Electrokinetica The Electro-mechanical Museum

Introducing the Compton Electrone - the definitive British electric organ

By the 1920s when the cinema pipe organ began to evolve, first as a means to accompany silent films and then as a solo instrument in its own right, John Heywood Compton had already established his firm as a successful builder of classical pipe organs. Compton himself was a keen developer of new methods and techniques in organ construction, a strategy that gave the company definite advantages in the technology-based world of the cinema. Using many of the ingenious principles first applied to the organ by inventor Robert Hope-Jones in the late 18th century, allied with efficient component design optimised for manufacturing, Compton and his team secured a large share of the UK cinema organ market with over 260 instruments supplied. The demand for cinema organs came to an end with the arrival of World War Two, as rapidly as it had begun ten years earlier. After the war Compton resumed building church pipe organs, continuing until the demise of the company in the late 1960s. But pipe organs were not the only instruments to which Compton applied his ingenuity.

First the Melotone...

Series two Melotone

Series two Melotone

In 1932, Compton technician Leslie Bourn was granted a patent for an electrostatic means of tone formation, using rotating discs to generate an audio signal from waveforms engraved in a conductive plate. This was the basis of the Compton ‘Melotone’, an electrical add-in unit for a cinema organ that was played by the organist as though it were another rank of pipes. The sound was created by two rotary electrostatic generators under the control of the organ relay, fed through a valve audio amplifier and emitted from a large horn loudspeaker mounted in the organ loft. Many Compton cinema organs were provided with a Melotone, either to bolster the range of tone colours available from a small instrument, or for completeness in a large one. The Melotone was not a complete instrument in itself, so it did not need to offer a wide variety of tone colours or a realistic imitation of organ sounds. It was a novel and ethereal voice, unashamedly synthetic in character, that contrasted with the familiar pipe tones of the organ.

...Then the Electrone and the Theatrone

Leeds Parkway Theatrone

Leeds Parkway Theatrone

The Melotone principle was developed into a complete stand-alone electric organ without pipes which made its debut in 1938. Called the ‘Electrone’ or ’Theatrone’ according to application, these instruments were fitted with twelve tone generators and a voicing control system intended to imitate a range of organ stops. A small number were built before the outbreak of World War Two heralded the end of the cinema organ’s golden age. Compton resumed manufacture of electronic instruments in 1947, with a new version of Electrone suitable for use in places of worship as a direct substitute for a pipe organ. A number of projects followed that saw highly-specified Electrones installed in venues such as London’s Royal Festival Hall and the Manchester Free Trade Hall. A compact, low-cost version designed for entertainment use was launched in 1952, confusingly called the ‘Melotone’. This paved the way for a range of models that sold in large numbers, including classical, entertainment and multi-purpose versions, using a simplified and standardised tone generator system. Production continued alongside Comptons’ pipe-organ work until the end of the 1960s, by which time the electrostatic generator system was obsolete due to the ever-decreasing cost and size of stable solid-state electronic circuitry. The business finally closed down with the handover of the Electrone stock and designs to Makin Organs, who built a number of technically advanced electrostatic organs before dropping the system in favour of electronic tone generation.

The Electrokinetica Electrone pages

With a collection of more than a dozen instruments, we have lots of ground to cover and many interesting stops along the journey, as we illustrate the intricacies of Compton Electrones. If you are unfamiliar with the general principles and terminology of pipe organs, many of which apply to Electrones too, you might like to read up at the Wikipedia pipe-organ article linked below. We make no apologies for the rather technical nature of the descriptions on the following pages but even if electrical engineering isn't your subject, or if you’re an electrical boffin or organ enthusiast but the Electrone is new to you, start at the ‘how it works’ page and all will become clear.

Electrone links


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