them, yet in the end, they couldn't break into the market and would forever remain on the shelves. Some of these sometimes bizarre items, such as this claviset, can now be found in the musical instrument collection of the Deutsches Museum.

Der Vierling-Flügel (1)Deutsches Museum

Take the Elektrochord, for example, which was also called the Vierling grand piano after its inventor Oscar Vierling (1904–86). Vierling developed the instrument in 1932 together with German-American inventor Franklin Mießner (1890–1976) during his time as an electroacoustic engineer at the Heinrich Hertz Institute in Berlin, and built it in August Förster's instrument workshop.

The vibrations of the strings hit by the piano mechanism were recorded and electronically amplified. This process could create different acoustic patterns, from a soft spinet tone to the lyrical tone of a parlor piano to the powerful evolving tone of a concert grand piano. However, the Elektrochord never became a best seller.

Piano (1925) by C. BechsteinNational Music Museum

The Neo-Bechstein grand piano came out in the 1930s around the same time as the Elektrochord. It was also called the Bechstein-Siemens-Nernst grand piano since the instrument was developed at the Physical Institute of the Humboldt University of Berlin under the instruction of Professor Walther Nernst (winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize in Chemistry), together with firms Bechstein (mechanics) and Siemens-Telefunken (electronics). It was a grand piano minus the soundboard, with extremely thin strings arranged together in groups of five in a microphone capsule.

Neo-Bechstein VideoDeutsches Museum

The sound was produced using extremely light microhammers. The player could adjust the volume with the right pedal and achieve different audio effects with the left. One impressive feature was the ability to connect additional record players and radio receivers to the amplifier. However, it was never suitable for mass production. In fact, only 150 Neo-Bechstein grand pianos were produced in total.

Das Polychord (1)Deutsches Museum

In terms of the development of electronic musical instruments, one name should never be forgotten: Harald Bode (1909–87). Born in Hamburg, he worked at the Heinrich Hertz Institute for Vibration Research in Berlin and later designed the melochord for the Studio for Electronic Music for West German Radio (WDR). He became chief engineer of the synthesizer company belonging to Bob Moog at the start of the 1970s when he was already living in the US.

Das PolychordDeutsches Museum

By 1950, Bode had already built the Polychord intended exclusively for Bavarian radio, which he presented during several radio broadcasts. It remained at the station until 1971. The instrument could imitate the oboe, saxophone, or stringed instruments, but could also create noises and sound effects.

The toggle switch allowed users to select predefined tones as well as tremolo, while the control knobs were used to freely adjust the formants. Treble and bass were switched on separately.

Die Elektronen-Orgel Polychord von Harald BodeDeutsches Museum

The volume could be controlled with the pedal.

Ein Webeplakat für das PolychordDeutsches Museum

Like the Polychord, Bode also produced its successor, the Polychord III, in the Apparatewerk-Bayern instrument workshop in Dachau.

“Weltmeister“ Claviset 200 (1962/1966) by Klingenthaler Harmonikawerke, KlingenthalDeutsches Museum

The German Democratic Republic started to develop its own electric instruments in the mid 1950s. The Ionika EMP1 mini organ was conceived in 1958. Series production began in 1959. The Weltmeister Claviset 200 was developed by Klingenthaler Harmonikawerke, a creator of harmonicas and other musical instruments, in 1963. Sounds are produced through plucked metal reeds which are electronically scanned. Nine timbres and three vibrato intensities can be selected using toggle switches. The instrument is similar to the Cembalet by Hohner. It was hugely popular in the GDR.

Das FonosynthDeutsches Museum

One instrument that is already impressive at first glance due to its size is the Fonosynth, an analog tube and transistor synthesizer specially developed for the New Electronic Music Studio of the American Academy in Rome by Polish-Italian sound engineer Paul Ketoff in the 1950s.

The American Academy, founded in 1913, continues to be an important US cultural institute in the Italian capital city. The institute's 10 buildings including the Villa Aurelia are located on the Gianicolo, the highest hill in Rome, across 4.5 hectares of historic gardens.

The music studio in Rome was started by Otto Luening (1900–96). Luening had been involved in electronic music since the 1950s. During this time, he also established the first electronic music studio in the US: the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (CPEMC) in New York…

…which is still based in the Prentis Hall on 632 West 125th Street under its new name, Computer Music Center (CMC).

Fonosynth-Detailaufnahme (3)Deutsches Museum

After its completion in 1958, the Fonosynth was mainly used as an experimental instrument by numerous musicians and composers in the pioneering years of electronic music.

Fonosynth-Detailaufnahme (4)Deutsches Museum

The sound of the Fonosynth was produced by 12 sinus and six rectangle oscillators.

Fonosynth-Detailaufnahme (2)Deutsches Museum

The sound signal itself could be modulated and adjusted using six different filters and various generators.

Das FonosynthDeutsches Museum

The instrument was played on an unusual keyboard arranged in 6 rows of 24 keys.

Das ThowiphonDeutsches Museum

The Thowiphon, an invention by film composer Peter Thomas, is also a very special exhibit. Thomas, born in 1925 in Berlin, started work as an arranger for West Berlin radio station RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) following his music studies in the 1950s. In 1960, he composed the soundtracks for the five-part TV series On the Green Beach of the Spree (Am grünen Strand der Spree) and the Durbridge serial The Time Has Come.

Some of his greatest successes include his compositions for Edgar Wallace's films in the 1970s and the soundtrack for the cult science-fiction classic Orion Space Patrol (Raumpatrouille Orion). He developed the Thowiphon with sound engineer Hansjörg Wicha for his further experiments in electronic music. The name comes from the first syllables of both of their surnames, Thomas and Wicha.

In an interview for online portal keyboards.de, Peter Thomas said: "The machine created futuristic sounds, and I thought I'd have further success with it. In the end, I was the only one who owned the device. But I was also the only one who paid for it. I would've been able to buy myself a big Mercedes otherwise… but I'm happy I made it. Most importantly, I'm now featured in a museum."

Stylophone (5)Deutsches Museum

From the large and imposing Fonosynth and Thowiphon to the miniscule, and the smallest exhibit in the electronic music section: the Stylophone. It was invented and developed in 1967 by Brian Jarvis and his Dübreq Company in Leeds, England. The letter ü in the company name aimed to give the impression of German quality. The Stylophone was produced from 1967 to 1975. It appealed to a mass audience and could be played by anyone. The 20-key metal keyboard was played using a stylus.

Stylophone (1)Deutsches Museum

In England, Australian entertainer Rolf Harris gave the Stylophone a huge PR boost. In Germany, this boost was provided by crooner and jazz musician Bill Ramsey.

Stylophone (2)Deutsches Museum

Included in the packaging alongside the sheet music were numerous songs to play…

Stylophone (3)Deutsches Museum

…as well as a small disc with an acoustic tutorial.

StylophoneDeutsches Museum

What was by far the most famous song worldwide which used the Stylophone? Space Oddity by David Bowie.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps