Electrifying Music Began Here (at Oberlin!)
An exhibit in the lower level of the Kohl Building by Roderic Knight, Prof. of Ethnomusicology, emeritus
In 1878, Oberlinians heard music created by electricity, transmitted by telegraph to a loudspeaker in First Church. The instrument was the Musical Telegraph, invented by Elisha Gray and now held at the Smithsonian. It used steel reeds set in motion by electromagnets. Gray originally came from Barnesville, Ohio to attend Oberlin in the 1850s, then returned as Professor of Dynamic Electricity from 1880 to 1900. On display in this exhibit are Oberlin replicas of several of his inventions, including loudspeakers, a violin-as-loudspeaker, and organ pipes fitted for telegraphy.
Also featured are graphics depicting Hermann von Helmholtz’s 1863 device to replicate vowel sounds (a model for Gray’s work), and Thaddeus Cahill’s 1897 Telharmonium, which synthesized orchestral sounds with tone wheels. Electronic instruments of the 20th century are also included: a Theremin, a MIDI horn, a solar sounder, and other creations from the Oberlin TIMARA (Technology and Music in Related Arts) program.