Instruments | Hammond Organ | Electric & Electronic

The term electric, or electromechanical, organ is used to describe instruments that produce sounds using a dynamo-like system of moving parts – as opposed to electronic organs that employ solid-state electronics.

Laurens Hammond

In the same way that ‘Hoover’ is used instead of ‘vacuum cleaner’, the very name ‘Hammond’ has become synonymous with electric organs. The Hammond organ was developed by Laurens Hammond (1895–1973), a brilliant inventor who claimed to have no musical ability whatsoever.

Hammond graduated with an honours degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University in 1916. Following a period of armed service in France during the First World War, he took up the position of chief engineer with the Gray Motor Company in Detroit. The invention of a silent, spring-driven clock gave Hammond enough capital to strike out on his own, and in 1928 he founded the Hammond Clock Company, which made a range of electric clocks, driven by another of his inventions – the synchronous electric motor.

However, as other clock companies went out of business during the Great Depression, Hammond’s determination to remain solvent led him to develop other products, and he soon turned his attention to music. Though no musician himself, he recognized the importance of music and was keen to produce a system that could bring high-quality music-making to the domestic market.

Development of the Electric Organ

In developing the electric organ, Hammond turned for inspiration to the underlying principles of Thaddeus Cahill’s ill-fated Telharmonium. Aided by his company treasurer (and church organist) William Lahey, Hammond used his engineering skill and experience to develop an electro-mechanical system of tone-wheel generators coupled with a keyboard. The Hammond tone-wheel organ was patented in 1934 and the Model A went into production in 1935, with Henry Ford and George Gershwin among the first customers.

The now-legendary B3 was first produced in October 1955 and quickly became a lasting favourite with musicians of all genres for its distinctive sound and versatility. The B3 is housed in a large wooden cabinet on four spindle legs, with separate power amplification and speaker system. The musician is presented with a pair of 61-note keyboards and a 25-note flatradial removable pedal board. The sound generated by the instrument is controlled by a series of rocker switches and drawbars. These drawbars lie at the heart of the Hammond sound, allowing the player to build up rich timbres by combining pure tones in differing combinations – in the same way that a church organist would use stops to combine pipes of different lengths.

The Leslie Speaker

Another defining feature of the Hammond sound was not invented by Laurens Hammond but by Don Leslie (1911–2004). The Leslie speaker was developed to overcome shortcomings that Leslie felt to be inherent in the sound of the Hammond organ. Noting that the instrument sounded much more impressive in large halls, Leslie began experimenting with ways of introducing reverberation and motion into the sound. The result was the rotating speaker system that bears...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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