a website collaboration between Science Service and the Smithsonian Institution

1937 - Mrs. William E. Danforth playing the OSCILLION an electrical musical instrument developed by her husband, Dr. W.E. Danforth


E&MP 88.019

Music Recording - Electronic

May 1937

Seated in an easy chair is Mrs. William E. Danforth playing the electrical musical instrument developed by her husband, Dr. W.E. Danforth, for use in the non-paid Swarthmore Symphony Orchestra.

By sliding the finger on the strips of metal atop the box the tones of the French horn or the bass clarinet issue from the loud speaker seen in the right background.

[appears to be similar to E&MP 88.001 and E&MP 88.016]

Original Caption by Science Service


Additional Information:

When he is not experimenting on cosmic rays, high-haired Director William Francis Gray Swann of Franklin Institute's Bartol Research Foundation, plays a cello. Young William Edgar Danforth, his assistant, plays a cello too. Both are mainstays of the Swarthmore (Pa.) Symphony Orchestra, a volunteer organization of about 40 men and women who play good music free. Because nobody in the orchestra can handle a French horn or a bass clarinet, Drs. Swann and Danforth built an electrical "oscillion" so ingenious that it can be made to sound like either, so simple that a child can master it. Last week at a Swarthmore concert the oscillion made its world debut, playing the long clarinet passages in Cesar Franck's D Minor Symphony without a mishap. Listeners thought the oscillion lacked color, was a little twangier in tone, otherwise indistinguishable from the woodwind it replaced.

The Danforth & Swann oscillion is a simple-looking oblong wooden box with an electrical circuit inside. Current flows through a resistance, is stored up in a condenser, spills into a neon tube, becomes a series of electrical "pulses." A loud speaker translates the pulses into sound.

To play music the oscillionist presses down on a keyboard and changes the resistance. This alters the frequency, thereby the pitch. As now constructed the oscillion has a range of five octaves which can easily be increased to eight. Inventors Danforth & Swann deplore the oscillion's higher ranges, expect it will be most useful pinch-hitting for bass clarinet, bassoon, tuba and string bass.

Courtesy: TIME http://www.time.com 2/4/2008

National Museum of American History


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