You may think that the history of the electronic keyboard begins alongside bell bottoms, mullets, and platform shoes. In fact, its roots go much deeper, reaching back farther than the Vietnam War, back farther than your grandma’s Saturday afternoon organ rehearsals, back farther even than atomic bomb drills. But your grandma’s organ rehearsals do reflect an important part of the history of the electronic keyboard, because, contrary to popular belief, it was electric organs—not electric pianos—that came first.
1874 – Musical Telegraph
The first electric “organ” wasn’t even called an organ, and it was much smaller than what comes to mind when you hear the word organ. Called the Musical Telegraph, it was developed in 1874 by inventor Elisha Gray. This two-octave keyboard transmitted sound over telegraphs wires and was the first real synthesizer. Gray filed the patent for it in1875, formally calling it the Electric Telegraph for Transmitting Musical Tone. Apparently, his newfangled contraption didn’t catch on, because the first true electric organs didn’t emerge for another 45 years!
1919 – Electronic Organ
Early electric organs didn’t use Gray’s telegraph technology. Instead, they used vacuum tubes, which produced a rich sound but also resulted in the instruments being bulky and unwieldy. Shortening the keyboards was the only way to reduce their hefty weight, but the resulting miniaturized “chord organs” sacrificed range for portability. No matter their heft, these vacuum-tube organs were the only electric keyboards up until the 1940s, when solid-state transistors—think semiconductors—were invented.
1946 – Pre-Piano
The Rhodes Company, which would become Fender Rhodes, was the first instrument manufacturer to get into the business of electric keyboards, in 1946. Their first was the “pre-piano,” a three-and-a-half-octave, self-amplified instrument that they manufactured for just two years.
1955 – The 100
Nine years later, in 1955, Wurlitzer debuted their first electric piano, “the100.” Though it borrowed ideas from the Rhodes pre-piano, the 100 marks a pivotal point in the history of the electronic keyboard. Indeed, it goes down in music history as the first electric piano.
1960 – Piano Bass
Five years later, Fender Rhodes debuted it’s so-called piano bass. And by the first part of the 1960s, synthesizers were officially a thing. These weren’t your Herbie Hancock variety that would later show up on stages and in living rooms throughout the U.S., though. The 1960’s synthesizers were extremely large, delicate, and used only in recording studios.
- Listen to a Fender Rhodes audio interview about these and other historical musical milestones.
In 1964, Cornell graduate and music inventor named Bob Moog unveiled an analog synthesizer that relied on transistor—rather than tube—technology. Today’s electronic keyboard players would hardly recognize it as such since Moog’s synthesizer had no keyboard at all. He added one in 1970, and that’s when the electronic keyboard boom truly began.
Present – Electronic Keyboard
In the decades that have come after Moog’s landmark product, this marvelous instrument has been continually refined and advanced. MIDI technology made it possible to tie electronic keyboards into computers and other devices for input and programming. As technology continues to blossom and leave its mark on the world of music, we think the history of the electronic keyboard may still have many chapters yet to be written.