Electronic Sackbut: The First Synthesizer

This article was originally written and submitted as part of a Canada 150 Project, the Innovation Storybook, to crowdsource stories of Canadian innovation with partners across Canada. The content has since been migrated to Ingenium’s Channel, a digital hub featuring curated content related to science, technology and innovation.

Sackbut Synthesizer - Ingenium 1975.0336

Atomic physics, radar, and radio technology … and music

Hugh Le Caine’s electronic Sackbut was the first synthesizer, a type of musical instrument that gave 1970s pop music its distinctively electronic sound. Le Caine, a trained musician, was a physicist at the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and began work on the Sackbut in 1945. Borrowing from atomic physics, radar, and radio technology, Le Caine innovated techniques in voltage control to generate wave forms and enrich their complexity. The Sackbut allowed performers to play with volume, pitch, and timbre in novel ways.

Voltage-controlled Electronic Music

While Le Caine was not successful in commercializing his invention, he continued research in the NRC Electronic Music Laboratory, developing other innovative instruments such as the Polyphone. Hugh Le Caine’s Sackbut proved the concept of voltage-controlled electronic music, which international artists like Radiohead and Björk continue to explore.

Helping the world dance since 1945, the Sackbut was the world’s first synthesizer, converting electricity into new sounds. Synthesizers have been feature instruments on pop music hits since the 1970s.

What did it sound like? Click here to find out!

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