Company History

The Peterson Company’s colorful history, spanning nearly sixty years, reflects a deep commitment to innovation as well as excellence in design, manufacturing, and customer service. This article gives a glimpse into the life of prolific inventor Richard H. Peterson and the accomplishments to date of the company he founded.

In 1925, Richard Peterson was born in Chicago, the younger of two sons of a retail coal dealer. Even as a young boy, he was fascinated by the pipe organ at the church his family attended.

In the 1930s, Richard developed a keen interest in radios, vacuum tube circuits, and mechanical devices of all types. Curiosity often drove him to dismantle his family’s new purchases to see how they worked. Later, at the tail end of WWII, Peterson served in the U.S. Army as a radio operator. While stationed in New York City, he often visited Radio City Music Hall and was thrilled with the pipe organ there. Soon he decided that his life’s work would involve inventing better ways to build organs.

Peterson Strobe Tuners - Dick Peterson RHP Richard Peterson
Peterson Strobe Tuners - Don and Carolyn Leslie in front of the organ Peterson built for Don in his living room in Pasdena California
Determined to find ways to match the thrill of a real pipe organ’s sound using electronics, Richard Peterson co-founded the Haygren Organ Company and set out to build church organs that were superior to other electronic organs of the day. Peterson was the first to employ the concept of using a large number of independent oscillators to produce a genuine ensemble in electronic organs. Careful attention was given to realistic attack and decay of each note and the independence of each note from others. The Haygren Organ Company would ultimately build fifty church organs in an unused part of Richard’s father’s coal facility.

In 1951, Dick Peterson met Don Leslie, creator of the renowned Leslie Speaker, who would become a lifelong friend and informally a partner in many inventions, including the “Wah-wah” pedal. Both men shared a fascination for understanding why real pipe organs sound better than electronic organs. The picture to the left (courtesy of Harvey Olsen) is of Don & Carolyn Leslie in front of the organ that was built at the Peterson factory for Don.

Soon, a relationship was established with the Gulbransen Piano Company of Chicago, leading to an arrangement in which Peterson’s inventions would be licensed to Gulbransen for use in making home electronic organs.

In 1957, Richard Peterson completed development of the world’s first transistor organ, which would be marketed by Gulbransen and help secure that company’s position as a technical leader in the organ field.

Peterson Strobe Tuners - Gulbransen Model B Brochure first transistor organ
Peterson Strobe Tuners - Model 70 picture blue background
Meanwhile, in the mid 1950s, the earliest Peterson tuners, called models 150 and 200, were marketed after being developed for Richard’s own use for tuning organs. These were the first products to carry the Peterson name. Many of these early Peterson tuners are still in use today! (Read our separate “Tuning History” article.)

In 1964, the tuner product line was further expanded with the introduction of the Model 70, the first commercially available, hand-held, battery operated tuner. That same year, a brand new 3000 square foot building was built on 2.5 acres in the Chicago suburb of Alsip, IL to house the growing Peterson company and establish greater financial stability.

While the focus of Peterson’s development efforts have usually been on music-related products, in 1965 a new state-of-the-art 900 MHz motion detecting burglar alarm system called the “Houn’ Dog™” was developed and marketed after the successful creation of a prototype for use in the new Peterson building.

Peterson Strobe Tuners - HounDog Alarm
In 1967, the first “diode matrix” type pipe organ switching system was built, based on some of the technology and a modular connector concept originally developed for use in Gulbransen organs. Organ technicians with little or no electronics training immediately felt comfortable with Peterson’s solid state switching because of the clever layout of circuit components. Parts were grouped to match octaves of notes and arranged on interchangeable circuit boards with limited functions corresponding to traditional pipe organ relays of the time. Today, well over 5000 pipe organs run on diode matrix relays built to-date on this original design concept.

In 1968, Peterson’s first strobe tuner, the Model 400, was introduced--variations of which would become the world standard for precision tuning for bands, orchestras, stage musicians, and musical instrument manufacturers.

