Claims about electric instruments date back to 1730 when texts describe a Czech musician who “generated sound by electromagnetic excitation of piano strings.” These claims are either false or the entire history of electricity of incorrect. Until Volta’s Voltaic Pile battery, in 1800, there was no method to produce an ongoing current. Electrical experimentation before that time was little more than playing with static shocks of electricity. Furthermore, the relationship between electricity and magnetism was not yet understood.
Other electrical instruments claim to exist but running an instrument off a battery would be expensive and impractical. Telegraphs generated funds to pay the significant cost of their batteries. Musical instruments are unlikely to have generated enough money to justify the expense over traditional instruments. Furthermore, until the availability of the Audion tube amplifier, most people would not be able to hear the instruments until they were extremely close.
First Genuine Electric Instruments
Given this, our guess is the first real electrical instrument is the “Teleharmonium” of Thaddeus Cahill in 1897. By then, an early power grid existed. Furthermore, Cahill patented his instrument, demonstrated it publicly, and took photos of it. His electric piano is before the Audion tube so it would have been quiet but, still, it sounds like a legitimate invention.
In 1899, British physicist William Duddell experimented with lowering the noise electric arc lamps create. During his work, he realized he could modulate the noise and created a pre-Audion tunable instrument with reasonable volume. As a quirky bonus, electric-arc lamps on the same circuit as Duddell’s piano also played the same sounds.
In 1905, German Hermann von Helmholtz created an extremely on-key sound synthesizer used to tune other instruments. By 1909, serial inventor Melvin Severy built an improved Teleharmonium they called the “Choralcelo” and marketed to rich families.
Modern Electric Instruments
Finally, in 1915, serial inventor Lee de Forest modified his Audion tubes to create the first amplified electric instrument. de Forest’s Audion Piano is arguably the first real electric instrument. Listeners said de Forest’s synthesizer mimicked many different sounds. Cahill collaborated with de Forest to broadcast a Teleharmonium concert amplified by telephone, which relied on de Forest amplification. Realizing that lack of need for the telephone in the middle, the Teleharmoium eventually disappeared, replaced by vacuum-tube powered equipment.
Soon enough there were countless electric instruments. One of the more popular is the Soviet Union’s “Theremin” that changes tones without touching the instrument.
Fender & Moog
By the late 1930s, Leo Fender opened a radio repair shop in Fullerton, California. He quickly developed a reputation for building effective amplification systems. Musicians from the Los Angeles area rented his amplifiers. Soon, they started asking him to amplify their acoustic guitars and lap steel guitars. Eventually, Fender teamed up with others to add specialized amplification to different types of guitars. After WWII, “Big Band” music became less popular and bands realized they could produce a similar effect of a horn section with one electric guitar. Fender’s guitars surged in popularity. Musicians tired of lugging around giant bass violins so Fender created a bass guitar that was smaller, less expensive, and far easier to travel with.
In 1953, electrical engineer Roberg Moog started designing and selling Theremins. Eventually, one of his customers modified a Moog Theremin for keyboard control, calling it a Clavivox. In 1947, Bell Labs created the semiconductor which enabled the miniaturization of devices made from vacuum tubes. Around 1964, Moog started building a semiconductor-based synthesizer. Rather than the enormous electric pianos or barely controllable Theremins, the Moog synthesizer was relatively small, easy to control, and produced lots of interesting sounds. In 1968, Wendy Carlos the wildly popular Switched-On Bach, a classical music LP created on a Moog synthesizer. Music has never been quite the same.
For a great look at the evolution of electric instruments over time, see the fantastic website 120 Years.