Oramics Machine, c. 1959

Oramics machine waveform scanners, c. 1959

The Oramics Machine is a unique electronic instrument invented by Daphne Oram (1925-2003).

Throughout the 1960s it was the focus of Oram’s determination to create a device to realise her musical imagination. With two grants from the Gulbenkian Foundation and the participation of several engineers, she was able to develop this unique machine.

On the Oramics Machine, Oram controlled both the structure of a piece and how it sounded by painting on strips of 35mm film. The fundamental sound came from waveforms that she also painted onto glass slides.

Daphne created her extraordinary music machine at a time when synthesisers as we know them were not available. In the 1950s and early 1960s, musicians wanting to use new sounds had to adapt devices made for other purposes. Laboratory signal generators, natural sounds and, especially, tape recorders were pressed into service. Oram produced many compositions that way, but she also dreamt of making machines that would give her complete control of compositions and how they sounded.

The Oramics system has two principal components. At its heart is the wooden cabinet that contains the waveform scanners. A glass slide with a wave-like shape drawn onto it, the waveform, is inserted into the scanner. Inside the scanner a flying spot from a cathode-ray tube traces the shape repeatedly. The speed at which this happens determines the pitch of the sound. The output of the scanning tube is then passed through the programmer and passed to a recording device or audio amplifier and speakers.

The metal table-like structure is called the programmer. Here Daphne would manipulate the sound from the waveforms by drawing on 35 mm film strips. The top strips controlled the vibrato. Other strips influenced the speed of the scanners, defining the pitch, the reverberation level and the volume of the sound.

You can find more information about how the Oramics Machine works on the website of the Daphne Oram Trust.

The Oramics Machine was a constant work in progress. It was changed, improved and added to by Daphne and the people she worked with. This makes it a very interesting and ‘layered’ object. Together with Goldsmiths University of London, which holds the Daphne Oram Archive, and the Daphne Oram Trust, the Science Museum is exploring the history of the machine and trying to find out how exactly it worked and how Daphne used it.

For a long time, the location of the Oramics Machine was not generally known, but it was rediscovered by Dr Mick Grierson, Director of the Daphne Oram Collection, in 2009. This short film shows how the machine arrived in London before it was acquired by the Science Museum in 2010.

Related links

Engineer Graham Wrench talking about working with Daphne Oram and building the Oramics Machine’s prototype

Daphne Oram , Dr Mick Grierson looking at the Oramics Machine in the Science Museum’s stores with students from the National Youth Theatre.

Object Source: Department of Music, Goldsmiths University of London

 
Year made :
c. 1959
Inventory number :
2010-68
 

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