Harry Chamberlin’s instruments were so good they were banned, and unions threatened to shut down any studio that bought them.

The American Federation of Musicians claimed Chamberlin’s creations – more like “playable machines” than musical instruments familiar to Americans in the 1950s – would lead to “job loss due to automation.” In an uncanny premonition of the debate over automation and algorithms that we hear today, the AFM cautioned that while they were not Luddites, they would only support innovation in musical instruments “as long as they are not used to displace another musician.”

It’s easy to laugh today at this kind of retro-hysteria in reaction progress and the march of technology (though not so easy to laugh at the prospect of millions of truck drivers thrown out of work today). But the musicians union was a powerful body in the 1950s. In 1956, they would signal their opposition to electronic music by insisting that the chirping, groaning electronic soundtrack for the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet could not be classified as “music” at all, and avant-garde pioneers Louis and Bebe Barron had their score listed as mere “electronic tonalities” instead.

In an uncanny premonition of the debate over robots & algorithms today, the American Federation of Musicians banned Chamberlin’s machines for fear they would put human musicians out of work.

Fearing boycotts, studios and labels would avoid all mention of Chamberlin’s mechanical gadgets appearing on record. Lounges were told they could use them, but only on condition of paying the operators three times their usual wage, lest anyone get any bright ideas about hiring a guy to play sounds instead of a live band.

(This all is starting to sound really familiar now, isn’t it?)

Yet all of this was over a machine so simple that any electronics factory could have made one – yet so far ahead of its time that no one would dare. Harry Chamberlin, who was making a living insulating houses when he dreamt up his new musical instruments, threw the musical world into a panic with something as simple as a tape recorder and as far-sighted as what some see (not quite accurately) as the world’s first sampler and drum machine made in the late 1940s, when the concepts of these things couldn’t possibly be understood.


Theremins & Rhythmicons

A few avant-garde musicians had dreamed up the concept of some kind of “machine drummer” before Harry Chamberlin. And at least one was made, though not mass-produced.

The first drum machine – or thing-in-a-box that we would today recognize as the ancestor of one – was created in 1930 through a collaboration between radical American composer Henry Cowell and legendary Russian musical inventor Leon Theremin. Ten years earlier Theremin had given the first public performance of his “etherphone,” later to be known as the “theremin” and one of the first electronic instruments to ever make it from a workshop into production. Cowell commissioned Theremin – then still in New York – to build a machine that would allow one musician at a keyboard to trigger an array of rhythm patterns so complex they would require multiple musicians to play.

Cowell and Theremin’s invention was called the “Rhythmicon.” The Rhythmicon generated sounds by passing light at photoreceptors through holes in a spinning disc. The Rhythmicon was a remarkable achievement – and by definition, if not use, it was fundamentally the oldest ancestor of what we know now as a “drum machine.”

Cowell wrote several compositions for it, but the Rhythmicon remained just an “it” – a unique box, carted to public performances rather than an instrument that musicians practiced on or played for pleasure. It didn’t revolutionize music and was nearly forgotten for a generation. Only three models were made. Cowell and Theremin’s original Rhythmicon is likely the model now housed by The Smithsonian. A second, built by Theremin for Charles Ives, is probably the one owned by Stanford University. A third was built much later in the Soviet Union by Theremin himself; this compact model is on display at the Theremin Center in Moscow.

Chamberlin bought a tape recorder, set it down next to the organ and – as he would tell it – looked back and forth between the reels of tape and the keyboard in front of him…


Tape Machines and Electronic Dreams

Harry Chamberlin might have never known a thing about the Rhythmicon or the other avant-garde experiments with tape machines taking place in New York City. He was born in Iowa, worked in an electronics factory in Milwaukee and sold heating and cooling systems in Illinois. He claimed to have invented, among other things, the windshield washer on cars.

Chamberlin played in a dance band after suffering a nervous breakdown at age 25 (“I was burning the candle at both ends,” he told Len Epand in an interview in music magazine Crawdaddy published in 1976. This is one of the few interviews Chamberlin ever gave and is one of the only sources – however dodgy it is – on many of the details of his own life.)

Avant-garde composers played for audiences in tuxedos. Chamberlin broke his back at a day job installing insulation in houses.

Avant-garde composers played for audiences in tuxedos. Chamberlin broke his back at a day job installing insulation in houses. Then one day after Chamberlin had bought an organ – a not insignificant purchase at the time – he decided to show what he could do with it to his parents in California. He bought a tape recorder, set it down next to the organ and, as he would tell it, looked back and forth between the reels of tape and the keyboard in front of him.

What if you could put the tape recorder inside the organ? And not to record his playing, but to play back sounds triggered by the keys?

Years before the invention of digital music, and before synthesis with computers was even a remote possibility, an amateur tinkerer had just developed the first hardware hack.


Engineering The Future

If Chamberlin’s invention he conceived of that day – he would call the first version of it the “Model 100 Rhythmate” – was not the first “drum machine,” it was at least the first one ever manufactured for commercial sale. While Theremin would build three Rhythmicons, Chamberlin would build somewhere around ten of the original Rhythmates. They both shared a certain “distemper” in operation, but while the Rhythmicon would generate “percussion-like sounds,” the Rhythmate played back real drum sounds.

