Tom Purcell, 11/16/2009 [Archive]

Organ Music

Organ Music

By Tom Purcell

We got it in the early '70s: a Kimball organ that sat in our living room for 20 years or more.

It had single buttons that played whole chords. Other buttons played cymbals, marimba and other rhythmic beats.

I spent hours playing the thing. My father, too -- his fingers are so big he had trouble playing just one key at a time -- played it often.

And at family gatherings, my mother and her siblings would stand around it for hours, singing holiday tunes and other well-known standards.

I had no idea then how technological innovation made our living-room organ possible.

Harvey Olsen, a retired electrical engineer, electronics instructor and organ expert, told me about the history of the home organ.

In 1933, Lawrence Hammond, an inventor and high-end clock maker, got into the organ business. His goal was to produce a mechanical instrument that replicated the sound of a pipe organ.

Hammond's very first organs consisted of spinning wheels -- tone generators -- and lots of other electromechanical parts. The machines were extremely well built and many are still functioning today.

By the mid-1950s, however, organ makers began replicating the organ sound with lower-cost vacuum-tube technology -- tubes that looked and acted like light bulbs. It was much less costly to create tones electronically than with lots of mechanical parts.

By the late '60s, vacuum tubes gave way to even-lower-cost transistor technology. The transistors were small, inexpensive and reliable. They enabled the development of compact integrated circuit boards -- the electronic gizmos made it possible to produce more sophisticated sounds, such as a marimba beat.

They also allowed organs to be produced cheaply.

And so it was that the '60s and early '70s became the heyday of the home organ. Hammond, a high-end organ maker, soon found competition from low-cost producers, such as Lowrey, Thomas and Kimball.

Every mall had an organ store staffed with organ-playing sales representatives. They seduced thousands of suburban dads, such as mine, into digging into their wallets to bring organ music into their living rooms -- something that had been unimaginable to my father as he grew up during the Depression years.

To be sure, our old Kimball organ brought us many hours of amusement. As sophisticated as we thought it was in the '70s, we would have been shocked had we known what organs could do by 2009.

Digital technology has revolutionized the organ, as it has everything else. Today, for significantly less than my father paid for our Kimball in the '70s, a fellow can buy a digital organ that produces incredible sounds.

If you're traveling in Europe and come across a pipe organ in a medieval church, you can probably buy a "sampling" software program that allows you to reproduce its exact sound in your living room.

In any event, we've had so much technological innovation in America that we take it for granted, but we do so at our own peril.

The fact is, innovators and entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of our economy. We need their inventions, many of them not yet known, to resolve a multitude of challenges we face -- to produce the wealth we need to cover our bills.

Government spending is tying up needed capital and a proposed increase in capital gains taxes will only punish success and inhibit investment in new ideas. Shouldn't the government do everything possible to unleash innovation -- rather than quell it?

Where America's innovators and entrepreneurs are concerned, can't we strike a better chord?

© 2009 Tom Purcell. Tom Purcell, a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, is nationally syndicated exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. For more info contact Sales at (805) 969-2829 or email Visit Tom on the web at or e-mail him at

RESTRICTIONS: 'Tom Purcell's column may not be reprinted in general circulation print media in Pennsylvania's Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, and Westmoreland Counties. It may appear only in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and its sister publications.

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