Electric Instruments

Early History

Claims about electric instruments date back to 1730 when texts describe a Czech musician who “generated sound by electromagnetic excitation of piano strings.” These claims are either false or the entire history of electricity of incorrect. Until Volta’s Voltaic Pile battery, in 1800, there was no method to produce an ongoing current. Electrical experimentation before that time was little more than playing with static shocks of electricity. Furthermore, the relationship between electricity and magnetism was not yet understood.

Other electrical instruments claim to exist but running an instrument off a battery would be expensive and impractical. Telegraphs generated funds to pay the significant cost of their batteries. Musical instruments are unlikely to have generated enough money to justify the expense over traditional instruments. Furthermore, until the availability of the Audion tube amplifier, most people would not be able to hear the instruments until they were extremely close.

First Genuine Electric Instruments

Given this, our guess is the first real electrical instrument is the “Teleharmonium” of Thaddeus Cahill in 1897. By then, an early power grid existed. Furthermore, Cahill patented his instrument, demonstrated it publicly, and took photos of it. His electric piano is before the Audion tube so it would have been quiet but, still, it sounds like a legitimate invention.

In 1899, British physicist William Duddell experimented with lowering the noise electric arc lamps create. During his work, he realized he could modulate the noise and created a pre-Audion tunable instrument with reasonable volume. As a quirky bonus, electric-arc lamps on the same circuit as Duddell’s piano also played the same sounds.

In 1905, German Hermann von Helmholtz created an extremely on-key sound synthesizer used to tune other instruments. By 1909, serial inventor Melvin Severy built an improved Teleharmonium they called the “Choralcelo” and marketed to rich families.

Modern Electric Instruments

Finally, in 1915, serial inventor Lee de Forest modified his Audion tubes to create the first amplified electric instrument. de Forest’s Audion Piano is arguably the first real electric instrument. Listeners said de Forest’s synthesizer mimicked many different sounds. Cahill collaborated with de Forest to broadcast a Teleharmonium concert amplified by telephone, which relied on de Forest amplification. Realizing that lack of need for the telephone in the middle, the Teleharmoium eventually disappeared, replaced by vacuum-tube powered equipment.

Soon enough there were countless electric instruments. One of the more popular is the Soviet Union’s “Theremin” that changes tones without touching the instrument.

Fender & Moog

By the late 1930s, Leo Fender opened a radio repair shop in Fullerton, California. He quickly developed a reputation for building effective amplification systems. Musicians from the Los Angeles area rented his amplifiers. Soon, they started asking him to amplify their acoustic guitars and lap steel guitars. Eventually, Fender teamed up with others to add specialized amplification to different types of guitars. After WWII, “Big Band” music became less popular and bands realized they could produce a similar effect of a horn section with one electric guitar. Fender’s guitars surged in popularity. Musicians tired of lugging around giant bass violins so Fender created a bass guitar that was smaller, less expensive, and far easier to travel with.

In 1953, electrical engineer Roberg Moog started designing and selling Theremins. Eventually, one of his customers modified a Moog Theremin for keyboard control, calling it a Clavivox. In 1947, Bell Labs created the semiconductor which enabled the miniaturization of devices made from vacuum tubes. Around 1964, Moog started building a semiconductor-based synthesizer. Rather than the enormous electric pianos or barely controllable Theremins, the Moog synthesizer was relatively small, easy to control, and produced lots of interesting sounds. In 1968, Wendy Carlos the wildly popular Switched-On Bach, a classical music LP created on a Moog synthesizer. Music has never been quite the same.

Theramin Demonstration

For a great look at the evolution of electric instruments over time, see the fantastic website 120 Years.

Long Playing (LP) Records & Talking Movies

Long-playing records play for a long time, enabling records with more than one song.


As Edison’s phonograph evolved, the recordings eventually migrated to small disks played at 78 rotations per minute (rpm). Each disk held about three minutes of music per side.

Filmmakers wanted to add sound to their movies. Before then, movies ran and typically a musician played a piano or organ. Lee de Forest’s Audion amplifying tube made movie sound possible, but the three-minute recordings were too short.

In the early 1920s, de Forest tried to create his own extended-play sound system, but it never worked well. In response, Bell Labs created a longer playing disk. Significantly larger disks spun slower, at 33 1/3 rpm allowing it to play about 23 minutes. They branded it the “Vitaphone” sound system for movies.

The Vitaphone system functioned from 1926 to 1931. Eventually, optically encoding a soundtrack replaced the LP movie soundtrack. Optical encoding made it easier to synchronize sound to movies and played for an indefinite length.

LP’s, from B2B to B2C

However, the long-playing records caught on a consumer product. It was impossible to record entire classical pieces on the 78rpm records. Additionally, pop soundtracks contained one song per side. Finally, the maximum song length was about three minutes. To sell multiple songs, the small records would be bound together into a book, called an album, a term still in use.

Over the years, various recording technologies attempted to challenge the dominance of the LP record except none succeeded besides cassette tapes, which could play in cars. In 1982, the introduction of the digital Compact Disk (CD) eventually sent the LP into obsolescence.

Interestingly, vinyl LP records are becoming popular again. Starting in 2014, vinyl record sales climbed steadily higher due to a perception of better-quality sound. By 2018, vinyl accounted for 9.7 million album sales, up 12% from 8.6 million in 2017. In contrast, CD sales are falling by 41% per year. In 2018, CD sales are 70% and vinyl sales account for 30% of the physical music media. However, by 2018 overall sales of physical music – as opposed to digital soundtracks or streaming – makeup only 10% of the industrial total.

Audion Tube

The Audion acts as an amplifier, transforming quiet electric signals into loud ones.


In 1906, Lee de Forest invented the “three-electrode Audion” vacuum tube.

