In the early 1900s, the ladies and gentlemen who donned their finery to attend a performance of the Pittsburgh Orchestra at the Carnegie Music Hall may have heard concert pianist Mary Hallock-Greenewalt perform.
But many of those culture mavens probably didn't know that they were seeing a woman of not only musical talents, but also technological ones.
Mary Hallock-Greenewalt, of Philadelphia, who performed with the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh orchestras, went on to receive nine U.S. patents, to invent an instrument that combined music and colored light and to produce some of the earliest hand-painted films still in existence.
TechMan came across this amazing woman in an article in Volume 14 of Make magazine, one of TechMan's favorite magazines (with Web site at makezine.com), by Michael Betancourt. Mr. Betancourt also has written a book titled "Mary Hallock-Greenewalt: The Complete Patents."
Ms. Hallock-Greenewalt became interested in art that combined color and music, which she called Nourathar from the Arabic words for light (nour) and essence of (athar). The Arabic was presumably because she was born in Beirut. Nourathar did not define a strict correspondence between specific colors and notes, instead arguing that these relationships were inherently variable, reflecting the performer's temperament and ability.
Her first invention was a machine that synchronized colored lights to recordings. This device was an early music visualizer of the type now seen on digital music players. It was apparently for this machine that she made some of the earliest hand-painted films still surviving. But it is unclear whether these painted films, which were abstract and made with aerosol sprays and templates, were part of the performance or served as a kind of score for the performer.
Not happy with her first version, she moved on to invent the Sarabet (named after her mother, Sara Beth), a type of "color organ," on which music was played and various colored lights were triggered.
Trying to imagine what a performance must have been like, TechMan thinks back to when he was a TechHippie and went to the dearly departed Syria Mosque to see a "Heavy Organ" performance of Bach fugues by the great Virgil Fox, complete with psychedelic light show.
In order for her Sarabet to work as she wished, Ms. Hallock-Greenewalt needed a way to vary in small steps the brightness of colored lights. Thus her 1920 patent for a nonlinear variety of rheostat, a type of dimmer switch.
According to her patent, which can be studied at google.com/patents, her aim was to produce a device which could vary the brightness of a lamp in small increments using a foot pedal.
She sued General Electric for infringing on her rheostat patent and in 1934 won the suit. In 1946 she published a book called "Nourathar: The Fine Art of Light-Color Playing." She died in 1951.
Mary Hallock-Greenewalt was a musician, artist and early woman geek.