Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer Up For Auction


Bonhams will be auctioning a rare Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer, built by Max Kohl (c 1905) after a design by Hermann Von Helmholtz (1821-1894).

The Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer is considered by some to be the first electronic synthesizer. It uses tuning forks, controlled by electromagnets, to generate fundamentals and overtones, the intensity of which can be varied to create different types of sounds.

Here’s what Bonhams has to say about the rare Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer:

HELMHOLTZ, HERMANN VON. 1821-1894. Chemnitz: Max Kohl, c.1905.

A wood and brass sound synthesizer built by Max Kohl after the design by Hemholtz. 39½ x 29 inch mahogany base with turned feet, fitted with 11 small wooden platforms, each marked with a number and the words “aus” [from] and “ein” [to], 10 of the platforms fitted with tuning forks and accompanying brass Helmholtz resonators, the tallest measuring 18½ high, each pair ranging in size according to their graduating frequencies, 11th platform fitted with 1 large horizontal master tuning fork. All 11 platforms connected together with wire filaments, which are in turn attached to a keyboard fitted with 10 African ivory keys, each numbered and marked with the tones ut [Do, or C] to 4 octaves, mi [E] to 3 octaves, and sol [G] to 3 octaves. Each key is paired with 2 brass knobs, one each on the wooden panel above the key, and one each on the panel below. Opposite end from keyboard fitted with 2 anodes and 2 cathodes, each with accompanying brass knob.

The Helmholtz sound synthesizer was the first electric keyboard. Specimens of these are extremely rare, with only one similar but smaller apparatus located in a US institution that we know of. We have not seen another as large or finely made as this one.

The synthesizer was used to combine timbres of 10 harmonics to form various vowel sounds. The system is driven by an intermittent current provided by a large horizontal master tuning fork on numbered wood base, and was operated by pressing on the various keys which sent the current to the corresponding electrically driven tuning forks. These forks, fitted with Helmholtz resonators tuned to the same frequency, would then reproduce the desired tone.

Helmholtz invented his resonator to identify the various frequencies of the pure sine wave components of complex sounds containing multiple tones, showing that the different combinations made could reproduce vowel sounds. Max Kohl of Chemnitz is perhaps one of the most famous scientific instrument makers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His work was distinguished by its exacting craftsmanship, and high quality materials.

See the Bonhams’ site for auction information.

via Walter Funk – Kwisp – Hologlyphics

32 thoughts on “Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer Up For Auction

  1. These devices are not as rare as you think they are, although this one is one of the very few complete sets.



    Tuning forks are still being made and sold, so it would not be difficult to reproduce it, given access to a machine shop or a set of premade resonators. It’s not exactly a ‘music synthesizer’, so if you build one, you’re going to be disappointed that it only makes a few vowel sounds.


  2. Do a little research people. This is NOT the first sound synthesizer, not the first keyboard synthesizer or anything of the sort. It is a false claim. But the device is very interesting.

    1. “The Helmholtz Sound Synthesizer is considered by some to be the first ELECTRONIC synthesizer.”

      The article doesn’t claim it to be the first sound synthesizer…

  3. Thought you guys might be interested in the enquiry I made with the auctioneers and the MIDI compatibility of this bit of kit:

    From: Gareth
    Sent: 25 September 2014 11:55
    Subject: Re:Lot 245, Auction 22247, HELMHOLTZ SOUND SYNTHESIZER. HELMHOLTZ, HERMANN VO…, 22 Oct 2014

    Hi Cassandra,
    Does this have MIDI or CV?
    Kind Regards,

    From: Cassandra Hatton [mailto:[email protected]]
    Sent: 25 September 2014 14:46
    To: Gareth Hughes
    Subject: Re:Lot 245, Auction 22247, HELMHOLTZ SOUND SYNTHESIZER. HELMHOLTZ, HERMANN VO…, 22 Oct 2014
    Dear Gareth,

    Thank you for your inquiry. The Helmholtz synthesizer was built in 1905, about 78 years before MIDI was developed, so it has neither MIDI or CV.

    Best regards,

    Cassandra Hatton
    Senior Specialist, Fine Books and Manuscripts/Space History
    580 Madison Avenue
    New York, NY 10022
    +1 (212) 461-6531
    +1 (212) 644-9007 fax

    From: Gareth Sent: 25 September 2014 14:53
    To: ‘Cassandra Hatton’
    Subject: RE: Re:Lot 245, Auction 22247, HELMHOLTZ SOUND SYNTHESIZER. HELMHOLTZ, HERMANN VO…, 22 Oct 2014


    Thank you for the response. I’m afraid that is a deal breaker for me, so I am out.

    Kind Regards,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *