Saturday, October 02, 2010

Sidney Wilson's Electric Guitar

William Sidney (Sid) Wilson is credited with inventing the first modern electric guitar. Following is the text of an article that appeared in Our State (Down Home In North Carolina) magazine (January 2009):

Tar Heel Treasures
Almost Famous
By L. A. Jackson

The history books may not reflect it, but a North Carolina State University alumnus is credited with creating the first modern electric guitar.

What do rock 'n' roll, electricity, and North Carolina State University have in common? The cryptic answer is William Sidney Wilson, one of the fathers of the modern electric guitar. Electric stringed instruments have existed since the 1920s, but they were acoustic guitars that relied on microphones or single electromagnetic bars that picked up vibrations collectively from all the strings. Both devices made for poor, uneven sound. In 1940, Wilson, a Yanceyville
native, was studying electrical engineering at North Carolina State College. He had a solution to the inferior sound quality of electric guitars, reasoning that a single-coil magnetic pickup for each string would even the loudness of the strings. Wilson went against conventional thinking and figured that a large, hollow guitar body actually contributed to the unwanted feedback. He made his own version and entered it in the university's Engineering Fair. The skinny, odd-looking instrument was the hit of the fair and won first prize.

Patents resulting from academic research were uncommon in the 1940s, and Wilson took his ideas no further than the Engineering Fair. Gibson and Fender instrument companies later also discovered the advantages of individual pickups and the practicality of solid-body electric guitars, and both became rock icons. To his dying day, Wilson wondered what became of his odd-looking guitar, which until recently had been stored at N.C. State's Department of Physics. Now, the spotlight has been turned back on, and the guitar is on display at D. H. Hill Library on the university's campus.

L. A. Jackson strums and hums in Apex.

Courtesy: Our State magazine.

Exhibit Showcases World's First Electric Guitar, T. Rex Femur

College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences celebrates 50th anniversary with exhibits featuring rare artifacts in the D. H. Hill Library

Jordan Alsaqa, Senior Staff Writer

First established in 1960, the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with an exhibit featuring a T. Rex femur bone and what is believed to be the world's first electric guitar.

Throughout this semester, D. H. Hill Library is home to an exhibit dedicated to the scientific breakthroughs made by the college since its founding, as well as discoveries made at N.C. State before PAMS was established.

The exhibit, entitled, "A Legacy of Discovery: 50 Years of PAMS," opened just before classes started this semester and is the result of two years of collaboration between the college and the library's Special Collections Research Center. Steven Townsend, director of communications for PAMS, explained the work that went into setting up the exhibit.

"It was a process of close collaboration," Townsend said. "My department worked to organize the story and highlight what we wanted to show off, while Special Collections worked to make sure we had the physical objects and most of the photos to bring that story to life.

One part of the exhibit is a display containing the world's first true electric guitars, designed at NCSU by physics professor William Sidney Wilson. Though predated by several electric string instruments, Wilson's was the first to provide individual pickup for each string. His invention went on to win the University's Engineering Fair in 1940.

Unfortunately, Wilson never to patent his invention, and the two models were forgotten about until they were returned to the University sometime between 1965 and 1975. By this point, Gibson and Fender had both adopted the individual string pickup design, obscuring Wilson's innovation in the field.

The guitars remained in storage in the Department of Physics until the mid-1990s, at which point they were rediscovered in storage by staff. Now, 15 years later, they are on display for the first time.

The items on display show not only the advancements made here at NCSU, but also a picture of how far technology has come over the past decades. One exhibit shows a photograph of one of the University's first and most primitive computers, bought for $200,000. Photos compare computer labs from the 1980s to those of today.

Also on display are a series of photos of the college life aspects of PAMS students throughout the years, showing the importance of the student experience. Photos of the old PAMS softball team and of students simply relaxing in their room show that the experience of college is as important as the research being done in PAMS.

