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Miessner, Benjamin F(ranklin) locked

  • Hugh Davies

(b ?Huntingdon, IN, 1890; d Miami, March 25, 1976). American inventor and designer of electroacoustic instruments . Following an involvement with early radio research (from 1909), he invented several musical devices with his brother Otto, including the Rhythmicon, an instrument for producing complex rhythmic patterns, similar to Lev Termen’s instrument of the same name developed in 1931. After selling his radio patents to RCA for a very large sum of money, Miessner set up a laboratory in Millburn, New Jersey in 1930 to explore further the possibilities of electrifying musical instruments.

Miessner sought first to develop a cheap and portable piano for educational purposes. After experimenting with different sound-producing elements and pickups he returned to strings with his Electronic Piano (1930–31), a grand piano fitted with electrostatic transducers and without a soundboard. Several upright electric pianos based on Miessner’s patent were manufactured after 1935; the Bernhardt Electronic Piano; Dynatone (Ansley Radio Corp); Electone (Krakauer Bros.); Minipiano (Hardman, Peck & Co.); and Storytone (Story and Clark). Their ultimate lack of success was partly due to the innovatory long sustain time made possible by omitting the soundboard, thereby rendering such instruments unsuitable for most of the standard repertory. In 1954 Miessner produced a ‘stringless’ electric piano based on struck tuned reeds, which was marketed by the Wurlitzer Co. until the early 1960s.

Other instruments designed by Miessner during the 1930s included harmoniums with up to four reeds for each note and two electrostatic pickups for each reed, to produce a range of timbres (the Everett Orgatron, later taken over by Wurlitzer, was based on Miessner’s patents), and amplified instruments such as guitar, zither, mouth organ, violin, cello, saxophone and clarinet. Around 1939 Tom Adrian Cracraft’s All Electronic Orchestra consisted of a Hammond Novachord and amplified string instruments designed by Miessner (see Electronic instruments,): these included the ‘chromatic electronic timpani’, comprising 13 short bass strings, tuned to a chromatic octave and mounted inside a rectangular frame, which were played with timpani sticks, the vibrations being made audible by electrostatic transducers; Termen produced a similar but electronic instrument at around the same time.

Bibliography

  • B.F. Miessner : ‘Electronic Music and Instruments’, Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers, 24/11 (1936), 1427-63
  • B.F. Miessner : ‘Electronic Musical Instruments’, JASA, 19 (1947), 996
  • T.L. Rhea : The Evolution of Electronic Musical Instruments in the United States (diss., George Peabody College, 1972), 107–14, 117–24; rev. as ‘B.F. Miessner’s Electronic Piano’, Contemporary Keyboard, iv/2 (1978), and ‘B.F. Miessner’s “Stringless Piano”’, Contemporary Keyboards, iv/4 (1978), 62 only; repr. in The Art of Electronic Music, ed. T. Darter and G. Armbruster (New York, 1984), 18–22
Journal of the Acoustical Society of America