NMM 10881. Electronic harpsichord by Frank Holton & Co., Elkhorn, Wisconsin, ca. 1937-1940.
Serial number 117. Ex coll.: Lloyd Allayre Loar, Evanston, Illinois.
Gift of Roger Siminoff, Arroyo Grande, California, 2005.
Loar applied for his first patent for the electrically amplified harpsichord in 1934. The patent, awarded in 1935, says that one objective of the invention is to produce an electric harpsichord that is "compact and simple and economical in its parts and which produces a very beautiful tone." The electric harpsichord was never produced by Vivi-Tone. The idea, however, was further developed in 1937, after the demise of Vivi-Tone, when Loar applied for another electric harpsichord patent, assigned to Holton & Co., Elkhorn, Wisconsin. This patent, awarded in 1940, focused in particular on a new action mechanism. Unlike the traditional harpsichord, whose plectra do not allow the player to change the dynamic output by altering the pressure and speed of the touch, Loar's electronic harpsichord employed a novel mechanism that brushed the strings with metal picks that move in an elliptical fashion. While the picks, strictly speaking, do not pluck the strings like harpsichord jacks, the effect is close enough for Loar to call his instrument a touch-sensitive harpsichord, "the tonal characteristics of which are those of the spinet or harpsichord and the key-board control of the individual and collective note-intensities and of note-repetition are similar to those of the modern piano." Further dynamic effects were possible through electronic amplification. The instrument is indeed quite small, with a short string length that requires amplification to make it easily heard.
The Holton electronic harpsichords, serial numbers 117 and 119 (NMM 10882), are accompanied by a specially made amplifier by Webster Electric Co. (NMM 10883) and a speaker built into a cabinet that functions as a seat for the player (NMM 10884).
Engraved on metal plate screwed onto center of nameboard: ELECTRONIC-HARPSICHORD / --MADE BY-- / Frank Holton & Co. / ELKHORN, WISCONSIN / --PATENTS PENDING--
Stamped in wood on right side of pinblock: 117
Note names stamped in black ink above natural notes.
Rectangular wood body, with fold-back hinged cover for keyboard and hinged cover for pinblock. Hinged music rack with stylized H cut out of center. Rounded covers screwed onto each corner. Four removable, tubular chrome-plated steel legs with castors. 56 strings. Black plastic volume knob mounted with trapezoidal metal plate on left side of name board, marked with ON and OFF, no numbers. Single foot pedal on removable rectangular attachment.
Keyboard: 4-1/2 octaves, CC-g4; 33 ivoroid keys, 23 black keys.
Mechanism: Each string is plucked by a curved metal plectrum that moves in an elliptical path, when the key is struck. The mechanism is somewhat touch-sensitive, allowing for use of dynamics. The strings function as armatures for magnetic pickups.
Height: 80 cm / 31.5″
Width: 59.3 cm / 23.346″
Depth: 32 cm / 12.59″
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