Frank Morse Robb, inventor, designer, business executive (born 28 January 1902 in Belleville, ON; died 5 August 1992 in Belleville). Frank Morse Robb was one of the first inventors in the world to succeed in developing an electronic organ, the Robb Wave Organ, in 1927. However, attempts to produce the instrument commercially proved unsuccessful due to lack of financing, and fewer than two dozen were ever built.

Invention Background

After studying at McGill University from 1921 to 1924, Robb returned to his native Belleville and in 1926 began research on an electronic organ. His goal was to produce one for church use that would save space and require little maintenance.

The sound-producing mechanism of his trailblazing Robb Wave Organ involved a system of 12 shafts, one for each note in the chromatic scale. On each shaft were mounted sets of tone wheels, or discs. Each disc was edged in the shape of sound-waves photographed from a cathode ray oscillograph and corresponded to an organ stop. The shafts and discs rotated before tiny coils and magnets, which in turn translated the wave design into electric currents that were fed through a vacuum-tube amplifier into two loudspeakers. Different speeds of rotation produced different pitches. The organ's console had all the usual couplers of traditional pipe organs.

Patents and Production Attempts

In November 1927, a small trial instrument was demonstrated in Belleville and at the Toronto Daily Star's CFCA radio studio. Cellist Boris Hambourg put Robb in touch with the General Electric Company in Schenectady, NY, but no production arrangement was made. Robb filed the first patent application for a Sound Reproducing Instrument on 29 September 1927; he obtained the patents for Canada on 23 October 1928 and for the United States on 23 December 1930. In 1931, Robb resumed experimentation and signed an agreement to work with the organ builders Casavant Frères. However, the Depression caused the company to back out of the agreement the following spring.

Robb produced a five-octave one-manual instrument in 1932 and demonstrated a two-manual, 32-pedal note-wave organ in Belleville in April 1934. Soon afterwards, Lady Flora Eaton, Edward Johnson, Alexander and Ernest MacMillan and Frederick Silvester visited Robb to hear the organ. The Robb Wave Organ Company was incorporated on 21 September 1934 and the first production model came on the market in 1936, but only 16 to 20 instruments were built. Silvester played on one at a Toronto Promenade Symphony Concert on 30 July 1936, and Lady Eaton arranged for Robb and the Montréal organist Warner Norman to give demonstrations of the instrument at Eaton's department stores in Toronto and Montréal.

In 1936, Robb also experimented with a touch-sensitive keyboard. Response from musicians and music critics was encouraging, but Robb was unable to obtain funding for further production and in 1938 he abandoned the project. The Robb Wave Organ was taken off the market in 1941; only 13 were ever sold. The American-built Hammond Organ, which used a similar tone wheel device, began production in 1935 and would go on to become the industry standard.

Surviving Robb Wave Organs

The prototype of the Robb Wave Organ and some parts are held in Ottawa at the Canada Science and Technology Museum. The only known surviving commercial model was donated to the National Music Centre in Calgary.

Additional Work

Robb also applied his talent as an inventor to devices for the packing of guns during the Second World War. He became vice-president of his brother's packing company and won acclaim as a silversmith. He also wrote the novel Tan Ming (1955) under the pseudonym Lan Stormont.

See also Electroacoustic Music.

A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.