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How the Trautonium Found Favor With Nazis and Gave Hitchcock’s The Birds its Distinctive Screech

The early electronic synthesizer allowed for a wide, weird range of evocative sounds

7 min read
Photo of the Trautonium.
Unforgotten: The Trautonium was a commercial flop, but avant-garde musicians have recently rediscovered its unique sound.
Photo: The Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology

I knew next to nothing about electronic music when I began researching this month’s column. My only association with the genre was the synthesizer sounds of ’80s pop and the (for me) headache-inducing beats of EDM. I never stopped to think about the roots of electronic music, and so I was surprised to learn that it can be traced back more than a century. It also has more than a passing association with the Nazis. Frode Weium, senior curator at the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology, is the person who nominated the Volkstrautonium for this month’s Past Forward artifact and sent me down this fascinating musical rabbit hole.

The Volkstrautonium arose during the wave of electronic music that began shortly after World War I. Inventors in Europe, the Soviet Union, and the United States were creating a cacophony (or, if you like, a symphony) of new electronic musical instruments. It’s hard to say exactly why electronic music took off as it did, but the results were diverse and abundant. Some of the new creations took the name of their inventor, such as the theremin (for León Theremin) and the Ondes Martenot (for Maurice Martenot). Others were portmanteaus that merged musical and electronic terms: the Terpiston, the Rhythmicon, the Cathodic Harmonium, the Radiophonic Organ, the Magnetophone, the Spherophone, the Elektrochord.

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The Lies that Powered the Invention of Pong

A fake contract masked a design exercise–and started an industry

4 min read
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Pong arcade game in yellow cabinet containing black and white TV display, two knobs are labeled Player 1 and Player 2, Atari logo visible.
Roger Garfield/Alamy

In 1971 video games were played in computer science laboratories when the professors were not looking—and in very few other places. In 1973 millions of people in the United States and millions of others around the world had seen at least one video game in action. That game was Pong.

Two electrical engineers were responsible for putting this game in the hands of the public—Nolan Bushnell and Allan Alcorn, both of whom, with Ted Dabney, started Atari Inc. in Sunnyvale, Calif. Mr. Bushnell told Mr. Alcorn that Atari had a contract from General Electric Co. to design a consumer product. Mr. Bushnell suggested a Ping-Pong game with a ball, two paddles, and a score, that could be played on a television.

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