Mary Hallock Greenewalt always wanted to be known as an inventor. Born on September 8, 1871, in Syria Vilayet—present-day Beirut—to a Syrian mother, Sara Tabet, and an American father, she was sent at age 11 to live with relatives in Philadelphia. She began her professional life as a pianist in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh orchestras but around 1905, when Greenewalt was in her mid-30s, she began to experiment with a new kind of instrument. It would be a feast for the senses, combining color with sound. During performances, Greenewalt would use the various pedals, switches, and keyboards on her machine—essentially an early synthesizer—to play songs that were synchronized with projected light. She called her modified organ the “Sarabet.”
Tinkering with that creation—and then defending her claims on the inventions—became her life’s work. Between 1919 and 1926, Greenewalt filed 11 patents with the United States Patent Office for inventions related to the Sarabet. In 1932, she successfully sued General Electric for copyright infringement on the rheostat, a device she patented that varied the resistance of the electricity in the Sarabet.
Greenewalt and her inventions may not be widely known to most musicians today, but they were essential to the creation of many electric instruments, in particular the synthesizer, which would revolutionize the music industry in the 1960s. Below are interpretations of four of the 11 patents Greenewalt would receive, all of which were in some way related to the development of her color organ and the principles of her work. “I want them to see,” she said of her audience, “something more beautiful than they have ever seen before.”
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Patent No. 1,385,944: “Notation for Indicating Light Effects” (1921)
“The object of my present invention is to provide a score comprising names, numerals, marks, symbols, hieroglyphs, or the like, constituting a chart or record sheet for denoting or interpreting a lighting sequence or succession to accompany music,” wrote Greenewalt in this patent. It involved Greenewalt’s translation of Beethoven’s 1801 “Moonlight” Sonata into a notation readable by a Sarabet player, here adapted by musician Melissa Grey.
Archival images courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.