The Compton Organ Company - History - Part One of Three

Updated: Dec 3, 2018

This week’s entry is the first of three posts discussing the electric organs produced by Compton Organ Company. The first post will give an overview of the Compton Organ Company and the instruments it produced. The second and third will discuss Compton’s electrostatic tone production system developed by engineer Leslie Bourne and will take a closer look at the inner workings of a surviving example of the Compton 357 C.S Electrone organ.

Having originally served as an apprentice first at Brindley and Foster in Sheffield and then under Charles Lloyd, John Compton first started producing his own organs alongside James Musson in 1902. In 1904 Musson left the company and the Compton Organ Company LTD was born.

The instruments first produced by Compton were pipe organs, Compton earned a reputation for innovation championing the extension principle of design. This involved completely enclosed all pipework whilst also utilising an electric keyboard action. This resulted in a much more compact instrument which was a contributing factor to Compton’s early success with places of worship and entertainment venues.

Compton Melotone - (2012)

In the 1920s and 1930s Compton became one of the leading producers of organs installed in cinemas used to accompany early silent films. Compton’s presence of the UK organ cinema market rivalled both Wurlitzer and Christie, supplying over 260 instruments in total.

In 1932 Compton engineer Leslie Bourne filed a patent for an electromagnetic musical pickup system known as Electrostatic tone generation. This will be discussed in greater detail in next week’s entry. Electrostatic tone generation formed the basis of the Melotone, Compton’s first electromechanical instrument.

Compton Electrone - (2012)

The Melotone was designed as an auxiliary unit to be added to an existing cinema pipe organ. The electric action of the pipe organ would be connected to the Melotone which would effectively act as an additional synthetic bank of pipes. As the Melotone was not designed to function as a standalone instrument, the palette of tones it produced was somewhat limited and stood in deliberate contrast to the traditional pipe organ sound.

Compton Theatrone - (2012)

The Melotone’s electrostatic generators were triggered by the pipe organ’s keyboard relays. The generators output was then sent to a valve audio amplifier and reproduced through a speaker cabinet.

Having proved popular, the electrostatic design was expanded to a complete standalone electromagnetic organ in 1938. This new instrument was referred to as either an Electrone or Theatrone depending on the setting in which it was used. They featured 12 generators, a full keyboard, bass pedals and an assortment of switches intended to emulate the tonal voicing control of a series of organ stops.

These features meant that the Electrone was quickly adopted by places of worship as a compact and relatively low-cost alternative to traditional pipe organs. The popularity of cinema organs fell dramatically throughout the 1930’s in accordance with the commercial introduction of sound in film. There were however many large form custom examples installed in prestigious multi-purpose theatres, some of which like the Comptons at the Hammersmith Apollo and Leicester Square Odeon are still present today.

The following video shows organist Donald MacKenzie demonstrating Compton Pipe and Melotone organ at the Leicester Square Odeon.


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