This article was contributed by Dan Wilson.
"The Novachord was a polyphonic synthesiser that was manufactured in 1939. It was designed by Laurens Hammond together with John Hanert and C. N. Williams. Incredibly for the time, it featured 72-voice polyphony created by (the first?) 'divide down' oscillators. Also incredibly for the time, each of the 72 voices had their own envelope shaper so it was totally polyphonic. These passed through a series of resonant band pass filters to create tonal variation. A 6-channel electromechanical LFO was used to polyphonically animate the sound that allowed rich ensemble textures to be created. The different sounds could be 'programmed' using a series of front panel Bakelite controls. Although these controls look variable, they are, in fact, switches. These controls allowed the user to manipulate the three filters, the envelope shape and the LFO amount. Other controls allowed the user to balance the high/low levels of the keyboard and a further control allowed the user to switch between bright and mellow (a simple lowpass bass filter but implemented in a unique electro-mechanical way tpo provide rudimentary keyboard tracking). Pedals acted as performance controls with a 'swell' pedal (to control dynamics) and various footpedals for sustain.
It utilised 163 vacuum tubes, over 1,000 capacitors and contained miles of wiring and hand sewn looms of cabling. The mechanical engineering utilised just has to be seen to be believed and there is very little compromise exhibited in the design. For example, there is a front panel control (PERC / SINGING) that is mechanically linked to other controls and when you move it, the other panel controls change. It is arguably the first implementation of a synth 'preset' because with one simple control movement, you could select a completely different set of sounds (and as the name implies, at one extreme, the sound sound is percussive and at the other, it is more legato and sustained). But the actual mechanism that achieves this is incredibly engineered and so elegant."
Novachord Keying and Generator
Although I am into the retro computer scene I’m also very much into vintage studio and music equipment being the owner of the oldest electronic synthesizer in the UK, a 1/4 ton, 163 tube Novachord built in 1938 by Laurens Hammond which predates even Colossus and more to the point the bistable flip flop being full of a sea of monostable tube circuits instead....
Costing $1850 in 1939 this is a rare and historically important piece of history but, more relevantly, is the model famously owned by J. Presper Eckert and was quoted once as saying “before ENIAC... the largest tube gadget in 1943 was the Novachord”..
Infamous Novochord Generating Capacitors
I imported number 346 from Seattle at considerable cost from Seattle a few years ago and undertook a partial restoration on her. Its one of less than 50 working examples world wide.
Well, you might be tempted to say “so what” but what might interest you is that my Novachord used to be owned by a George Hardenbergh who was a design engineer at UNIVAC for many years and worked on many pioneering technologies including the precursor to the modern hard drive (drum memory) and the Atlas computer. More to the point, he was a colleague of J. Presper Eckert and Mauchly for many years (albeit at different branches). George was an eccentric and an avid collector of old computers and music equipment. He owned a disused theatre in St Pauls, MN called The Mounds Theatre which he spent several years haphazardly filling up with all manner of technical junk including an entire UNIVAC mainframe on the stage and three Novachords.
This is what triggered some excitement for a while last year as it was speculated it was just possible my Novachord used to belong to Presper. Much to my surprise, after putting out several enquiries, I received an email directly from Preper’s son himself (Chris Eckert) saying that he remembered helping to paint his father’s Novachord white and therefore doubted it was mine. This week I’ve just had another email from Chris after it turned out he’d found some old photos and on reading my email again from last year very kindly sent me a recently unearthed picture of Presper’s daughter Laura (now 50) standing next to the Novachord circa 1965! After some research the Hello Dolly music book on the music stand was printed in 1963 so it adds up nicely.
The search hasn’t quite ended as it turns out that one of the three Novachords George had was indeed painted white but it’s proving very difficult to find out quite what happened to it despite having tracked down the guys that not only cleared Presper’s estate but also George’s. I have also subsequently received an email from someone who purchased one of George’s other Novachords but that example isn’t painted white either
1939 Hammond Novachord #346 Lives Again!!
After 220 hours of initial restoration work the UKs only example of a 1939 Novachord, the world's first commercial polyphonic synth,is up and running again and boy does she sound good!!!
Remember - this is a 70 year old synthesizer as is one of less than 20 known operational units world wide:
Details and photographs of my restoration of the Novochord 346 can be found at
Dan WilsonDate : Unknown
This exhibit has a reference ID of CH32547. Please quote this reference ID in any communication with the Centre for Computing History.
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