Today is the birthday of Thaddeus Cahill. What, you’ve never heard of Thaddeus Cahill? Don’t worry, he’s not exactly a household name. But perhaps he should be.
in 1897, he invented a machine called the telharmonium in 1897. Using electrical signals transmitted over wires and amplified by horn-shaped “speakers,” Cahill built what most people consider to be the first completely electronic musical instrument. In other words, the first synthesizer.
Of course, the machine was also 60 feet long, cost $200,000 (or around 4.7 million in today’s dollars) and weighed over 200 tons. That’s as heavy as a blue whale. Even by Daft Punk’s extravagant standards, that’s pretty ridiculous.
Synthesizers have come a long way since Cahill, from theremins to samplers to 808 drum machines and Auto-Tune. So in honor of the electronic music pioneer, we charted the evolution of synthesized sound in our latest video.
1897: Telharmonium – The first-ever synthetic, electronic instrument. It weighed 200 tons.
1920: Theremin – Popular in science fiction movies – two antennae sense the player’s hands so it can be played without touching
1939: Hammond Novachord – The first commercial synthesizer that could play two notes at once
1964: Moog Synthesizer – Synthesizers now use transistors instead of vacuum tubes, allowing them to be smaller and cheaper
1970: Vocoders gain popularity – The human voice can now be reproduced and modulated through synthesizers
1977: Rise of digital sequencers and samplers, like the Fairlight CMI. This would revolutionize dance music
1980: One of the first programmable drum machines: The 808. Hugely influential on early hip-hop.
1983: Invention of MIDI, a standardized protocol for synthesized music, which allows a huge number of sounds to be created by just one instrument (like the keytar)
1984: First battery-powered affordable keyboards (CASIO CZ-101)
1997: Autotune is invented by an Exxon engineer named Andy Hildebrand who had been working on ways to interpret seismic data. As far as we know, Hildebrand still hasn’t apologized.