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Alexander Burnett Hector and his colour music invention

Alexander Burnett Hector was convinced there were underlying scientific principles of harmony and vibration between colour and music, based on those found in nature.

Illustration by Alexander Burnett Hector

Alexander Burnett Hector, Illustration 1, photographer: Alice Nagy

The Library recently acquired thirteen colourful drawings on paper created by Alexander Burnett Hector, a distinctive Sydney individual who some would label as eccentric. A chemical engineer by training, his day job as general manager of pharmaceutical firm Burroughs Wellcome did not impede his passion for invention. He was influenced by scientists including Isaac Newton, John Tyndall, Dmitri Mendeleev and John Newlands. These drawings suggest that he grappled with different scientific theories, as well as artistic and spiritual influences.

To illustrate his theories Hector invented a ‘colour music organ’ around 1908, which was first demonstrated publicly in 1912. As each key on an organ or piano was struck, an electrical connection was made with a corresponding coloured light. When the instrument was played, waves of colour washed along banks of lights situated in a theatre or ‘reflecting chamber’. The public and media were evidently entranced by Hector’s invention, as public demonstrations and private recitals in his home were well-attended and well-reviewed. The Sydney Mail reported that “It gives the spectator-auditor a fascinating and an altogether novel experience” (‘The art of colour music’, 1935).

Other scientists, musicians and artists were experimenting with similar ideas around this time, including Alexander Rimington (whose book Colour-Music was published in 1912), composers Scriabin and Schoenberg, and Sydney artist Roy de Maistre. Hector first registered an international patent for ‘Producing color music and other spectacular luminous effects’ in 1912, and further patent applications show that he continued experimenting over the next few decades. In 1922 he wrote three articles for the Sydney Morning Herald discussing his ideas and further applications of colour music (eg. ‘Producing the octave,’ 1922). However, some critics have questioned how Hector chose to match a colour scale to a musical scale, as his choice of which colour corresponded to a specific musical note seemed somewhat random.

Hector’s idealistic plans included a wireless connection between keyboard and lights through sound waves. He even envisaged public events with multiple organs in different places tuned to a master organ, which would simultaneously control them and their corresponding lights:

the King could give the signal, the master player would start to play “God Save the King,” and behold the whole of various centres would burst into music of sound and of colour, thus making it possible to realise a united Empire at a given moment (‘Colour-music as an empire idea’, 1912).

These hand-drawn works are unique records of Hector’s theories and inventions. Although some of the purported scientific principles behind his invention were inconclusive, Hector’s work tapped into an international interest in the relationship between colour and music in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Visit the Library catalogue to view this collection item. 

Illustration by Alexander Burnett Hector
Alexander Burnett Hector, Illustration 2, photographer: Alice Nagy
Illustration by Alexander Burnett Hector
Alexander Burnett Hector, Illustration 3, photographer: Alice Nagy

Jane Gibian, Collection Liaison Librarian


References

1912 'Colour-music as an empire idea', The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), 11 November, p. 3, viewed 22 Dec 2017.

1922 'Colour music: Producing the octave,’ The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), 25 February, p. 7, viewed 20 Dec 2017.

1935 'The Art of Colour Music', Sydney Mail (NSW : 1912 - 1938), 26 June, p. 15, viewed 15 Dec 2017.

2012 ‘Shedding light on the 'colour music' of Sydney's Alexander B. Hector’, Wierzbicki, James, Musicology Australia, v.34, no.1, July: (81)-99

Alexander Burnett Hector designs and drawings related to his "colour music" invention, ca 1910-1920s / by Alexander Burnett Hector.

 

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