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Hammond organ

August 28, 2001

A public radio commentary

My grandmother had a nearly sacred object in her home. We were forbidden to touch it, except under supervision. It was her Hammond organ. We were, of course, allowed to listen to her play it. I can still picture her sitting at her Hammond, smelling of lilac face powder as she pounded out show tunes and pop favorites.

Now to her, this Hammond was an expensive treasure, but the real story of the Hammond organ is that it made this instrument available to nearly everyone.

Laurens Hammond, an electrical engineer invented the Hammond organ out of desperation. Hammond failed, in the 1920s, to market his invention for making 3-D movies. It was a motor-driven contraption that covered one eye, then the other. He needed to make something more practical. He turned to making electric clocks.

He based his clock on an electric motor he'd invented. It rotated at a very constant speed, exactly what is needed for a clock. Hammond did well at first, but soon others entered the market and he found himself losing money until by 1935 he was half a million dollars in debt.

In his desperation Hammond realized that his motor could be used to make sound. Hammond knew that sound from, say, a violin string arose because the string vibrates at a constant rate - moving at a constant rate was exactly what his motor did. Inspired by his boyhood memories of a church organ he made an electric organ.

Hammond inserted a long shaft into his special motor. He placed along it what he called "tone wheels". Each wheel had a different number of metal points on it. The motor spun these points past magnets that generated sound.

In 1935 Hammond debuted his organ at Rockefeller Center. George Gershwin, reportedly, bought one on the spot. Soon Hammond Organs were in Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood bowl, and then everywhere from skating rinks to funeral parlors.

The organ succeeded because of its low cost and convenience compared to a pipe organ. Unlike a pipe organ, a Hammond was never out of tune, was lightweight, and cost less than a tenth the price. By 1950 the Hammond was in homes across America, although critics complained about its sound. One characterized the Hammond's sound as "lifeless, dull, dead, hooty, [and] tubby."

Perhaps, but not in the hands of the artists who made the Hammond a true instrument. Here's Jack McDuff, a true master, making the Hammond B3 Organ swing.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises