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Dynamic Research: Earle L. Kent and Conn's Research Department

by Margaret Downie Banks
Senior Curator of Musical Instruments

Conn factory after fire of May 22, 1910
Real-photo postcard from the collection of Margaret Downie Banks

The date of May 22, 1910 is recorded in the annals of the City of Elkhart, Indiana, as the night that C. G. Conn’s musical instrument factory burned to the ground. Quite a few of the 3,000 spectators who congregated at the scene just after midnight had earlier hoped to catch a glimpse of Halley’s comet, but were disappointed by the same overcast skies and light rain that helped save many nearby homes and businesses from the consuming flames.

On the very same day--May 22, 1910--more than a thousand miles to the southwest, Conn’s future Director of Research, Earle Lewis Kent, was born in Adrian, Texas. Was the date of his birth fate or mere coincidence, Earle would ask me over and over again during the four years I had the privilege of knowing him. Was it fate, he pondered, that his initials were the same as the first three letters in Elkhart? Was he predestined to spend almost thirty years of his life as Conn’s Director of Research, Development, and Design? If not fate, he certainly agreed that it was extremely good fortune.

Kent's Youth and Concept for a Portable Electronic Organ

An awkward youth, struggling to succeed in school despite as yet undiagnosed dyslexia, Kent nevertheless had an insatiable appetite for learning and a limitless curiosity. His inventive spirit was fueled by romantic novels about Tom Swift, the boy inventor, and tempered by the legend of the 50,000 failures which preceded Thomas Edison’s first successful electric light bulb. As a teenager, Kent set up a laboratory in the attic of his parent’s home in Carthage, Missouri, where he tried many experiments, from designing an automatic gear shift for automobiles to experimenting with discarded telephone batteries scavenged from the town dump.

At fourteen, after hearing a neighbor play the trombone, Kent begged his parents to buy him a musical instrument. Too poor to afford a new one, his mother found a used, high-pitch clarinet to get him started. Finally, after two years of working odd jobs after school and during the summer, Kent saved up enough money of his own to purchase a mail-order tenor saxophone. It was a good choice, for Kent found almost unlimited opportunities to play in high school and college dance bands. This not only helped him financially but also bolstered his self-confidence. Even more significantly, it was while playing tenor sax for a dance in Branson, Missouri, on August 22, 1928, that the idea for a portable electronic organ first occurred to him. After nine months of experimentation, the eighteen-year-old applied for a patent with the help of a supportive local attorney. Earle later noted that “when the patent was issued [two years later, during his sophomore year at Kansas State University], [he] received a letter of congratulations from Mr. Theodore Edison, son of the late Thomas Edison, [as well as] considerable publicity.” “Actually,” he commented, “the invention didn’t amount to much, but it taught me a great deal and was an important stepping stone.”

Inadvertent Invention of the Printed Circuit

Earle Kent, 1930s-1940s
Earle L. Kent, ca. 1930-1940. Conn Archive, NMM.

In 1934, Kent took a part-time job at Kansas State, helping one of his professors, LeRoy Paslay, build and operate one of the first regularly scheduled experimental television broadcasting stations in the nation (W9XAK). In turn, Paslay assisted Kent with the development of his electronic organ. In the process, the two of them unwittingly invented the printed circuit simply as a means to help generate tones for the organ. However, they did not claim the printed circuit itself as an invention in the subsequent patent which they jointly filed in 1936. According to a letter written to Kent by electronics historian, Peter K. Stein, the printed circuit detailed in Kent’s organ patent was the cornerstone for all succeeding development in that field.

Regrettably, Kent never received any tangible remuneration for this invention. He did, however, receive national attention from the Associated Press and saw his “pipeless organ” featured in an article in Popular Mechanics magazine. Hoping to market his new instrument, the twenty-four-year-old entrepreneur established the Kent Organ Company and wrote to a dozen American organ manufacturers to introduce his new invention. While trying to build the first demonstration model, however, Kent and Paslay were forced to dissolve the company due to insufficient funding. Not willing to give up, Kent pursued the development of his electronic organ at the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago, where he subsequently taught electrical engineering for two years.

Kent Hired To Develop Conn's Electronic Organ

Fate must have been looking over Earle’s shoulder, however, as he wrote an article about his patent for publication in the January 1940 issue of the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. It caught the attention of Leland B. Greenleaf, then Conn Company’s Chief Engineer. Greenleaf called Kent and invited him to come to Elkhart for an interview. He told him that the company wanted to get into the electronic organ business and that Kent was just the person they were looking for to spearhead the operation. Kent accepted the challenge and began his 30-year career with Conn as a $60-a-week Research Engineer on June 30, 1940.

