Classic Keyboards - The Univox
Article in BeatMagazine1997 by Brad Coates
the earliest mass-produced portable electronic keyboard was the Univox.
Manufactured by Tom Jennings’ J. M. I. Company, it laid the foundations for
what was to become VOX- the sound of the 60’s. Designed in 1946 by Derek
Underdown and Tom Jennings, it fulfilled Jenning’s original concept of a
small, portable electronic keyboard instrument that could be used by a
pianist to simulate the sound of various acoustic instruments and the human
voice. In actuality, the Univox was really a monophonic organ with a range
of tone selections and vibrato effects, which, for the time, was remarkably
successful at doing just that.
Utilizing a valve based tone generation system with a three
octave F to F miniature wooden keyboard, the Univox came with it’s own
amplification- a massive 6 watt amp driving an 8" speaker!!! (Remember,
this was the Forties!) The keyboard was able to be switched through three
different octave ranges giving a very wide range of pitches. There were 12
separate voicing tabs including a sub-bass and a rotary vibrato switch pot
with (you guessed it!) 3 different settings. The whole thing broke apart
into two separate pieces (keyboard and amp) and folded together into a
carry case small enough to be easily carried from gig to gig by the player.
For a pianist to have the ability in those days to carry around a portable
electronic keyboard was impressive and broke the monotony of the solo
All in all, this was
very schmicko for 1946 and the Univox (Latin for single voice or
monophonic) became extremely popular particularly on the British and
European club circuit. The Univox reached what was probably the pinnacle of
its success in 1962 when the Tornadoes used it on their single ‘Telstar’.
This became a massive hit internationally, but was probably just a bit too
late to put the Univox on the world map, as the new breed of polyphonic
portables were then starting to make an appearance.
What the Univox
really did however, was show Tom Jennings that he was on the right track
and where his future lay as the creator of VOX- a company always at the
forefront of new technology and forward thinking ideas (and some really
off-the-wall wacky ideas too!)