One of the displays is a large cast of a T.Rex femur bone and was discovered by a team led by one of NCSU's two paleontologists, Mary Schweitzer. The femur contained preserved soft tissue, bringing a new wealth of information to our understanding of how fossilization works.

Elizabeth Hyde, a sophomore in animal science, said the femur along with other parts of the exhibit impressed her. "As a science major, it was interesting to see such an important fossil on display here." Hyde said, "It was amazing to see how many discoveries came out of NCSU."

The exhibit, which will run throughout the semester until after finals, works with the colleges to display areas of excellence around the University. Lisa Carter, head of the Special Collections Research Center, explained the theme of the exhibit as one of progress.

"The message we wanted to convey with the exhibit was that all innovation is based on the fundamentals, the kind that PAMS works to instill in all of its students. When you start with the fundamentals of scientific research, you can build it into the practical solutions that so many NCSU students have provided," Carter said.

After 50 years, PAMS continues to be a national leader in innovation and discovery and in 2006 was ranked seventh nationally in total PhD production in mathematical sciences. The exhibit shows off the constant series of breakthroughs made over the course of five decades.

"One of the biggest goals of PAMS is solving the world's biggest challenges," Townsend said. "Be it issues of food, water or fuel, the college is working constantly to make long-lasting changes for the planet."

Caption under photograph of the Wilson electric guitars: The two string instruments shown are two of the world's first electric guitars. Located in an exhibit on the East wing of the second floor of D.H. Hill Library. These two models were a product of two years of collaboration between PAMS and the Special Collections Research Center. The exhibit is titled, "The Legacy of Discovery: 50 Years of PAMS."

Source: Technician, Friday, September 10, 2010 (Page 5)

The following is from The Heritage of Caswell County, North Carolina, Jeannine D. Whitlow, Editor (1985) at 599-600 (Article #825 "William Sidney Wilson Story" by Edith W. Wilson):
William Sidney Wilson, known as "Sidney," is the son of Robert Thomas and Ella Sue White Wilson. He graduated from N.C. State College, where he was perhaps the first undergraduate research student, in 1942 with a BEE degree. Sidney was very interested in science and electrical engineering as they applied to music and to musical instruments. According to advertisements by musical instrument manufacturers in the musical magazine Downbeat, he was years ahead of the musical instrument industry with a guitar bridge having six horizontally adjustable smaller bridges, a guitar with three pickup units under the strings, a small-bodied fretted electric guitar with no soundboard, and a fretted electric guitar with a pickup screw under each string. he also made and placed electrostatic pickups on an orchestral guitar. He built a color organ in 1941. he made them all at N.C. State. He won the Engineers' Fairs' first prize twice in the Electrical Engineering Department at N.C. State; first with the electric guitar exhibit in 1940 and then with the color organ in 1941. He paid about two-fifths of his way through N.C. State by working in the county agent's office in Yanceyville, N.C. and at Carolina Power and Light Company in Raleigh, N.C.

According to the record in the U.S. Patent Office and otherwise, during the few months that he was allowed to work on his own ideas, he was the most inventive individual on radar altimeters in building 10-2 in RCA in Camden, N.J. which was the Allies' center for what was called design and development on radar altimeters during World War Two. Significantly, the only patents which came from there during World War Two, which relate to the measurement of altitude, bear his name. He also built the world's first pulse phase shifter.

A magnetic clamping device, which was his idea, was made and used in RCA. he suggested in RCA in 1943 that RCA manufacture electronic calculators after the end of World War II. He also suggested to RCA during World War II a way to prevent train wrecks and the use of radar on automotive vehicles to prevent accidents.

He filed between two and three dozen patent disclosures on phonograph pickups in RCA during the late 1940s; most of them being ideas on capacity-type pickup. In the early 1980s RCA's disc-type "selecta vision" used a capacity type of a pickup.

He inadvertently killed or help to kill RCA's electronic phonograph pickup, by finding out that humidity effects ate right through its metal diaphragm.


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