But it was not Kent’s own organ design that the company was after. In fact, Kent was sent to Philadelphia to discuss options with another electronic organ inventor by the name of Spencer McKellip. Kent was skeptical at first, but after testing the demonstration model, felt that it had potential. A deal was struck and the engineers got right to work developing McKellip’s model. Within a year, Kent’s potential for leadership at the management level was recognized, and, in 1941, he was appointed Director of Engineering Research, a position he held for a decade. Greenleaf challenged Kent with the task of revitalizing the old Experimental Laboratory, established in 1928.

Conn's Experimental Laboratory

Unique in the band instrument industry, the Experimental Laboratory accomplished much despite constant long- and short-term lay-offs during the Great Depression. Allen Loomis, the company’s Chief Research Engineer and holder of numerous patents, was succeeded by acoustician Robert W. Young, considered by some of his colleagues to have been the real "brains" of the deparment. Bailey Canfield, Conn’s Assistant Chief Engineer during the 1930s-1940s, related that the original Experimental Laboratory could in no way be considered a true research department in comparison with the one later organized by Earle Kent. It was, he said, more of a traditional “cut and try” organization. Viewed from this perspective, the achievements of Conn’s original Experimental Laboratory seem all the more remarkable. They include the distinctive wireless and rimless Vocabell, first marketed in 1932, as well as the industry’s first successful short action valves which were on the market by 1934. Chemist Frank Savage was responsible for developing the electroformed bell, later marketed as the Coprion bell, in 1938. According to his memoirs, the company spent some $80,000 developing the first, one-piece, seamless electroformed bell, which is on display in the NMM's Everist Gallery. Savage noted that after producing this first example, he couldn’t make another one for weeks. Neither he nor the rest of the Experimental Laboratory knew why. Finally, they were able to repeat the process, mass-produce them, market the instruments with the copper bells, and quickly pay off the company’s investment, proving, as Savage was fond of saying, that “research always pays off.”

Young band members tune their instruments to a Stroboconn

Music students tune their instruments to a Stroboconn, ca. 1955. Conn Archive, NMM.

Perhaps the most famous achievement of the original Experimental Laboratory was the development of the Chromatic Stroboscope (later marketed as the Stroboconn), in 1936. According to Robert W. Young, “[prior to] 1934, the tuning of an experimental instrument was measured in the Experimental Department by counting beats with the sounds of a carefully tuned reed organ. During the summer of 1934, Allen Loomis and I dreamt frequently about an electronic device to make the measurement.” Based in part on the work of physicist O. L. Railsback, the Stroboconn was initially developed for use in acoustical studies, as well as for the testing and designing of instruments in the Conn factory. Company advertising suggested additional industrial applications including the measurement of grinding wheel frequencies, the calibration of oscillators, the detection of clutch and drive belt slippage in turntables, and the measurement of the speed of rotating objects and power line frequencies. During the 1950s and 1960s, it was not uncommon for school band directors to use Stroboconns to measure young musicians' intonation.

Conn's Plant Converts for War Production

Conn factory during WWII
Real-photo postcard from the collection of Margaret Downie Banks

Further refinement of the Stroboconn continued under Earle Kent’s leadership. But the original mission of the newly reorganized research department, to develop an electronic organ, was temporarily sidetracked when the company was forced out of the band instrument business from June 1942 to October 1946, due to a governmental restrictions on the use of materials identified as critical for the war effort. According to Frank Savage, who was in charge of converting the factory from the manufacture of musical instruments to products for the war effort, the entire factory was gutted. All the tools for making band instruments were moved outside under makeshift sheds and tarps and replaced with the machinery necessary to produce precision equipment for the U.S. Army and Navy. Under strict government contract, the entire plant became a classified area and was completely surrounded by a chain-link fence, as can be seen in this aerial view.

Conn  horizon gyro fixture, manufactured during WWII
Horizon Gyro Fixture made by Conn during WWII. Conn Archive, NMM.

Under Earle Kent’s leadership, numerous new inventions for the war effort were developed and produced by the Research Engineering Department, including small vibrometers for balancing aircraft propellers; a bomb release interval control device; and even a secret communications mechanism. Kent’s department also did consulting work on compasses, radar equipment, altimeters, gyroscopes, and magnetic recording applications. Even some of the company’s own musical accessories were adapted for military use, such as the Stroboconn, which was perfected for testing the tuning of airplane motors.

