Laurens Hammond 1895-1973
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
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
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.
(image right) Laurens with his 3D glasses. Another of his well known inventions
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
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
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.