In 1906, Lee de Forest invented the “three-electrode Audion” vacuum tube. The Audion acts as an amplifier, transforming quiet electric signals into loud ones.

Originally de Forest wasn’t quite sure if the Audion had any practical application. That quickly changed. Audions efficiency boost voice over telephones, enabling long-distance calls. They make radios (and, later, phonographs, televisions, and anything else that produces sound) louder. They improve reception. Audion amplifying tubes caused countless noise complaints until digital transistors overtook them.

Patent Battles

de Forest famously fought epic patent battles to protect his Audion tube patent. The two most well-known include one with vacuum tube inventor John Fleming and another with radio inventor Edwin Armstrong. During these fights, de Forest admitted he did not know how or why his tube worked nor did he see any practical use for it. However, as the first person to invent and patent the tube he claimed broad rights to the patent and license it. After prolonged litigation that included three trips to the US Supreme Court they ruled for de Forest.

The de Forest patent war brings up a recurring and never-ending question: what is the purpose of a patent? The US Constitution clarifies patents exist “To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Other countries have similar reasoning.

However, when the inventor of a thing sees no purpose for it and does not understand how it works do patents really promote the progress of science? US patents were initially issued by the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson. Except he did not like patents and processed applications slowly if at all. Steamboat inventor John Fitch received a patent after a long wait. However, the patent also issued to three others including two who did no research at all. Similarly, he sat on the application for Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. By the time the patent issues knockoffs abounded. However, steamboats and cotton gins both flourished.

FM Radio


In 1906, Lee de Forest invented the “three-electrode Audion” cathode ray tube. However, by his own admission, saw no use for it in radio.

During his time at Columbia, Armstrong worked with Audion tubes and realized they could recycle a radio signal, amplifying it by sending it repeatedly through the tube. Further, by reversing the process, Armstrong could amplify the reception of a radio signal as well.

de Forest, by his own admission, was focused on using the tube to amplify telephone signals. He had no interest in radio signals.

Patent War

Companies licensed the tube from both Armstrong and de Forest then fought one another. AT&T initially supported de Forest whereas RCA supported Armstrong. At one point, due to licensing, Armstrong was the largest shareholder in RCA. But RCA eventually decided to side with de Forest, abandoning Armstrong, who continued his lawsuits.

Litigation continued with de Forest losing all the early rounds. Eventually, he appended his initial tube patent to focus not specifically on radio waves but, more generally, on electricity, and won.

The definitive Supreme Court opinion issued in 1932. The third Supreme Court decision in the case, issued two decades after the patent applications were filed, suggests the Court was exhausted by the ongoing litigation. The Court reasoned the patent holder is whomever first makes a thing, not who innovates various uses from it (a position that would change, later, as the law and the Court changed). There is an undertone that Armstrong and de Forest should have settled the case long ago and cross-licensed the technology.

FM Radio

During this time Armstrong extended uses for the tube, inventing FM that had much cleaner sound than AM. Armstrong offered the FM patent to his old friend Sarnoff, who had risen to become CEO of RCA and creator of the National Broadcasting Corporation. Sarnoff saw FM as an enormous breakthrough but, during the Depression, did not think buyers would pay for new receivers and did not want to incur the expense of new transmitters.

RCA had first right of refusal for the technology but failed to strike a deal. Eventually, Armstrong commercialized his radios, selling $5 millions of RCA shares and created a company to compete with RCA and its broadcasters. His company had $2M/year in revenue but was spending as much on expansion.

With never-ending patent battles, and no money left ー and obsessed on the court cases ー his wife of 31 years left him on Jan. 1, 1954. He soon after committed suicide at age 63. The case did not definitively end until Oct. 9, 1967, after a Supreme Court forced the last settlement, by Motorola.

Besides FM radio, Armstrong also invented the Superheterodyne receiver, that used a series of filters to more accurately and cleanly tune into a radio station.

Movie Sound

Talkie movies increased fun but also increased the utility of movies by enabling the transmission of news with pictures. Newsreels, that started out as shorts played before movies, evolved into the most effective communication method in history.

Tigerstedt created the first documented movie sound technology, in 1914. However, his technology was not commercialized. Lee de Forest (the same man who created the Audion tube – see FM) went to Europe to work with the German’s Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massolle of Tri-Ergon.

de Forest tried creating a US sound on film company in cooperation with Tri-Ergon, called De Forest Phonofilm Company, but it never succeeded and eventually went bankrupt. de Forest did manage a sound film festival of short movies on Apr. 15, 1923.

Freeman Owens and Theodore Case also worked with de Forest but found him obnoxious and, eventually, licensed their technology to Fox Film Corporation where it became dominant. Due to the split, IP nobody made substantial revenue from sound films.

Sound Over Radio

After a series of other innovations involving radio, Fessenden invented sound over radio in 1906. Before then radio typically carried Morse Code signals. He created a company, NESCO, that struggled with IP, financing, and people issues.

The owners, including Fessenden, hoped to sell the company to AT&T or GE but that deal did not close. In 1910, the NESCO partnership broke down; Fessenden was ousted Jan. 8, 1911. Fessenden sued his ex-partners and RCA, that had eventually acquired the company including his patents in a deal he apparently did not approve of.

After 15 years of litigation Fessenden settled with RCA for $500K, albeit it with $200K of legal fees, leaving him $300K ($4.3M in 2018 dollars). http://www.ewh.ieee.org/reg/7/millennium/radio/radio_radioscientist.html Radio, with sound

de Forest Audion tubes are still in use to broadcast AM radio. While de Forest invented the Audion tube, it is Edwin Armstrong who figured out, and patented (unsuccessfully, in hindsight), its use as a radio transmitter and receiver. [See FM Radio for more detail.]