Laurens Hammond

It may he hard to believe now, but one man was single-handedly responsible for creating the entire organ and keyboard world as we know it today. That man was Laurens Hammond.

Born on January 11, 1895 in Evanston, Illinois, to William Andrew and Idea Louise Strong Hammond, Laurens showed his great technical prowess from an early age. His father, William, died in 1898, and shortly after this sad event in Laurens's young life, the Hammond family moved to Europe. Between the years of 1898 and 1909, they lived in Geneva, Dresden and finally in Paris, before returning to America.

When the family returned to Evanston, the then-14 year old Laurens was as fluent in French and German as he was in his native tongue. By this time, he had already designed a system for automatic transmission for cars, but despite his mother's suggestion that he should present his drawings to the Renault company's engineers, he neglected to do so, and this remains one of Laurens's least known technical accomplishments.

Laurens studied at the Cornell University, reading mechanical engineering, and graduated with an honours degree in 1916. At this time most thoughts were concentrated on the ongoing World War I, and Laurens made his contribution to the war effort serving his time with the American Expeditionary Force in France.

Following this, he moved to Detroit, where he was fortunate to occupy the post of chief engineer of the Gray Motor Company, a manufacturer of marine engines. This was without question a remarkable achievement in itself for one so young. In 1920, he invented a silent spring-driven clock. This invention brought Laurens enough money to leave Gray Motor Company and rent his own space in New York, where he was to develop the synchronous electric motor that he would use later in the manufacture of his electric clocks. and which would ultimately lead to the invention of the tonewheel organ.

Hammond's ingenuity knew few boundaries. Among his many patented inventions were his 1922 red and green lensed spectacles, so familiar to us now for viewing three-dimensional films. In 1926, he designed and manufactured battery eliminators that would allow early radio sets to run from household mains current.

He also developed an automatic bridge table that would shuttle a deck of cards into tour separate piles. In 1932 alone, a total of 14,000 of these tables were sold. At this time however, America was sinking deeper into recession, and as the Great Depression reached its lowest point, bridge table sales plummeted leading to the cessation of production.

In 1928, Laurens formed the Hammond Clock Company, making electric clocks in a variety of styles. By 1932, as the depression took hold, 150 other clock companies were out of business and it was Hammond's determination to remain solvent that led to the development of new products such as the automatic bridge table mentioned above.

Hammond was not a musician; he did, however, see the great benefits of music, and was keen to bring a more sophisticated form of home music-making to the masses. In 1933, therefore, he turned his attention to the development of an electric organ. He bought a used piano and proceeded to discard everything apart from the actual keyboard action. Using this piano keyboard as a controller, he was able to experiment with various different sound generating methods until he found the best one - the tonewheel generator. The company's assistant treasurer, W.L. Lahey, was the organist at the nearby St. Christopher's Episcopal Church, and so Laurens consulted with him during the design process and sought feedback on the quality of the new instrument's sound. With all his previous manufacturing and engineering experience, the tonewheel generator was incredibly well engineered by the time the organ finally went into production. The number of tonewheel organs still in regular use is a testament in itself to the quality of the original design and execution of the product.

Laurens filed his patent on January 19,1934. At this time, unemployment was a major problem, and with this in mind, the patents office rushed to grant Hammond's application, with the hope of creating job opportunities in the area.

World War II gave Laurens new areas in which to exhibit his technical skill. He helped design guided missile controls and was awarded patents for infrared and light sensing devices for bomb guidance, glide bomb controls, an aerial camera shutter and a new type of gyroscope. The glide bomb was the forerunner of today's guided missiles, carried by nuclear submarines. It is even rumoured that US atomic subs were equipped for a while with Hammond organs for recreational purposes.

Laurens Hammond left his position as president of his company in 1955, to allow himself more time to concentrate on researching and developing new ideas. On February 12, 1960, at the age of 65, he retired, and withdrew completely from the music industry. At the time of his retirement in 1960, he held 90 patents: he would be granted another 20 before his death.

By the time Laurens Hammond died on July 3, 1973, there were over thirty manufacturers of electric or electronic organs. This figure would increase still further towards the end of the 1970s, as the demand for easy-play home organs grew to incredible proportions.

Laurens Hammond had not just created a product, or even an entire industry, with his Model A' tonewheel organ in 1934; he had created a legend. This legend lives on through Hammond's continued determination to produce instruments that offer the very best in quality - Laurens may be no longer with us in body, but his spirit pervades every activity of the company today.