Allen Organ Company
For more than 75 years, the Allen Organ Company has been on the cutting edge of invention and innovation. Located in Macungie, the company has installed more than 80,000 instruments in 80 different countries, and is currently the United States’ largest and best-known producer of church organs.
An Inventive Founder
Jerome Markowitz, the man who would eventually found Allen Organ, was born an inventor. Growing up in Long Island, New York in the 1920s, he displayed an insatiable curiosity for early electronics. Tinkering with various “do-it-yourself” projects as a child, he built everything from an electric go-cart to a crude television. However, the more he tinkered, the more he realized his real interest lay in finding new and inventive ways to create music. Coupled with an early love of the pipe organ – which he routinely listened to on the radio and in movie theaters – this interest would ultimately spark a life-changing passion.
Since Jerome’s father owned a textile company in Allentown, his parents decided to send him to Allentown Prep School in the early 1930s. Upon graduating, he continued his studies at Muhlenberg College.
While at Muhlenberg, Jerome relished going to chapel on Thursday mornings, where he would sit and listen to the chairman of the music department play the organ. Hearing those majestic sounds reminded him of his earlier passion for music – and his still unquenchable desire to invent. So, in early 1937, Jerome made the fateful decision to quit school and follow his real passion – building a practical electric organ that could emulate the sound of a real pipe organ.
Building the First Allen Organ
Fortunately for Jerome, his parents moved from to New York to Allentown the same year he left Muhlenberg. This allowed him the opportunity to set up shop in their basement and begin work on his dream.
After determining that “tuning drift” was the main problem plaguing electromechanical organs of the time, Jerome set about inventing a way to correct the problem. His research led to a major breakthrough in the fall of 1937, when he applied for a patent on what would become known as the “stable audio oscillator”. For Jerome, this brand new piece of technology was the key to unlocking the electric organ.
As his work progressed, Jerome gained the attention of other local organ enthusiasts. In the summer of 1939, Allentown’s Evening Chronicle published a story in which they referred to him as a “22-year-old Alexander Graham Bell.” Later that same year, Jerome moved into an empty space in his father’s textile company and, with the help of the factory maintenance man and his 16-year-old son, completed his first fully functional electric organ.
Dubbing it the “Allen organ” after the city in which he invented it, Jerome immediately began marketing his new invention. In early 1940, he made his first sale to the pastor of St. Catherine of Siena Roman Catholic Church in Allentown. A short time later, Quakertown’s highly popular Trainer’s Restaurant purchased the second Allen organ for entertainment. The following year, he secured a third order from Temple Keneseth Israel in Allentown.
By the end of 1941, Jerome and his Allen organs were well on their way to becoming a major player in the world of electronic organ production. However, despite these early successes, he would soon be forced to put his plans on hold.
Making a National Name
Like many people, Jerome’s life was temporarily interrupted by the outbreak of U.S. involvement in World War II. From 1942, through the end of the war in 1945, production of Allen organs was put on hold as the entire nation pulled together to support the war effort.
In mid-1945, as American industry finally began a slow transition back to peacetime production, the building of Allen organs once again resumed. To help structure his fledgling company, Jerome incorporated as the Allen Organ Company in the summer of 1945. With fifteen employees now working for him, he sold approximately 10 organs throughout the following year. This success helped make it possible for the company to lease a much more expansive 14,000 square foot factory space at 8th and Pittston Streets in Allentown in 1946.
Always looking for ways to improve his products, Jerome developed and patented another groundbreaking invention, known as the “gyrophonic projector” in 1949. Essentially a rotating speaker system, the projector enhanced the “liveliness” of the electronically generated pipe tones, thereby making Allen organs sound even more like a real pipe organ.
To help expand their market outside of the Lehigh Valley, the company also began developing relationships with national dealers. This led to increased sales, which in turn prompted a series of expansions. In an effort to keep up with the fast-paced growth, Allen Organ purchased a 25,000 square foot plant in Macungie in early 1953. Coupled with a workforce of 130 people, this new space also allowed the company to develop several new instruments, such as the “organette”, which was introduced in 1955 for the home market.
