Inventions and Devices

Instruments, Invented And ImprovedAmong 19th-century Canadian inventors were James P.

Instruments, Invented And Improved

Among 19th-century Canadian inventors were James P. Clarke (ca 1807-77), said to have built an organ with glass tubes which he claimed afforded greater possibilities for tonal variations, and Roch Lyonnais (1849-1921), who experimented with instruments between 1865 and 1880. Salluste Duval (ca 1857-1917), a chemist, medical doctor, and organist, invented an adjustable organ pedal which began to be used in Casavant organs in 1884. In 1892 the Casavants built their first electro-pneumatic organs. One of these was installed in the Ottawa Basilica and another in the Parish Church of Notre-Dame-du-Rosaire at St-Hyacinthe, Que. Morse Robb of Belleville, Ont, invented an electronic 'wave organ' in 1927, several years before such builders as Hammond produced similar instruments. During the mid-1930s, Oswald Michaud, a piano technician and acoustics specialist in Montreal, invented and patented an electric piano which he called the Sonobel. In place of a sounding board the Sonobel had near the strings electro-magnets which passed vibrations through an amplifier to a loudspeaker. Though well received the Sonobel was overshadowed by the electronic organ. The two Sonobel prototypes were retained by Michaud's granddaughter. A more recent keyboard invention is the Shaw Concept Organ. Built by Neil Shaw of Burlington, Ont, it features 54 stops and 285 audio channels. Valued at over $100,000, it has been heard in concert and has been rented out on occasion. Also of interest is the monophonic (that is, capable of producing only one note at a time) electronic 'sackbut' invented by the noted physicist Hugh Le Caine in 1945. Le Caine later invented an instrument which he called the Pauliphone and which was capable of playing two or more notes at once. Le Caine's biographer, Gayle Young, designed and built two instruments that exemplify her interest in tuning and pitch. The first, a percussion instrument with 61 steel tubes, each tuned to 23 pitches per octave, is called the columbine and was developed in 1977. The second, the amaranth, was developed in 1980 and is a 24-stringed instrument with a moveable bridge that provides a flexible tuning system.

Richard Armin has won international recognition and awards for the RAAD family of string instruments (which are built of spruce wood) that he has developed. They use a patented technology to amplify the instruments' sound electronically. They have been used in schools, universities, for recordings, in concert, and in experimental research at MIT. US composer Tod Machover used a RAAD instrument in his Begin Again Again... for hypercello, which Yo-Yo Ma performed at Tanglewood in 1991. RAAD Instruments Inc. was incorporated in Toronto in 1983.

A Toronto aerospace engineer, Leonard John, an expert on lightweight composite materials, had built and patented by 1988 three prototype graphite violins. The properties of graphite ensure precise replicability, therefore providing a consistent acoustic response from instruments that are less costly to manufacture.

Philippe Ménard developed and introduced in 1986 the Synchoros, an instrument that consists of eight lamps connected to a microcomputer. Sound is produced by the movement of hands under the lamps. In the 1980s Nil Parent developed and refined his additive synthesizer, called the '16 ' to make, as he said '...a perfect junction between synthesis and analysis..'. (CanComp, 201, May-Jun 1985).

Teaching Devices And Curiosities

One of the first music-teaching devices to be patented in Canada was T.F. Molt's Chromatometer (1832), a box with a sounding board, strings, a movable bridge, and a damper which, with the turn of a knob, produced sounds, chromatically measured. Later in the century William Bohrer advertised an automatic hand guide for the piano and Pierre-Minier Lagacé developed a system of musical shorthand - 'Méthode de sténographie musicale,' now deposited at the Séminaire de Québec. Hugh A. Clarke tried unsuccessfully for many years to perfect a musical typewriter. On 31 Oct 1900 the Musical Courier reported that Laura McLaren of Ottawa had patented a music teacher's device, 'one of the objects of which is to represent to the mind of the pupil a visual embodiment of the construction of scales and their tones and semi-tones'. This was typical of many visual aids devised by teachers: the Cournoyer Musical Ruler, devised by Georges Cournoyer, which won a gold medal at the Salon Mondial des inventions, Brussels, 1976; the Melecci Scales and Chords Builder (mid-1940s), a slide rule invented by Adelmo Melecci (then principal of the Willowdale Branch of the RCMT); and the several inventions of the Saskatchewan music educator Rj Staples, including a scale and chord pattern ruler, a chord indicator, and a record indicator, the last of which could locate and isolate any particular selection on a recording (78 rpm). To encourage children's interest in string music, Staples also designed a simplified cello. The Musicographe Liessens, invented by Auguste Liessens and perfected in 1946, is an instrument which allows the blind to write down music for the use of people who have sight. It has been distributed in many countries.