The Rhythmate worked like no other drum machine you’ve seen or heard before. Powered by magnetic tape, an adjustable tape head inside the box could be moved via a slider on the faceplate to play one of 14 different tape loops. Each of these 14 tape loops contained patterns recorded from a live drummer. This is “sampling,” you might say, and it does sound a lot like an MPC until you remember that user-generated samples never entered the picture and were never meant to.

The sound from the triggered tape loop would play from a built-in amp and speaker inside the Rhythmate’s wooden box body.

The Rhythmate was created with an astonishing adaptation of then-cutting edge technology to fit a far-forward vision of the future. And like nearly every drum machine made until very recently, the purpose of the Rhythmate was to accompany live musicians.

Yet Chamberlin – and here’s where being a musician himself helped – realized that a band or songwriter would need more hands-on control of their “rhythm machine.” As the creator of Alvin & The Chipmunks discovered, one of the cool things about tape is how easy it is to play it back at a variety of speeds. The Rhythmate factored this in with an ingenious form of tempo control, with a spindle on the faceplate which controlled playback speed and thus increased or slowed the tempo of the drum patterns on the tape loop.


The Robots Are Coming & They’re Coming For You

The Rhythmate was produced in the late 1940s; apparently, selling just 10 or so of these encouraged Chamberlin to continue refining the idea. Model 200 was not a drum machine as much as a “full orchestra machine.” Musicians (allegedly from the Lawrence Welk Orchestra) were recorded playing the oboe, violin, flute, trombone and other sounds. This machine was simply called “the Chamberlin,” manufactured from Harry Chamberlin’s workshop among the citrus groves of Upland, California.

The Chamberlin, more than the Rhythmate, was the invention that lead to alarm and threats of punitive measures from the musicians’ union. With the Chamberlin, anyone who knew how to play notes on a piano could now “play” a wide range of other instruments. Who would hire a string section when you could hire just one guy with a Chamberlin instead?

Yet even the sophisticated artists in Cowell and Theremin’s circle were uncomfortable with the notion of automated instruments replacing live musicians. “I had a long talk with Henry [Cowell] about the Rhythmicon situation,” Charles Ives wrote in a letter to Nicolas Slonimsky. “It relieves my mind to know especially that the new instrument would really be nearer to an instrument than a machine. There will be a lever that can readily change the tempo, with pedals and tones, etc.” The implication for Ives is that an instrument still requires a musician to play it; a machine does not.

By 1956, Chamberlin had perfected the Chamberlin and sold pre-orders at the NAMM show in Chicago. The Chamberlin became (despite the implied threats from the union) fairly widespread in the music industry, though even more so when it was pirated. In the mid-1960s, a salesman for Chamberlin supposedly took the machine to the UK and licensed it to a group of brothers who took the same basic concept and manufactured it under the name “Mellotron.” They later discovered their error when they attempted to obtain US distribution for the device, and discovered that Chamberlin (smarting, apparently, from when he forgot to patent the windshield washer) had taken out several patents for the tape technology the Mellotron and Chamberlin products shared. He was later paid a royalty for the Mellotron and on this (and seemingly only this) he had no complaints, though he frequently criticized the Mellotron’s recorded sounds as inferior to the Chamberlin (though following the widespread adaption of Moogs, tastes changed and it would be this “artificial” feeling of the Mellotron’s sound palette that people liked most about it).


Love for the Underground: Originally published in 5 Mag issue 173 with Timmy Regisford, Bonobo, Soul Clap, A Man Called Adam, Rocksteady Disco & more. Help support 5 Mag by becoming a member for just $1 per issue.



The Drummer In A Box In Another Box

Chamberlin would return to the Rhythmate concept in the 1960s, with some 100 Rhythmate 25/35/45 models being sold, and a dozen or so 20/30/40s being sold in the ’70s. Remarkably, the company’s outsized reputation is based upon probably less than 1,000 instruments being made total between the 1940s and early 1980s. Original Rhythmates are close to priceless – they occasionally show up on the market priced in the low five figures.

The soundbank of Chamberlins were once prized for their fidelity to the real thing. As music changed, the machines, like the Mellotrons, fell out of fashion. Later the sound of the Rhythmate drums in particular began to be appreciated not for their fidelity but for the dense and saturated qualities of the recording.

And they’re even beloved enough (or at least enough of a curiosity) to spark a revival after several decades out of favor. A company called Rhythmic Robot Audio recently developed an instrument for Native Instruments’ Kontakt based upon the humid, grungy sounds of these pre-historic Rhythmate “samples,” and the louche, lo-fi fuzzy tone coveted by hip hop, chill*wave and downtempo beat makers.

Did you enjoy this piece? Read past Audio Archeology stories about the invention of the TR-808, Magic Box: A History of the MPC, the invention of FM and the Yamaha DX7 and The Man Who Made His Computer Sing: Max Mathews & the Invention of Digital Music.