Antique Beat Box Showcases 1950’s Engineering Prowess

Before you could just put a drum machine app on your phone, or fire up Garage Band, there were breakthroughs like the Roland 808 drum machine. But that’s not where it all started. In 1959 a company called Wurlitzer (known for things like juke boxes, pianos, and giant pipe organs) produced a new device that had musicians worried it would put drummers out of a job: The 1959 Wurlitzer Sideman. And in the video below the break, we have the joy of watching [LOOK MUM NO COMPUTER] open up, explain, and play one of these marvelous machines.

Can you spot the early circuit sculpture?

It’s noteworthy that in 1959, almost none of the advancements we take for granted had made it out of the laboratory. Transistors? Nope. Integrated Circuits? Definitely not. What does that leave us with? Vacuum tubes (Valves for those across the pond), resistors, capacitors, relays, and… motors? Yep. Motors.

The unit is artfully constructed, and we mean that quite literally- the build was clearly done with care and it is easy to see an early example of circuit sculpture around the 3 minute mark. Electromechanical mechanisms take on tasks that we’d probably use a 555 for these days, but for any of you working on mechanical projects, take note: Wurlitzer really knew what they were doing, and there are some excellent examples of mechanical and electrical engineering throughout this primordial beat box.

If you move to the beat of interesting drum machines, you might enjoy this Teensy based Open Source drum machine that you can build. No tubes required!

34 thoughts on “Antique Beat Box Showcases 1950’s Engineering Prowess

    1. That’s probably some kind of phase-shift oscillator with a carefully designed feedback network to provide a damped oscillation. Can be done with just one inverting amplifier.

      1. You guys are like wizards. I just want you to understand that.

        It’s like star trek. I understand each individual word, in general, but the entire sentence is pretty much gibberish as a whole.

    2. You only need one Amp stage.

      Say for example your using Op-amps. You have one for a low pass filter and one for a high pass to make a band pass and another for notch filter for in the middle of the bandpass range and another for an integrator to make it current to voltage then another for voltage to frequency.

      You can take all the passives and reconfigure them around only one op-amp and it will work fine (assuming there is enough gain). It’s just bit mind bending to build it into one circuit. But in those days they did mind bending things to save on expensive components.

  1. When I saw the picture, I was wondering why it has so many contacts instead of bunch of diodes, but then I realised it is from fifties, and this was probably cheaper then.
    The thing has really nice sound, shame the motor is so loud. You should do the reversable modification that you mentioned, and make external trigger inputs, it would make it usable while preserving mechanical parts from wear.

  2. there were much earlier(now lost) examples of mechanical
    musical insruments,that were built from 1700 ad on,vast water
    powered mechanisms to create musical acompanyment ,with drums and cannon,and special effects for theaters,controlled from keyboards,where we get the term “pull out all the stops”,there may be a few surviving minor examples in europe somewhere

  3. He needs to cut down on the stimulants. He talks at hyper coffee speed.

    Getting that step by step going will be a huge challenge. Hopefully much of it is already working and it was removed while in service for a technology upgrade, probably to cross bar. Looks like about 8 “phone number” line circuits, plenty of digit decode. I didn’t see any hunters though.

  4. How is it so clean inside? I occasionally work on valve radios from the same era and they are always filthy, no amount of cleaning gets them looking like that!

    I remember being able to buy multi-position multi-gang switches like that one, where you could by extra gangs to bolt on to the bottom of the stack, but that 24-gang switch…! (Maybe you still can, but everything seems much more sealed in these days.)

    1. Very interesting. A lot of smaller parts but quite some detail.

      One thing she mentioned was that the wiring was tied together with linesman’s knots. I thought of electrical linesmen who have a (linesman’s) knot for connecting wires together electrically (in American it’s a Western Union splice) that is not what she is referring to. Then I saw there are lots of other types of linesman’s knots but there not the ones either.

      It’s often called cable lacing which is close but not totally correct. Cable lacing, often called block lacing is a way to use lacing twine (often called lacing string or lacing tape) to lace a bulk of cables together. So for instance you may have 100 cables (10 x 10 block) of 2000 wires (1000 pairs) to lace together as a block as it goes from one area of a building to another. So that’s 200,000 wires or 100,000 (balanced) twisted pairs of wires. So it is different to just lacing some wires together for a wiring harness.

      The link below shows the wiring harness lacing hitch (not a knot) that is repeatedly used and at either end is like a double or triple granny knot.

      The lacing makes the harness quite rigid. The trick for reliability is to have a half loop of extra wire just before each connection. This means that if tension is put on the harness perhaps from maintenance or movement / vibration then that tension is shared and divided by all the connections. Otherwise one connection (the shortest) would bear all the tension and fail quickly from metal fatigue.

  5. 5 times that much circuit sculpture in that style in one of their tube organs from that time complete with a chord keyboard as well as 2 keyboards. What an organized rats nest! 12 x 4 or 5 tubes plus a few more and the amplifier. It’s been 20 or more years since I saw one headed to the dump. I saved the chord keyboard.

  6. I’m a big fan of Wurlitzer and Sam, so this was a treat! I found an old Wurley on the side of the road, brought it home and removed the Spectratone rotary speaker. It’s kind of like a Leslie but with two out-of-phase speakers that spun around on an arm like that weird astronaut g-force test from The Right Stuff. It sounds amazing!

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