Peter Donhauser
Cogwheel Music

ZahnräderTonewheel generators were in principle first used for an electrical musical instrument by Thaddeus Cahill in the USA in 1894. The generators he built looked more like power stations than a musical instrument, although the 200 ton instrument performed in public until 1918. In order to develop a useable instrument from the idea, the arrangement had to be reduced in size and improved. The next patent was obtained in France in 1926. 1 Wilhelm Lenk (assistant at the University of Vienna) was working on the same system, and the schematic diagram of his patent 2 already shows the twelve cogwheel shafts used in Stelzhammer’s final version. The decisive factor for a usable instrument was a constant turning speed, a need satisfied by Lenk by inventing a motor control regulated by means of a “frequency standard.” 3

The Vienna piano company Stelzhammer, which, like many German manufacturers, was looking for new products during the recession, gave Lenk the opportunity to put his ideas into practice. In 1930, four years before Hammond, production was started on a number of demonstration models, of which only one has survived. A number of improvements were still necessary before it could be used in practice, such as the addition of a tremolo 4 and timbre switches 5.

Magneton BeschreibungIn its 14 August 1930 issue, the Neue Freie Presse wrote: “In a Vienna laboratory, a combination of research and traditional Viennese craftsmanship has created an instrument that deserves particular attention. […] The composer is pleasantly surprised by that turning an adjustment button automatically transposes the music. […] However, it is precisely this system that makes the path of experimental research easier and most promising.”

The trade press was of the opinion that the instrument was excellently suited for practicing purposes. 6 In the Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau, Vinzenz Goller7
wrote: “The slavish imitation of the sound of an organ and its characteristic rigidity was deliberately avoided, thereby giving the tone character of the instrument a number of special characteristics. […] What I like particularly in the magneton, 8 although I grew up with the pipe organ and have been inseparably associated with it for 50 years, is the fact that this new instrument is not an enemy of the historic organ.”9 Goller’s positive view of the magneton derived from the “popular liturgy movement” that regarded the organ on the west gallery as a major obstacle to active participation on the part of the congregation. Since, however, a church could hardly afford a second instrument as organ for the choir, Goller saw the magneton as the long-sought for solution to the problem.

A performance as part of an event entitled “New liturgical music on a modern instrument” in the Vienna Urania on 4 December 1934 was intended to demonstrate the suitability of the instrument. Alongside the organist Marya Hofer, the famous singers Erika Rokyta and Jella Braun-Fernwald had been signed up to perform, together with the pianist and musicologist Peter Stadlen and Ferdinand Scheminzky, the author of the well-known book Die Welt des Schalles.10 However, apart from this “promising beginning,”11 nothing more was ever reported on this instrument.


1 Armand Zouckermann, patent GB 271259 dated 26. 5. 1927.

2 Patent AT 128615 dated 29. 3. 1930.

3 Patent AT 135415 dated 26. 8. 1931.

4 Patent AT 129556.

5 Patent AT 131755.

6 Fritz Noack, Fortschritte der mechanischen Musikerzeugung, in: Musikblätter des Anbruch, 12th Vol., 1930, p. 253ff.

7 A conservative Catholic church musician, composer and most important representative of the St Cecilian movement in Austria.

8 Contrary to the spelling “Magnetton” used on one advertising brochure, the more common spelling is with one ‘t’.

9 Vinzenz Goller, Das Magneton, in: Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau, Vol. 54, 1933/34, p. 103.

10 According to information kindly provided by Christian Stifter of the Österreichisches Volkshochschularchiv.

11 Das Magneton, in: Musikblätter des Anbruch, 16th Vol., 1934, p. 202.