In the '50s, at least 100 Chamberlins were
produced and to promote his instrument, Harry teamed up with a guy
called Bill Fransen who was (allegedly) Harry's window cleaner.
Fransen was (allegedly) totally fascinated by this unique invention
and subsequently became Chamberlin's main (and only) salesman.
However, there were terrible reliability problems with
the Chamberlin and it had a very high (it is said 40%) failure rate
with the primitive tape mechanism which resulted in tapes getting
Fransen felt that Chamberlin would never be able to fix
these problems alone and so, unknown to Chamberlin (allegedly),
Fransen brought some Chamberlins to the UK in the early '60s to
seek finance and a development partner. He showed the Chamberlin
to a tape head manufacturer, Bradmatics, in the Midlands and the
Bradley brothers (Frank, Leslie and Norman who owned Bradmatics)
were (allegedly) very impressed with the invention and (allegedly)
agreed to refine the design and produce them for Fransen but....
Under the mistaken impression that the design was actually
A new company, Mellotronics, was set up in the UK to
manufacture and market this innovative new instrument and work got
underway with the Bradley brothers (allegedly) unaware that they
were basically copying and ripping off someone else's idea!
Of course, it wasn't long before Harry Chamberlin got
to hear of this and he too went to the UK to meet with the Bradley
brothers. After some acrimonious discussions, the two parties settled
with Harry selling the technology to the Bradleys. Mellotronics
continued to develop their 'Mellotron' whilst Harry returned to
the US where he continued to make his Chamberlins with his son,
Richard, in a small 'factory' behind his garage and later, a proper
factory in Ontario, a small suburb in Los Angeles. In total, they
made a little over 700 units right through until 1981. Harry died
But whatever happened in those early meetings almost 40 years
ago is inconsequential - the fact of the matter is that the two
instruments are almost indistinguishable from each other. Each key
has a playback head underneath it and each time a key is pressed,
a length of tape passes over it that contains a recording of a 'real'
instrument. The tape is of a finite length lasting about eight seconds
and a spring returns it to its start position when the note is finished.
As you can see from the photograph above though, the Chamberlin
is smaller (although some mammoth dual-manual Chamberlins were also
Many claim that the Chamberlin had a better sound - clearer and
more 'direct' .... which is strange because the Mellotron was (allegedly)
better engineered than the Chamberlin. But there is a lot of confusion
between the two instruments not helped by the fact that some Chamberlin
tapes were used on the Mellotron and vice versa.... so
even though the two companies were in direct competition with each
other, they shared their sounds..... weird!
It also seems that some users were also confused and credited
a 'Mellotron' on their records when in fact it might well have been
a Chamberlin that they used (allegedly). However, given the similarities
between the two, this confusion is understandable and it's a tribute
to Mellotronics' marketing that they got the upper hand on the original
To be honest, the whole story is shrouded in hearsay and music
history mythology and we may never know the truth (especially now
that the original people involved are sadly no longer with us) but
regardless of this, the Bradley brothers were obviously more successful
with their marketing of the idea than Chamberlin himself. Although
it was originally aimed at the home organ market with cheesy rhythm
loops and silly sound effects, the Mellotron went on to become a
legend in the history of modern music technology and the mere mention
of its name can invoke dewy eyed nostalgia amongst some people.
On the other hand, however, few people have even heard of the Chamberlin
which is sad because Harry Chamberlin's unique invention preceded
the Mellotron by some fifteen years or more and by rights, it is
the Chamberlin that deserves the title of "the world's first
Nostalgia has a lovely Chamberlin string sound that captures the
original Chamberlin character quite authentically. Unlike the original,
though, the sound is looped but, like the original, it has the same
keyboard range (G2-F5) and is not velocity sensitive.