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Lockport, Illinois

b. 1936

History of the design and construction of the organ
in the First Congregational Church, Lockport, Illinois

All of the design and most of the construction of this unique 3-manual, electronic organ was done by four high-school friends who, when 27 years old, undertook this ambitious project. Bob Cleary designed the electronic circuits, Tom Cannon designed the console, Darrell Strong was responsible for construction and installation, and I did the tonal design.

stephenson, strong, cleary and cannon
Teens Stephenson, Strong, Cleary and Cannon (l. to r.)
enjoy after-school refreshments in spring, 1955.

The dream for this project began as I spent five years (1951 - 56) as a teen-age organist at the Lockport (IL) Congregational church. I didn't care much for the Wurlitzer amplified reed organ that was in the church at the time. It was difficult to play in a musical way, and I longed for a better instrument.

The dream of building an organ from scratch continued while I studied electrical engineering at Purdue University. I applied what I was learning in many of my classes to the dream and wrote a paper called "Design of an Electronic Organ" that won first place in the annual HKN essay competition. (The prize was $5.00.)

After graduating with a BSEE degree from Purdue, I spent two years in California working for Hughes Aircraft. During this period, Bob Cleary and I kept in touch and often talked about the possibility of putting my theoretical design into practice.

Shortly after I returned to Lockport in 1961, the church realized (with some prodding) that a new organ was needed. An organ committee was appointed and I was a member. We first looked at pipe organs. Even though I was itching to put my electronic dream to the test, I wouldn't have minded a pipe organ. Actually, I would have loved a pipe organ, but, alas, the new sanctuary constructed in 1960 had no space for a pipe organ.

The committee turned its attention to electronic organs and investigated Allen, Rodgers, and a new Chicago start-up, Saville Organ Company. The Saville organ was particularly interesting. For example, the Saville conformed with my philosophy that many unlocked tone sources and many output channels would contribute the the production of pipe-organ realism and musicality. (Click here for some recent comments rgarding the Saville and Loche organs.) The more I played these organs the more I was convinced that our dream organ was better. The committee finally said to me, "You need to put up or shut up. We've had demonstrations of all these organs. If you're serious, you have to come up with a demonstration."

That was all we needed to hear! We bought an organ keyboard, put together some circuits, and made a pedal board out of one-by-two's from Drake Lumber. We also created a company called "Loche Electronics." ("Loche" is pronounced "Lock.")

Quoting from the Service Manual: "A demonstration of a portion of the proposed organ was given on June 7, 1964, for the members of the church music committee, and the contract was signed on July 13, 1964. Construction was begun immediately, and the organ, while partially complete, was used for church services beginning on Easter Sunday, 1966."

It had to be a tough decision for the music committee to put such trust in a bunch of 27-year-olds. Church committees do not risk church funds lightly. I imagine it was important that we had more than a dream---we also had training. Cleary and I both had degrees in Electrical Engineering, Cannon had a degree in Industrial Design, and Strong was highly trained as an IBM service representative.

There was some angst, I'm sure. Chuck Laine, a trustee, had visions of us forever "messing with the wires," and told me very pointedly that once the organ was finished it had to "stay finished."

By all standards, this has been a very successful project. Many, many organists have remarked that the instrument is a joy to play. Importantly, the organ has been in full working condition every Sunday since that Easter Sunday in 1966. That's more than 2000 Sundays . . . and counting. There aren't very many electronic organs existing today that have been in continuous service for fifty years and are still in good operating condition. In fact, the Loche organ, due to its regular preventative maintenance program, is in as good shape today as it was in the beginning.

Much of the musical success of this instrument is due to (A) that there are 1136 separate oscillators (tone generators) that are individually tuned and (B) that there are 42 channels of sound output. The 42 sound channels insure that sounds generated electronically are mixed acoustically in the room rather than electrically in wires. The organ stays remarkably in tune---as of July, 2009, none of the oscillators has needed tuning in over four years---but it is never exactly in tune. These two factors---not being exactly in tune and sound mixing acoustically---account to a great extent for the vitality, warmth and musicality of the sound.

There are behind-the-scene foks who deserve the credit for the success of this project:

  1. My parents, who turned their basement over to the construction process;
  2. My father-in-law Wally Smith, who drilled holes in PC board after PC board;
  3. My wife, Shirley, who became very proficient in assembling PC boards;
  4. Bob Marietta, who built the console from Tom Cannon's drawings;
  5. Johnny Bjorkman, who did the staining and finishing of the console;
  6. David Knol, who is responsible for current weekly preventitive maintenance;
  7. John Devona, who is the current (2016) church organist and provides ongoing voicing suggestions.

The organ was officially completed in the evening of November 4, 1968.

The next day Richard Nixon was elected to his first term as President.

Saville update (2016)

It's been more than 50 years since this organ was first played in a Sunday worship service. Its reliability has been outstanding: it's never been unavailable for a Sunday service at any time during that period. A reason for this reliability is the preventative maintenence that has been ongoing. In many ways the organ is in better condition today than the day it was finished. For example, about 10 years ago we replaced all the paper capacitors that were part of the 1136 tuning ciruits with capacitors made of more modern film material. The need to tune the organ every five years or so rather than several times a year.

If you need service for a Saville organ, particularly in the Chicago area, you could give me a call. Since Saville and Loche are rooted in the same era, we can probably provide some assistance. I look forward to having the opportunity to talk with you about it. My cell phone number is (815) 210-7839; or you can email me at kineticjim@gmail.com.