Hugh Le Caine
Hugh Le Caine
Physicist, Inventor, Composer
Hugh Le Caine was born on May 27, 1914 in Thunder Bay, Ontario. He held a childhood interest in music, building instruments and dreaming about what incredible possibilities exist with the world of sound. Le Caine possessed the gift of “prefect pitch” – that is, he could recognize differences in musical pitch by ear. His mother enrolled him in piano lessons at an early age, and he would continue to study music casually well into his post-secondary years.
His father, an engineer, often brought home pieces of electronic gadgetry which Le Caine would religiously disassemble to better understand how they worked. With these pieces he would assemble new instruments. In grade 10, for example, he created an electronic ukulele for the school’s science fair. It was, as the pessimistic Le Caine recalled, “a resounding failure.” All the same, these basement inventions were an important display of his passion for music, instrument creation and science.
Le Caine entered Queen’s University to study toward a Master of Science in 1934 and would graduate in 1939. He worked for the National Research Council Ottawa from 1940 until 1974, making significant contributions to atomic physics measuring devices. He played an important role in innovating radar systems during World War II, and studied nuclear physics in England at the beginning of the Cold War.
Le Caine spent his spare time immersed in his childhood obsession with electronic music. In 1940, he invented what is now recognized as the world’s first electronic synthesizer, called the electronic sackbut. He set up his own studio in 1945. The public interest in his instruments impressed the National Research Council, which in 1954 allowed him to work full time on electronic instrument design. Despite this, the music industry and composers had little interest in the innovative work Le Caine was putting out until the late 1960s.
Hugh Le Caine’s career is admirable in that he was able to engage in his childhood passion by first excelling in a practical career. Faced with the choice of studying either music or science in University, the rational man understood that he would need a solid understanding of science to invent the instruments he dreamed of, and could not only rely on these inventions to bring him success. By working at the National Research Council on other projects such as radar and nuclear physics, he was able to gain their respect and support with funding when the time came.
While his general contribution to science was respectable but unremarkable, it was his groundwork in electronic synthesis which literally changed the course of musical history. In all, Le Caine invented 22 different electronic instruments and composed almost 40 pieces of music for them. He equipped several of the first electronic studios in the world with his inventions, including those at the University of Toronto and McGill. His work was the basis of inspiration for future pioneers of electronic synthesis such as Robert Moog, who himself witnessed the birth of popular electronic musicians like Kraftwerk and Pink Floyd, all the way through to Daft Punk. One thing is sure; today’s musical landscape would not be the same without Hugh Le Caine.
– Inventor of the world’s first electronic synthesizer
– Inventor of an additional 22 electronic musical instruments
– Wrote some of the first pieces of experimental music, almost 40 in his career
– Installed electronic studios around the world, including at the Universities of Toronto and McGill
– Performed his musical inventions live for Prince Philip in 1964
– Several sections of the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology are dedicated to the instruments developed by Le Caine
– Dedication plaque at Queen’s University
– Harrison-Le Caine music hall named in his honour
– Le Caine also received Honourary Doctorates in Music from McGill University, Queen’s University and the University of Toronto.