This Is How Synthesizers Worked In The Victorian Age

In this video, David Pantalony, Curator at Ingenium: Canada’s Museums of Science and Innovation, demonstrates a 19th century vowel synthesizer.

The instrument is a Hermann von Helmholtz synthesizer, invented in the 1860’s and built by Rudolph Koenig. The Helmholtz synthesizer was designed to explore how additive synthesis can be used to create complex sounds from simple ones, and how sine waves can be combined to create different timbres, vowel sounds and more.

Helmholtz’s synthesizer generates sounds using a series of tuning forks, each pitched to different frequencies, made to vibrate using electromagnets. A keyboard is used to control the volume of each pitch, letting you play the pitches individually, or combine them as overtones of the fundamental pitch to do additive synthesis.

While this is clearly a synthesizer, it was designed primarily as a scientific instrument, rather than a musical one.

9 thoughts on “This Is How Synthesizers Worked In The Victorian Age

  1. That is such a beautifully made / crafted instrument.
    I really like it.
    Bit of a large noise floor though!

  2. It’s a fun, cool exercise but something doesn’t ring quite believable… if you have electromagnets as a period-appropriate available technology, then you have electric switches as well, so it could respond more quickly and reliably (he had to reach over and fix a stuck one) if it used those instead of the mechanical ones.

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