The sackbut, and other surprising inventions by Hugh Le Caine

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.

Hugh Le Caine.

Ilana Reimer

Algonquin College Journalism Program

Hugh Le Caine is considered one of the “heroes” of electronic music – an unusual reputation for a scientist. Le Caine studied music as a child, and also tried building his own instruments. He envisioned beautiful sounds that he believed could be achieved if new electronic instruments were developed.

Later, Le Caine studied physics at Queen’s University, equipping him to apply science to music in remarkable ways. After graduating in 1939 he began working for the National Research Council of Canada, where he would remain for the next 34 years. But even while he worked on developing early radar systems and earned a name for himself as a distinguished scientist, Le Caine continued to spend his free time experimenting with sound generation and electronic music. In 1945 he opened his own studio, where he designed instruments such as the electronic reed organ and electronic sackbut, an advanced monophonic device we now know as the prototype for today’s synthesizer.

Le Caine built over 22 new instruments in total. He also helped found to two ground-breaking music studios at the University of Toronto and McGill University respectively. His inventions almost exclusively equipped both facilities. Caine was largely interested in creating new sound possibilities. He had a keen sense of the nuances of expression, and he wanted to provide instruments that did not constrain performers, but allowed them to maximize their creativity. His intuitive, touch-sensitive designs were highly innovative – many of them not being adopted commercially until the late 1980s.’

Le Caine retired from the NRC in 1974. He died three years later and was inducted into the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame in 1996.

Hugh Le Caine (1914-1977): Dripsody, per nastro magnetico (1955).

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