As the company grew and developed, Allen Organ also began to make a name through some high-profile customers. In 1957, the prestigious Philadelphia Orchestra Company opted to use an Allen organ for a special performance at the Academy of Music. A few years later, Jackie Gleason had an Allen organette installed in his home office so he could play musical inspirations for his show. And in 1961, Lawrence Welk purchased an Allen electronic harpsichord for use on his incredibly popular television variety show.
But perhaps the most powerful endorsement came in September 1962, when New York’s Lincoln Center was preparing to open its Philharmonic Hall with a gala concert. Although initial plans called for the installation of a pipe organ, as opening night drew near it became clear that the instrument would not be ready in time. To address the problem, the hall convened a committee that included the esteemed composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein.
Carefully weighing its options, the group decided to use an Allen organ in the performance, and requested that one be installed within a week. The monumental task, which should have taken six to seven times as long, was completed without problem, and on opening night Jerome and his wife were invited to the gala. Mingling with guests such as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Nelson Rockefeller, they listened as E. Power Briggs – the most famous organist of the era – played the Allen organ to rave reviews.
In the weeks following the gala, several more high-profile concerts were held in the Philharmonic Hall – and all used the Allen organ. Later, Colombia Records released a record of the performances.
The success of these events helped launch the Allen Organ Company onto the national level. But as Jerome continued to strive to create newer and better products, it would be a high-profile invention that would eventually allow Allen Organ to make its mark on a global scale.
The First Digital Computer Organ
In 1969, the Allen Organ Company made perhaps its biggest – and ultimately most fateful – decision. Realizing that analog computer technology would eventually become obsolete, the company entered into an agreement with the Autonetics Division of the North American Rockwell Corporation to develop the world’s first digital organ. Rockwell, which had already been building circuit technology for the military and space application, would handle the “tech” side of development, while Allen Organ was in charge of the “organ” side.
This collaboration resulted in the introduction of the Allen Digital Computer Organ in early 1971. Revealed at a press party at New York City’s Hotel Waldorf Astoria, the organ was instantly recognized as a monumental breakthrough in the music industry.
Because of its unique ability to accurately reproduce the sound of windblown pipes, the Allen Digital Organ helped turn the Allen Organ Company into the dominant player in the church organ field. As sales of the organ skyrocketed, the invention was even named “one of the best 100 new products of the year” by Industrial Research magazine – marking the first time in history that a musical instrument was honored with such an award.
Years ahead of its time, the technology used in the Allen Digital Computer Organ was eventually licensed to many large instrument producers, including companies in Japan and Europe. Later, this technology became known as “digital sampling”, and ultimately morphed into and was developed for mass-produced consumer products such as compact discs.
The Allen Digital Computer Organ, and the subsequent licensing of its technology, catapulted the Allen Organ Company into the global market. In recognition of the incredible achievement – and the ways in which it helped change the musical world – the Smithsonian Institution acquired the first Allen Digital Computer Organ for its collection in 2004.
The Post-Digital Age
Today, the Allen Organ Company remains on the cutting-edge of technology. Its current line of organs includes sound production based on Digital Signal Processing, or DSP, technology. Coupled with significantly increased memory availability, this allows current Allen organs to reproduce even the smallest nuance of pipe organ sound, as well as other orchestral instruments.
Still headquartered in Macungie, the company is now helmed by Jerome’s eldest son, Steven Markowitz, who took over as president following his father’s retirement in 1990. At the time he stepped down, Jerome held more than 25 patents for various inventions.
Currently, the Allen Organ Company’s facility includes 250,000 square feet of production space, sales and marketing offices, and a 400-seat concert hall. Used primarily as a demonstration facility, the hall also hosts spring and fall/winter concert series that are open to the public. The fall/winter series includes several Christmas concerts, which help raise money for local charities. To date, more than a quarter million dollars has been raised.
To learn more about the Allen Organ Company, or to view their schedule of upcoming concerts, please visit allenorgan.com.