Synthesizers have a longer history than a neat chronology of musical progression might suggest. It was still the 1890s when U.S. inventor Thaddeus Cahill applied for a patent for his Telharmonium, a primitive electronic organ — and used the word “synthesizing” in his paperwork. By the early 1920s, Russia’s Leon Theremin had already invented the synth that bears his name. In between, others devised their own electronic instruments, and now one of these early synths is hitting the auction block.
Bonhams (via FACT) is selling a Helmholtz sound synthesizer, a wood-and-brass contraption billed as “the first electric keyboard.” Max Kohl, a maker of scientific instruments, built the instrument around 1905 following a design from Hermann von Helmholtz, a doctor, physicist and fellow German. The auction is scheduled for October 22 in New York, and the guide price runs from $20,000 to $30,000.
The auction house says it knows of only one other, smaller Helmholtz sound synthesizer in the United States. The device uses electromagnetically driven tuning forks to mimic various vowel sounds.
“Music was forced to shape for itself the material on which it works,” Helmholtz fascinatingly wrote way back in 1880, as quoted in the book Synthesizer Basics. “Painting and sculpture find the fundamental character of their materials, form and color, in nature itself, which they strive to imitate. Poetry finds its material ready formed in the words of language. Music alone finds an infinitely rich but totally shapeless plastic material in the tones of musical instruments.”
He continued: “There is a greater and more absolute freedom in the use of material for music than for any other use of the arts; certainly it is more difficult to make a proper use of absolute freedom.”
It’s enough to make you wish Helmholtz could hear the new Aphex Twin album.