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The Hammond Music Machine

If you attend performances of jazz, rock, gospel, country, and other genres, you will see a common instrument, the Hammond B3 organ. Not many listeners know that instrument by name, but they would easily recognize its sound in many genres of music. The Hammond Organ was developed in 1935, by a watch maker Laurens Hammond. Eventually, he set up his Hammond Organ Company in Evanston, Illinois

Picture of the Hammond B3 organ

The Hammond B3 was the most common version of the instrument that is found in popular music. Other variations were made for churches and concert halls. Hammond organs are usually written off by most classically trained organists as a poor imitation of a well built pipe organ. I can tell you from my own experience of playing both kinds of instruments that there is a notable difference between a pipe organ and a Hammond. However, I want to steer this conversation away from the idea of the Hammond as a lowly machine. It is its own instrument in its own rite. It has its own tradition and we will look at its uses in popular music and its contributions to what we now know as digital technology.

We have discussed the generation of sound from electricity passing through a wire, next to a magnet, which creates a magnetic field. This is a form of power that is strong enough to propel railroad locomotives, or to run a small watch. This magnetic field can also produce sound when rapid pulses of this magnetic energy cause a speaker to vibrate and make sound waves.

Picture of<br />
Hammond Tone Wheels

Consider the same magnetic energy produced by a gear-like mechanism, which produces pulses of current by running a notched "tone-wheel" next to a magnet. The size of the notches in any wheel determines the pitch that generates most any range of tones. On the Hammond B3, there were 2 manual keyboards with 61 notes each for the hands to play. The musician adjusted nine drawbars that were connected to nine tone wheels, for each note, to combine different colors and volume of tone. The pedal keyboard, which is played with the feet, had 25 keys and could be adjusted with two tones. We end up with a very complex instrument of fifty tone wheels for the pedal keys, and 1,098 tone wheels for the two manual keyboards.

We know that the electromagnetic energy is a common phenomenon which made many uses of electricity possible. The Hammond made unique applications of this technology, which revealed new possibilities to other developers of this functionality. Hammond organs could be equipped with a Leslie Speaker, which rotated at different speeds. Rotating slowly, the sound seems to be moving in the space. Rotating fast, the effect was a gradually increasing vibrato that was one of the unique qualities of the Hammond sound. Another effect was reverb, which was created by a spring that would pull away from the magnet when a key was released. The effect was a short fade after each note that sounded like the dispation of sound, instead of an abrupt end to the sound. This straight forward idea was copied by many sound designers and became widely used in other keyboard instruments, microphones and electric guitars, to name only a few.

Outside of music communities, the tone wheel idea had many important cousins. Machines deployed in World War II to crack encoded messages used wheels to calculate translations of encoded messages from enemies. These machines are usually cited as important forerunners of early computers. However, J. Presper Eckert, a co-inventor of the ENIAC computer, learned how to make electronic circuits for the ENIAC from analyzing the Novachord, Hammond's early version of a synthesizer, which grew from the development of the B3.

Motor-driven devices have measured timed squences in everything from early ancient water clocks to recent computer-driven traffic lights. These devices automated their functions, without power from human movement, and such automated devices (or "clocks") are used to regulate the flow of movement, social patterns, and cultural production in Western, Post-Industrial society. If you have ever been late catching a flight at an airport, you can recognize the power of a simple machine like a clock.

Therefore, the Hammond Organ was more than a convenient portable organ for playing music. In histories of technology and material culture, these instruments operated with technologies for new machines that changed the way music and much of material culture were made.

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