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Book Reviews

The Hammond Organ: Beauty In The B

By Published: November 15, 2006
Like a sewing machine, the B-3 with its tone wheel generator and rotating drive shaft required lubricating oil. An ingenious system of ducts led from two small cups in the back of the organ to cotton threads wrapped around each of the many bearings. We learn that dealerships for competing organ companies went so far as to display a Hammond in their showrooms with a puddle of oil on the floor behind it to demonstrate this alleged drawback to potential customers. Hammond, a mechanical engineer who was guilty of that profession's most forgivable sin—over-engineering—had originally recommended oiling every three or four months, far too often for home use, leading to leaks on living room carpets. He eventually modified the owner's manual to call for oiling only once a year.

Before this, Hammond had to fight for legal permission just to describe his instrument as an organ. In 1936, pipe organ manufacturers felt sufficiently threatened by his new-fangled invention (and his advertising claims) to sic the Federal Trade Commission on him, asserting that his instrument was actually an "electrotone." As Vail notes, "the legal wrangle culminated in a musical showdown at the University of Chicago's chapel, where a panel of experts and students displayed a remarkable inability to distinguish the Hammond from a $75,000 Skinner pipe organ in blindfold tests." Although Hammond was forced to desist from the boastful advertising which claimed his electric instrument could produce "the entire tone coloring necessary for the rendition, without sacrifice, of the great works of classical organ literature," he did win the right to call it a bona fide organ.

Laurens Hammond is a fascinating story-within-a-story in his own right. From boyhood, he gave every indication of being a gizmo whiz-kid, starting with an automatic transmission he designed at the age of 14 but neglected to pass along to Renault like his mother had advised. The list of inventions he has to his credit include the famous two-colored 3-D glasses familiar to moviegoers, as well as several military technologies he developed during World War II, including glide bomb controls, infrared sensing for guided missiles, an aerial camera shutter and an improved gyroscope. But it was his synchronous motor that made him the magnate he went on to become. After inventing a silent spring-driven clock, which made him enough money to be able to quit his day job with a Detroit marine engine manufacturer, he first applied his motor to electric clocks before turning his attention to creating an electric organ in 1934.

Hammond, significantly, was not a musician. (His assistant treasurer, a church organist, served as his musical consultant). As well as being an inventive engineer, Hammond was also a hard-nosed businessman for whom the bottom line always came first. After examining several church organs and seeing that the top seven notes of the then-standard 32 bass pedals showed little signs of wear, he simply decided to abbreviate them to 25; he also concluded, with little concern for player ergonomics, that it would be cheaper to make them flat rather than concave. This was why the first models had square-front ("waterfall") keys and stair-stepped manuals (versus the subsequent overhanging manuals). He was not above taking advantage of legal loopholes, either. Vail tells us how Hammond cleverly exploited post-WWII price controls to substitute a very inexpensive version of the above-mentioned chorus effect (which he could not make during the war) without having to lower his price, thereby significantly increasing his profit margin.

As it turned out, Hammond was distinctly hostile to jazz musicians. While button-down types like businessmen and engineers, generally speaking, are not overly congenial to bohemian types like musicians, this attitude on his part was based on sheer calculation: he marketed his instrument to churches and families simply because there were a lot more of them than there were professional organists, a demographic fact that holds true today. Yet Vail presents a musical version of the law of unintended consequences, one that Hammond himself never foresaw. Created to be a substitute for pipe organs, the Hammond organ was purchased by many small Southern churches short on money.

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