How an 18th-Century Monk Invented the First Electronic Instrument

We tend to think of elec­tron­ic music as a mod­ern phe­nom­e­non, dat­ing back only to the 20th cen­tu­ry, but the inven­tion of the first instru­ment made to use elec­tric­i­ty occurred a cou­ple cen­turies deep­er than that. The man pic­tured above, Czech the­olo­gian and sci­en­tist Václav Prokop Diviš, “is now regard­ed as the ear­li­est vision­ary of elec­tron­ic music,” writes Moth­er­board­’s Becky Fer­reira, owing to the fact that “his dual inter­ests in music and elec­tric­i­ty had merged into a sin­gle obses­sion with cre­at­ing an elec­tri­cal­ly enhanced musi­cal instru­ment.” Around the year 1748, that obses­sion pro­duced the “Denis d’or,” or “Gold­en Diony­sus,” a “key­board-based instru­ment out­fit­ted with 790 iron strings that were posi­tioned to be struck like a clavi­chord rather than plucked like a gui­tar.” Through the elec­tro­mag­net­ic exci­ta­tion of the piano strings, the monk could “imi­tate the sounds of a whole vari­ety of oth­er instru­ments.”

“Diviš was an inter­est­ing char­ac­ter, hav­ing also invent­ed the light­ning rod at the same time as, but inde­pen­dent­ly of, Ben­jamin Franklin,” says the Cam­bridge Intro­duc­tion to Elec­tron­ic Music. He designed the Denis d’or with “an inge­nious and com­plex sys­tem of stops” that report­ed­ly allowed it to “imi­tate an aston­ish­ing array of instru­ments, includ­ing, it was claimed, aero­phones.” The same applied to “chor­do­phones such as harp­si­chords, harps and lutes, and even wind instru­ments.”

The term aero­phone (which denotes any musi­cal instru­ment that makes a body of air vibrate) might not sound famil­iar to many of us, but the func­tion­al­i­ty of Diviš’ inven­tion will. Don’t we all remem­ber the thrill of sit­ting down to our first syn­the­siz­er and dis­cov­er­ing how many dif­fer­ent instru­men­tal sounds it could make, vague though the son­ic approx­i­ma­tion might have been?

Whether the Denis d’or counts as the found­ing instru­ment of all elec­tron­ic music or a mere ear­ly curios­i­ty, you can learn more about it at 120 Years of Elec­tron­ic Music and Elec­tro­spec­tive Music. The pre-his­to­ry of elec­tron­ic music (since its his­to­ry prop­er begins around 1800) has remem­bered it as a prac­ti­cal-joke device as much as an instru­ment. “Diviš devised a nov­el method of tem­porar­i­ly charg­ing the strings with elec­tric­i­ty in order to ‘enhance’ the sound,” says the Cam­bridge Intro­duc­tion. “What effect this had is unclear (unfor­tu­nate­ly only one instru­ment was made and this did not sur­vive), but it appar­ent­ly allowed Diviš to deliv­er an elec­tric shock to the per­former when­ev­er he desired.” Nobody ever said a poly­math could­n’t also be a prankster.

via Moth­er­board

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music in 476 Tracks (1937–2001)

Meet the “Tel­har­mo­ni­um,” the First Syn­the­siz­er (and Pre­de­ces­sor to Muzak), Invent­ed in 1897

The His­to­ry of Elec­tron­ic Music Visu­al­ized on a Cir­cuit Dia­gram of a 1950s Theremin: 200 Inven­tors, Com­posers & Musi­cians

Moog This!: Hear a Playlist Fea­tur­ing 36 Hours of Music Made with the Leg­endary Ana­log Syn­the­siz­er

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • joesixpack says:

    The elec­tric­i­ty applied to the strings did absolute­ly noth­ing for the sound qual­i­ty. All it did was deliv­er an elec­tri­cal shock to the play­er. Call­ing this the first elec­tron­ic instru­ment makes about as much sense as call­ing Franklin’s kite the first elec­tron­ic air­craft.

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