Since the middle of the 20th century, the words “organ” and “Hammond” have been virtually synonymous, but organs were first built by the ancient Greeks, who invented the hydraulis, which used pressure generated by flowing water to pump air through pipes to produce sound. Air bellows eventually replaced these water-driven systems, and by the end of the Middle Ages, elaborate organs with numerous keyboards (or manuals, as they are also called) and expression pedals, as well as dozens of stops to regulate the air flowing into hundreds of pipes, became centerpieces in churches throughout Europe. (The phrase “pull out all the stops” comes from the practice of doing just that to achieve a maximum amount of sound emanating from an organ.)
Producing the airflow for these instruments was a laborious task, which is why electric motors were installed in pipe organs as soon as that technology became widely available. Electricity also spurred a change in the organ itself, as first seen in inventor Thaddeus Cahill’s Telharmonium, which was patented in 1898. Cahill thought there’d be a market for music streaming, if you will, over another new invention, the telephone. Ultimately, the device he built to send electronic signals of Chopin and Bach to subscribers such as restaurants and theaters through telephone lines weighed 200 tons.
Weight, however, was not the Telharmonium’s main problem. Instead, it was competition from a company called Wurlitzer, which installed 2,000 “Mighty Wurlitzers” in silent-movie theaters across the United States between 1911 and 1943. That made sense when audiences were watching films without sound, but when “The Jazz Singer” was released in 1927, the writing was on the wall for live-music accompaniment at the movies.
Meanwhile, an inventor named Laurens Hammond was trying to figure out what to do next after his electrical clock company hit a reef called the Great Depression. Hammond recalled Cahill’s Telharmonium and set about redesigning the mammoth machine for home, theater, and church use. He patented his Hammond Model A in 1934, and his first organ was shipped to musical-instruments dealer J. W. Jenkins Music Company in Kansas City in 1935 (that machine now resides in the Smithsonian).
While Hammond gave his instruments effects such as chorus/vibrato and percussion, to the ears of one listener in particular, Don Leslie, the Hammond lacked soul. So, in 1941, Leslie introduced his spinning Vibratone speaker designed expressly for Hammond organs. By all accounts, Laurens Hammond was none too pleased by the insinuation that his organ needed any improvement, but influential customers such theater organist Jesse Crawford immediately understood that the speaker literally gave the sounds coming out of the Hammond movement and emotion. Several name changes ensued (at one point, Leslie’s creations were even known as Crawford Speakers), but in the end, the speakers became known as Leslies.
Hammond’s most famous electronic organ, the B-3, arrived in 1955 and remained in production until 1974, largely because of its popularization by organist Jimmy Smith and its heavy use in gospel churches. The B-3 created sounds that could be used in pop, jazz, rock, funk, and soul. Mike Finnigan played a Hammond B-3 for Jimi Hendrix, prog-rock keyboardist Keith Emerson was equally at home behind a Moog synthesizer as he was a B-3, and Gregg Rolie of Santana and then Journey contributed mightily to the early sound of those bands.