The forgotten genius of Laurens Hammond

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The forgotten genius of Laurens Hammond

Words by Eddy Lim

Turning back the tone wheels of time.

To call Laurens Hammond a child prodigy would be an understatement. At the tender age of 14, he had already designed a system for automatic transmission for automobiles. At just 17 years old, he successfully claimed his first patent for a barometer that could sell for a mere dollar.

As the years progressed, Hammond would go on to create a whole array of other inventions, from clocks and military ordnance, to cinema’s first 3D glasses – and, of course, the Hammond Organ.

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Hammond’s career as an inventor began with those early inventions in his teenage years, and his skills were soon bolstered through studying mechanical engineering at Cornell University where he graduated with honours in 1916. When World War I began, Hammond served with the 16th Regiment Engineers, and rose to the rank of captain.

Following the war, he worked as chief engineer for Gray Motor Company building marine engines – all while tinkering on the side. His side projects bore fruit in the form of a silent ‘tick-less’ spring-driven clock, which brought him enough money to leave the company and rent his own space in New York City.

While staying in New York City, Hammond created the first pair of 3D glasses in recorded history – although their first incarnation took form in an awkward goose-necked motor-powered device with a revolving shutter, which alternately exposed a scene to each of the viewer’s eyes. While reception to this device was generally positive, lack of support by the movie industry and the public eventually collapsed this venture.

Hammond persevered and improved upon his device by increasing both its practicality and cost-effectiveness, utilising a cardboard spectacle frame with one red eyepiece, and the other green – the old-school 3D glasses we know and love. These glasses were used throughout the 1930’s, and were revived at different times all the way through to the 1980’s.

Hammond’s arguably most famous invention took place not long after the creation of his 3D glasses. Over the years, he had begun to recognise different tones being produced by the cogs in his clocks, and resolved to create a more economical church organ, minus the pipes.

As such, in 1933, Hammond purchased a used piano and pried it apart to its bare bones, save for the keyboard mechanism. He realised that he could produce tones by setting a mechanically rotating wheel beside an electromagnetic pick-up, applying the same principles as the ones that existed in his own clocks. Fascinated by this discovery, Hammond placed down a total of nine mechanical wheels to each key on the keyboard, and added “drawbar” controllers that could fade frequencies in and out.

While the instrument produced tones in a similar manner to Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium (via a tone wheel generator), Hammond’s organ was of a much smaller scale in comparison, and in addition to churches, was aimed at targeting the ‘leisure’ and mainstream market. The instrument offered a cheaper option than the piano or wind-driven pipe organ, and picked up rapid stead in churches and bars alike.

Hammond’s organ really began to pick up steam between 1954 – 1974, owing its increased popularity in part to the production of the B3 model. Hammond enthusiasts found that combining the B3 model with the Leslie speaker (a spinning horn) and modifying its rotation speed could create a variety of effects, from tremolo to chorus, and strange sounds in between.

In addition to this, Hammond players were able to use the instrument’s motor start-up time to achieve wobbly pitch bends and engine revving noises. It was this unique combination of the B3 Hammond Organ and the Leslie speaker that truly propelled Hammond’s creation to the heights it ruled in the 20th century.

The Hammond Organ experienced great success in many genres, beginning with jazz before branching out to soul, gospel, R&B, rock, progressive rock, and reggae. Jimmy Smith, a virtuoso jazz organist, was one of the first pioneers to fully utilise the Hammond Organ’s many pedals and drawbars, creating an organ-drenched soundscape like no other.

Other famous artists that used the Hammond Organ in their recordings include Deep Purple, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Pink Floyd, Bruce Springsteen, and Evanescence. Two standout recordings that feature Hammond’s Organ in one form or another are Radiohead’s timeless ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, and Portishead’s trip hop classic, ‘Glory Box’.

Second only to the organ in terms of innovation is Hammond’s 1939 creation, the Novachord. Considered by many to be the world’s first polyphonic synthesiser, the Novachord was a revolutionary invention in the late 1930’s, so much so that the advanced technology received a divided reception.

Many musicians were confused by the extreme deviation from the traditional organ, yet the Novachord still featured in classic films such as Gone With The Wind and It Came From Outer Space. While production of the Novachord ceased in 1941, it remains one of the earliest examples of electronic music technology and another revolutionary creation attributed to Hammond.

The greatest irony is perhaps the fact that Laurens Hammond himself was not a musician – he could barely play his own instrument. He simply loved music, and had the vision, skills and means to create such a timeless instrument.

While other inventors such as Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison are often credited as the most famous inventors of our time, Laurens Hammond should definitely be included up there with the greats. The great inventor passed away in July 1973, but his legacy lives on in the hundreds of songs featuring his incredible instrument.

This article was originally published January 18, 2018.

Don’t have enough of Hammond’s Organ in your life? Discover four of its greatest players here.