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Burton Minshall

Burton Minshall

History of the Minshall Organ
By Larry Minshall

Burton Minshall was born August 9, 1907, in Verschoyl, Ontario, Canada. His wife, Madeline (Maddie), was an accomplished pianist in the popular rather than classical sense. She always wanted an organ but, of course, money and space made it impossible. At the age of 18 Burton had established a radio store in Tillsonburg, ON, in partnership with a friend. After discovering one morning that their bank account had been emptied and his friend had disappeared, he went to work for Spartan Radio, in London, ON, and, later, a retail store, Cherniaks, where he serviced and sold radios. His electronics background was extensive for that period, so he determined to build an organ for Maddie.
His concept was to supply the reeds of a reed organ with a 600 volt supply and to pickup the reed's motion through the capacitive effect between the reed and a machine screw threaded through the wood above each reed. The resulting signal was the amplified and broadcast through a "tone cabinet".
Minshall T
Model T reed organ

Once constructed, they showed the finished organ to their friend Millard George. He immediately offered to buy the organ for use in his funeral home. The world was still feeling the effects of the Great Depression, so the organ was sold and the possibility of building more organs in the basement became a reality.
Soon George Benson was hired and his large shop behind his home on Dufferin Ave., in London became the first location for Minshall Organ Ltd. They were offered for sale in 1939.
Burton and Maddie travelled throughout Canada arranging dealerships for the company. As workspace became tight an unused school was purchased on Charles Street.
Things were going so well that Burton was attracted by the much larger market in the United States. In expansion, Burton recognized the need for a name well-known in organ circles and the need for a source of organ reeds. He arranged with Estey Organ of Brattleboro, VT, to use their name in conjunction with his i.e. Minshall-Estey. The new company would rent space in the Estey factory and, although the two companies were entirely independent, Estey was given an option to buy into Mishall-Estey after a couple of years. Although Minshall-Estey was quite successful, Estey did not exercise their option and Minshall-Estey Organ Inc. became Minshall Organ Inc. For further expansion Minshall Organ purchased the Spalding building beside the Estey factory.
Minshall Organ Facotory
The factory in Brattleboro, Vermont

Burton appointed a General Manager for the Canadian operation and moved to Brattlebor, VT, in the summer of 1944.
It is not surprising that no thought had been given to patenting the concept, but with a wider exposure in the United States, a patent search was commissioned. As a result of the search, it was discovered that the basic concept was investigated and patented through the efforts of the Everett Piano Company. Their engineer, Frederick Albert Hosche had been designing a large organ, the Orgatron, based upon the same principle. After his death in 1936, Frederick F. Meissner continued the work for the company and was granted a patent. Legally, Minshall Organ was obligated to pay royalties to Meissner Inventions, who owned the patent at that time.
Despite the harmonically rich sound of the unamplified reed the effect of the capacitive pickup produced a sinusoidal output, with very little harmonic content. Little variety could be achieved because there were no harmonics that could be accented through filtering the signal. Some variety was achieved by keying other ranks of reeds at higher and lower octaves. By modulating the amplifier, a tremolo was produced, but not the richer sound pitch variation of a vibrato. It was sold as having a great tone (Cathedral tones), which realistically recognized the lack of significant variety.
The only significant competition at that time came from the more expensive Hammond Organ. All electronic organs that key an already continuous sound, key the sound at an arbitrary point in the waveform. If the keying is substantially above the zero voltage point of the wave, there is an instant increase in signal that appears to the listener as a popping sound. For the Hammond "key Click" was an advantage in lively music but a liability in churches and funeral homes. A second liability was the production of harmonics through using portions of higher notes as harmonics, controlled by drawbars, instead of mathematically correct harmonics. The Leslie Tone Cabinet with doppler producing rotating speakers solved both problems, but did not conform to the expectations of churches at that time. The target markets for the Minshall organ were churches and funeral homes, so, initially, Minshall Organ was quite successful.
With the entry of fully electronic organs in the market, the deficiencies in the original Minshall organ began to reduce sales. George Hadden was recruited from London, ON, to head the newly formed engineering department of Minshall Organ Inc. Reduced sales led to renting out excess space in the building and the company took on a contract from the U.S. Army to produce communications equipment. Finally, the new design went from concept to prototype. The heart of the new design was a frequency divider, conceived by George Hadden, that took the signal from a tuned tone generator and successively divided the frequency to provide notes for each octave below. The output of each divider was an approximation of a sawtooth wave which contains all harmonics in decreasing amplitudes. The rich supply of Harmonics made possible the filtering for a wide variety of voices. The entire tone generation was accomplished with three dual 12AX7 tubes for each of the twelve notes. The highest signal was generated and buffered against frequency change by the first dual tube and the following two dual tubes produced the lower four octaves.
Minshall Model H
Model H
The prototype (Model H), single manual with a 12 note pedalboard, was displayed at the 1949 Chicago Music Trades Show and in a few days produced over four million 1949 dollars in orders. A two manual organ with a concave radiating 25 note pedal board (Model J) was soon added to the product line.
The original design used leaf switches for keying. To prevent signal leakage (cross-talk) the contacts were wired to ground out the signal rather than making a series connection. At that time, it was believed that if metal was kept within it's elastic limit it would always return to it's original shape. However, as is now known, metal fatigue will cause a change with excessive use. As keys were repeatedly played over time, the contact to ground could and did fail and ciphers occurred. To please many angry customers (and to stay in business) a new replacement keying system was designed with plastic encase gold busses and silver wire contacts.
The frequency divider circuit depended upon stable capacitors. The first capacitors used were "Red Devils" made by Sangamo. When it was discovered that these would not withstand humidity changes they were replaced by "Black Beauties" by Sprague. These were hermetically sealed with solder where the contact wires entered the case. With time and motion some seals relaxed and humidity changes took a toll. Many of these had to be replaced to satisfy another series of disgruntled customers.
At that time, it was generally known that humidity had been at the root of problems with Minshall organs. To illustrate that humidity was no longer a problem the cables to one of the generators of an organ were extended and the generator was placed in a fish tank at the annual music convention.
Over the next few years everything went very well with the introduction of a Spinette model (Model S) and minor improvements to the line of organs. Always looking to the future, the engineering department was working on a neon generating system that would reduce costs and provide an output signal with even richer harmonic content. This time light was the variable that needed to be overcome. Attempts were made to paint the neon tubes black to prevent light changes, but a better solution seemed to be to illuminate the neon tubes so that the ambient light remained constant. The organ sounded great but was still some distance from marketable.
In 1955 Burton Minshall suffered a severe heart attack and was forced to abandon his work. The U.S. company was purchased by Donald Samis.
The Estey Organ company had been trying to design and market an electronic organ. These efforts did not meet with success, so Estey Organ purchased the now struggling Minshall Organ company and continued to market it under the Minshall name.
The original company in Canada was purchased by Burton Minshall's son, Laurence, despite the advice of Burton. With a much smaller market shared by a large list of American competitors, the wisdom of that advice was confirmed and Minshall Organ Ltd. ceased to exist.
Burton Minshall died in Switzerland on February 10, 1957, while on holiday with his wife and brother.
Minshall J
Model J advertisement


The Minshall Model L - How it works, By Richard H. Dorf
Organ Directory Minshall section