Michael Murphy Shines the Spotlight on Canadian Inventor Frank Morse Robb, Inventor of the First Electronic Organ

In his latest research pursuit, AccessFabrik Lab principal investigator Michael Murphy is looking to shine the spotlight on the origins of audio sampling and the Canadian who developed the ingenious process later this year.

Frank Morse Robb (1902 – 1992), born in Belleville Ontario, is thought to be the true inventor of the first electronic organ. The original “Robb Wave Organ” marked the beginning of Robb’s organ business in 1927, though the only known surviving instrument was built in 1936. Robb’s business received little funding, likely due to his focus on the Canadian market, and ultimately went under in 1939 with as few as 15-16 organs produced.

Robb’s authentic-sounding electronic organs, while revolutionary for the time, were out-shined by the commercially successful American Hammond Organ, and have since received little discussion in academia.

Murphy, alongside research assistant Eric Kupp, will be publishing a paper on Robb’s work and career. The paper will be coupled with open-source software that allows Robb Wave Organ samples to be played back through a MIDI interface.

The pair traveled to Calgary in mid-July to inspect and document Robb’s last surviving organ, the first of its kind to play sampled tones from a pipe organ. Robb’s sampling process involved playing organ pipes through an oscilloscope and photographing the resulting waveforms. The waveforms were then carved onto metal tone wheels, which rotated inside the electronic organ while keys were pressed. While the tone wheels rotated, their carvings would regulate the voltage of the instrument’s internal pickups, generating a convincing organ sound.

Murphy and Kupp managed to find electrical schematics of the last-surviving Robb Wave Organ, and are interested in returning to Calgary in the near future to repair the device. They have currently sampled two of the instrument’s “voices,” but by restoring the device they will be able to record as many as 20 of which were originally available.

Murphy and Kupp’s primary goals are to draw attention to Robb’s innovations and cultivate discussion about this significant period in Canadian history. Their findings will be published alongside the Robb Wave Organ MIDI software this December.

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