Conn's Electronic Organ: The Connsonata

In addition to its military assignment, the Research Engineering Department was able to spend some time conducting basic acoustic and electronic research. Additionally, work continued on Conn’s new electronic organ, the Connsonata, which was unveiled in 1946. Earle Kent personally established and managed the development of the Connsonata Organ and Electronics Division Plant near downtown Elkhart during its first five years of existence, from 1946-1951. This was in addition to his new appointment as Director of the Division of Research, Development, and Design, a position he was to hold for the next 23 years.

Connsonette model electronic organ  as it was marketed in 1949
Connsonette Organ Model 1A, June 1949. Conn Archive, NMM.

Conn Company Well-Represented at 1952 Republican and Democratic National Conventions

Speakers for Republican National Convention, Chicago, 1952
Earle Kent (kneeling) inspects giant speakers designed by Conn for the 1952 Republican and Democratic National Conventions. Conn Archive, NMM.

One of the highlights of Conn’s early years in the organ business was the opportunity to feature the Connsonata organ at the 1952 Republican and Democratic nominating conventions, both of which were held at the Chicago Convention Hall in July. Earle Kent himself designed the gigantic bass and treble speakers used to amplify the organ, among the largest ever constructed up to that time. The project was said to have cost $20,000. One of the speaker units was built at the Elkhart Connsonata plant, while the other series of speakers was constructed by Jensen Speaker Co. of Chicago. Kent was personally responsible for designing the horn-shaped amplifiers.

Conn organ at Republican National Convention, Chicago, 1952

Conn organ being played at Republican National Convention, 1952. Conn Archive, NMM.

Bill McMains (Oskaloosa, Iowa) and Harold Andersen (Chicago) were chosen to play the Conn organ at the two national political conventions.

Kent's Electronic Music Box

During the same year (1952), Kent completed his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. His dissertation focused on the sampling of complex sound waves and the invention of an electronic composition machine--a forerunner of the modern electronic music synthesizer. Although the Conn Company showed little interest in developing a marketable version of Kent’s “electronic music box,” as he called it, the device did receive considerable national publicity after its unveiling at an Acoustical Society convention held in Chicago in 1951. Subsequently, Australian composer Percy Grainger became interested in the possibility of using the device for producing his unconventional “free music.” After personally examining the synthesizer in Elkhart, however, Grainger decided that it did not provide all of the features for which he was looking. Despite all the attention, Kent’s device was never commercially produced.

Kent and his Electronic Music Box, 1951
Kent demonstrates his Electronic Music Box, 1951. Conn Archive, NMM.

Conn's Post-War Acoustical Research

Promotional photo for Conn's film, 'The Ear and Music'
Kent demonstrates use of electronic clinician for film, The Ear and Music, 1960.
Conn Archive, NMM.

Under Earle Kent’s leadership, the Conn Company aggressively pursued and marketed an acoustical research program during the 1950s and early 1960s. They also continued to be the only musical instrument firm in the country to maintain a full-time research department. Kent was fortunate to have the full support of Conn’s management, now under the leadership of former Chief Engineer, Leland Greenleaf, which endorsed Kent’s philosophy that “industrial research, sometimes called ‘science in overalls’ is a force for progress, a source of new products and new processes.” But Kent was also pragmatic and knew that time and effort should only “be applied where there is a likelihood that benefits will be derived that make the investment profitable.”

One of the many acoustic research projects undertaken by Kent’s department was tone analysis. Numerous working meetings were held at the factory with Research Committees representing the College Band Directors National Association and the American Bandmasters Association in order to “set standards for judging tones in band instruments, and to more clearly define musical terminology as it relates to tones.” To accomplish this, the Conn Company had to develop new scientific equipment and techniques for measuring the acoustical qualities of musical instruments. One such device was the artificial embouchure for playing and testing brass instruments, specifically designed to avoid prejudicial blowing, and affectionately referred to by the company as “Hot Lips Harry.”

Hot Lips Harry, ca. 1965
Hot Lips Harry from Conn Product Manual, 1965. Conn Archive, NMM.

Conn's 'Bulgy Room', ca. 1965
Bulgy room from Conn Product Manual, 1965.
Conn Archive, NMM.

