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Electronica's Roots: the First Digital Synthesizer Built on Iowa Campus

Wikimedia Commons
a telharmonium constructed by Iowan Thaddeus Cahill

If you’re a fan of electronica, you’ve got several Iowans to thank.

It wasn't really a playable instrument and sounded like something from a bad video game. - Lawrence Fritts

The first digital synthesizer was built on the University of Iowa campus in the late 1960s by a physicist named James Cessna. He wasn’t a musician and didn’t go on to work in music after his built the synthesizer, but he is the man responsible for what has become Iowa’s Electronic Music Studios. That’s according to Professor Lawrence Fritts, who currently serves as director.

“I’ve been searching for the recording for years,” he says. “It wasn’t really a playable instrument and sounded like something from a bad video game to be honest.”

Fritts says the earliest version of electronic music was made on an instrument called a telharmonium, which was also invented by an Iowan named Thaddeus Cahill in the 1800s. The father of the modern microphone, Harry Ferdinand Olson, was born in Mt. Pleasant.

Hear a sampling of what a telharmonium sounded like.

During this Talk of Iowa interview, Charity Nebbe talks with Fritts about Iowa’s contributions to electronic music. 

Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Lindsey Moon is IPR's Senior Digital Producer