Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2296:

John Lienhard presents guest Andrew Boyd

Today, we meet a musical engineer with guest scientist Andrew Boyd. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We usually separate a product name from the brand name. We purchase the product toothpaste, choosing some brand -- Crest or Colgate. But sometimes the brand becomes the product. We buy Vaseline, not petroleum jelly. We eat Jello, not flavored gelatin.

For many of us, the word Moog is synonymous with electronic music synthesizers. [Spelled M O O G] It's a wonderfully strange brand name, perfect for the offbeat nature of early electronic music. Yet it's no marvel of marketing, it's simply the last name of engineer and inventor Robert Moog.

Born in 1934, Moog grew up in Queens where he liked to tinker with electronic devices in his basement. He lived in the era of postwar hobbyist mania, fed by hobbyist magazines and army surplus electrical equipment. Among Moog's many projects, he built a Theremin, which authors Pinch and Trocco rightly call, "possibly the weirdest instrument of any sort, ever." Moog was so taken with the instrument that at age nineteen he began selling Theremin kits -- an effort that would lead to a lifetime of building and selling electronic musical instruments.

Moog was a quintessential engineer of his time -- college educated in electrical engineering. Pictures show him regularly dressed in short-sleeved white shirts, often with a skinny tie, always with a pocket full of pens. Today, T-shirts given away by the Moog Foundation have pockets in honor of Moog's penchant for pens.

Moog was fascinated with the potential for electronic sounds, but he wasn't a musician. What made him stand out was his constant willingness to work with early electronic musicians, from serious composers to rock artists of the sixties. The thought of a short-sleeved Bob Moog rubbing shoulders with the psychedelic sixties generation is humorous to imagine, but this is exactly what took place. And Moog wasn't just accepted, he was embraced.

Synthesizers in their modern form didn't exist. Moog listened to a musician's needs, then returned to his workshop and engineered a solution. His legacy rests on his ability to stay ahead of musicians' expressed wants. And that's what all good design engineers do -- with bridges, cars, or synthesizers.

As one example, Moog adopted piano-style keyboards for that let performers control synthesized sounds. Today we take keyboards for granted, a natural part of the synthesizers we see at live performances. But in the early days of electronic music keyboards were considered taboo by many musicians. Keyboards threatened the expression of the brave new world of electronic music. In the end, keyboards won out for the simple reason that they're very functional. The engineer Moog understood this.

Over the years, many people have contributed to the evolution of electronic instruments, and the story is still being written. Moog is but one of these contributors, but a very special one. Though he died in 2005, he won't soon be forgotten. Like Vaseline and Jello, the name Moog and the synthesizer will forever be linked.

I'm Andy Boyd, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Dr. Andrew Boyd is Chief Scientist and Senior Vice President at PROS, a provider of provider of pricing and revenue optimization solutions. Dr. Boyd received his A.B. with Honors at Oberlin College with majors in Mathematics and Economics in 1981, and his Ph.D. in Operations Research from MIT in 1987. Prior to joining PROS, he enjoyed a successful ten year career as a university professor. His new book, The Future of Pricing: How Airline Ticket Pricing Has Inspired a Revolution, (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2007).

T. Pinch and F. Trocco, Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002).

For some wonderful pictures, see this picture gallery: http://www.bobmoog.com/.

More on the Moog Foundation can be found at: http://www.moogfoundation.org/.

The original Minimoog keyboard synthesizer, which came out in 1970.

Four synthesizers
A contemporary jazz keyboardist's setup. It includes a still-fully-functioning original Minimoog synthesizer seated atop a vintage 1975 Fender Rhodes electric piano. Also pictured, two Roland synthesizers: the modern RD700SX 88-key digital keyboard and a vintage SH-101 (red) analog. (Photo by JHL)

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.