The effect on tone as a result of differences in bell materials and bell configurations was also studied in blind tests using both live musicians and the artificial embouchure device. As an aid to recording and analyzing musical tones “without modification due to room characteristics,” Kent and Chief Acoustical Research Engineer, Jody Hall, designed a unique sound integration laboratory at the Conn plant. Nicknamed the “Bulgy Room,” it featured elliptical walls and a ceiling that was plastered with vermiculite. Kent noted that, “as opposed to a ‘dead’ room where a musician can scarcely hear himself play because the walls absorb virtually all of the sound, the [Bulgy Room] keeps the sound ‘live’ so the instrument can be heard [by the player] in a normal manner, with the directional characteristics of the instrument neutralized.”

A commercial application of Conn’s acoustic and electronic research was, of course, product development. Some of the notable work accomplished in this area under Earle Kent’s leadership included the development of the Connstellation line of brass instruments which featured nickel-plated Coprion bells, scientifically determined adjustments of the taper and bore, and new, electroformed mouthpipes and mouthpiece receivers patented by Kent in 1956. The fiberglass sousaphone, introduced in 1960, was another significant innovation resulting from materials research. One of the new electronic products introduced during the 1950s and 1960s was the Strobotuner. Designed and developed by Kent, it was a more compact, portable, and simplified version of the Stroboconn. Kent also created the Dynalevel (right), an electronic dynamic level indicator that registered dynamic changes with a series of colored lights that lit up in succession as dynamics became progressively louder.

Kent with Dynalevel, ca. 1960
Kent demonstrates use of Dynalevel. Conn Archive, NMM.

Conn's Acoustic Keyboard Research and Sale of Company

Earle Kent, 1970
Earle L. Kent, 1970. Conn Archive, NMM.

Following Conn’s purchase of the Janssen Piano Company in 1964, Kent and his research department pursued acoustic keyboard research, which led to the short-term production of the Conn piano. In January of 1969, Kent led a team of Conn researchers to the LTV Aerospace Laboratories in Dallas where they utilized sophisticated, space-age equipment to gather acoustical data for future use in piano design. But fate held the trump card and dealt the company a different future than the one Kent and his colleagues had envisioned. For by the time Kent and his research team returned to Elkhart, negotiations for the sale of the Conn Company were already underway. By May, the company had been sold to Crowell-Collier MacMillan, Inc. Within seven months, the new owners had entirely phased out the piano division. Subsequently, on December 8, 1969, Earle Kent was transferred to the Market Development Department and the company’s once unique and prestigious Research Department suddenly ceased to exist. After receiving his pink slip several months later, Kent noted, in a memo to his supervisor, that “it was not a surprise because of the other things that have happened or have not happened. I am sorry to see the company in such bad condition that it can not make use of what I have to offer.” Sixty-year-old Earle Kent, internationally known inventor, electronics and acoustics expert, and holder of twenty-eight patents, was obliged to take early retirement on September 1, 1970.

Ironically, shortly after the new management had moved its corporate headquarters to Oak Brook, Illinois, and had shut down all of Conn’s Elkhart operations, Larry McSwine, the newly appointed President, called Kent up and confessed that it had been “a great mistake to destroy the research department.” Earle related that McSwine then asked “Can you put it back together again?” He might as well have asked Kent to reassemble Humpty-Dumpty. If only Kent had given him a copy of his 1956 Research Report, in which he wrote that “Research is not something which can be turned on and off like a faucet. It requires special talent, special equipment, special facilities, and a large amount of time to uncover unknown facts, fit them together, and put them to work in a profitable manner in new or improved products.”

It is no wonder, under these circumstances, that as Earle Kent reflected on his career, just a few years before his death in 1994, he made the remark that “although it seemed important at the time, nobody really cares about it now.” Apparently Earle had forgotten the words of Brig. General David Sarnoff, Chairman of the Board of RCA, which he himself had cited in a research report some twenty years earlier: “The wonderful thing about research is that the more of it you do, the more of it there is left to do. Like the Horn of Plenty, it is never empty. It is like hunting a word in a dictionary. Each word is defined in terms of other words. So, when you seek a definition, you are inevitably led to another word that suggests new ideas. Just so, each piece of research opens new fields for further exploration.” Perhaps the legacy of Earle Kent’s Research Department then, lies not only in the work that it did, but in the paths that its unfinished research left open for others to follow.

Earle Kent at USD in 1991
Kent holds Honorary Degree presented by USD, May 1991. Conn Archive, NMM.

The University of South Dakota recognized Earle L. Kent's lifetime of achievement by awarding him an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree at its May 1991 Commencement.

Return to NMM Newsletter Index (August 2010)

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