The Magnetic Board, a magnetic blackboard with painted staves holding movable notational units, was invented by Meier Podolak (b Poland 1904) soon after his arrival in Toronto ca 1952. The device, which made possible the photographing of page after page of perfectly designed musical notation, was much employed by Canadian and US music publishers. After Podolak's retirement in 1974, the blackboard was used for a short time by a firm in London, Ont, then fell into disuse.

Valuable devices for keyboard teaching include Hervé Lemay's 'tableau électronique' (ca 1964) and David Ouchterlony's Multiple Student Keyboard (early 1960s). Responding to a request by the Baldwin Piano Co for a display board which could be used in conjunction with its electro-piano (ie, teaching piano), Lemay, a member of the Frères du Sacré-Coeur in Bromptonville, Que, designed a display screen with visible staves and notes which lit up when played. Though never patented, five of these devices were built, the second and third with consoles for the programming of scales. They found purchasers in Sherbrooke (the Écoles Sacré-Coeur and Mitchell), Gaspé, and Quebec City.

Ouchterlony's Multiple Student Keyboard comprised several individual electronic keyboards, all of which fed into a central control board equipped with tiny lights representing hundreds of notes, and a sound system which could be turned on or off. By means of lights, the teacher could remain stationary and even without hearing, detect students' errors. Four of these systems, which can be used for teaching elementary composition as well as theory, were built by the Allen Organ Co of Allentown, Penn.

Toronto violin teacher Robert Spadafora began in 1983 to design a mechanical device consisting of two interlocking parts; one can be mounted onto a violin while the other is affixed to a bow. The device, called Sound Perfection, is intended to help a student to learn how to correctly draw a bow across violin strings. The prototype was developed with the assistance of the University of Waterloo and the device was commercially available in 1991.

Ellis Wean, former principal tuba with the MSO and a teacher at McGill University, developed a transparent, acrylic, non-fogging mouthpiece for brass instruments. He finished his final prototypes of the Tru-Vu in 1986, and also wrote the owner's manual. This mouthpiece allows teachers and pupils, for the first time, to see the position of the lips and tongue while playing.

Rick Davis of Shelburne, NS, invented an egg-sized wireless transmitter that can be attached to an electronic guitar or a keyboard, and which then can broadcast on a nearby FM radio, the output of the instrument. The Air Jack, being manufactured in Dartmouth, NS in 1990, is an inexpensive device that bypasses more costly amplifiers and speakers.

Records of patented inventions and devices may be checked through the Patents Office in Ottawa, to which, by 1991, limited subject access was available.

See also Carillons; Electroacoustic instruments; Electroacoustic music; Harpsichord building; Mechanical instruments; Organ building; Piano building. See also Heintzman & Co and entries for individual instrument manufacturers.


Further Reading

  • Major, Henriette. 'La musique rendue facile par... la règle à calcul,' Perspectives, 24 Apr 1976

    Kirkwood, Heather. 'Revolution in the big brass band,' McGill News, Fall 1987

    Brennan, Pat. 'Baked in a kitchen oven this violin is a cool item,' Toronto Star, 8 Mar 1988

    Munn, Ivan. 'Rick, Bill and Air Jack: doing a volume business,' Financial Post Moneywise, Jan 1990

    Levitch, Gerald. 'Violin virtuosity made virtually foolproof,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 24 Oct 1991