The 1970s marked a period of rapid expansion for Peterson’s innovative pipe organ- related product line. In 1971, the world’s first digital record/ playback system was developed for Gulbransen organs, recording electronic data about key, stop, expression, and other functions on cassette tape. This would later be adapted for use as the first digital player for pipe organs.

One year later, the first Peterson pipe organ combination action was introduced, allowing a large number of general and divisional pistons to be handled by a reliable package that was much smaller and less expensive than traditional combination systems of the time. Registrations could be set via the traditional “tripper” and “capture” methods, hence the name “Duo-Set™”.

Then in 1973, electronic “pedal extension” voices for pipe organs were introduced, allowing pipe organs to include sounds in the 32’ and 16’ range despite budget or space limitations that would preclude using large bass pipes. The innovative design of these systems allowed great flexibility in matching pipes of higher registers.

Peterson Strobe Tuners - Model 400 strobe tuner ad
Peterson Strobe Tuners - Bottom line pedal bass

In the mid 1970s: Peterson developed and began manufacturing electronic carillon systems for the I.T. Verdin Company, and the tuner product line was expanded with new specialty models for schools and performing musicians. Also introduced at this time were the “Bottom Line™” pedal bass unit featuring a unique pedal keyboard, and a new line of alarm systems using microwave technology.

Peterson Strobe Tuners - Fender Rhodes Piano
Between 1975 and 1977, two new buildings totaling 15,000 square feet were completed on the company’s factory “campus”. CBS/ Fender Musical Instruments utilized Peterson know-how to design and build the preamp sections for the legendary Fender Rhodes electric pianos. The classic “ping pong” stereo tremolo feature was also added by Dick Peterson and engineer Bill Hass.

Collectors now pay high prices for Rhodes models with a “Peterson Preamp”.

In 1978, Peterson engineers created for the music education market an innovative “Musical Chalkboard”. Musical notes could be written on the staves of the large board with chalk, and then played by touching them with probes. This was widely acclaimed by people who saw it, but was not a good seller. The next year, the “Dynatrem™” pipe organ tremulant unit was introduced and patented.

Peterson Strobe Tuners - PowerKnob draw knob
Peterson Strobe Tuners - Swell Shade Operator
The 1980s represented a period of even greater growth and expansion for the Peterson company. The P-30 Organ Rectifier was introduced, as were the first widely used electronic swell shade operator; a new multi-level combination action with 32 memory levels and easily replaceable, locally available batteries for memory backup; “All-Electric” type pipe valves and related accessories incorporating a variety of innovative features that improve their electromagnetic efficiency , ease of installation, and pipe speech; Modular Key Contact Systems; and Master Touch™ modular keyboards.

Also developed during the ‘80s were PowerTab™ stop action magnets for tongue tablet and rocker tablet use and the innovative “PowerKnob™” draw stop unit, all involving Peterson’s patented “tip polarization” concept. This involves strategic use of permanent magnets to allow a greater toggle feel when operated by hand without a corresponding need for more electrical power.

Further Peterson product innovations in the 1980s included plug-together console wiring harnesses custom made to the organ builder’s specification utilizing a proprietary and highly-efficient method of cabling to replace tedious point-to-point hand wiring by the organbuilder; and “Cathedral Chimes™” based upon a patented chime striker design using magnetic repulsion and a special hinge arrangement representing a significant improvement over solenoid type strikers in terms of quietness, maintenance free reliability, and strike uniformity.

In 1986, Peterson further revolutionized the pipe organ industry with the introduction of the OrgaPlex™ switching system. Although others had built multiplex–technology switching equipment for pipe organs, Peterson’s design incorporated its familiar “small module” layout philosophy with its enormous advantages in flexibility and serviceability. Thousands of OrgaPlex systems are in use today.

The 1990s was a decade that saw rapidly continuing expansion of the Peterson pipe organ and tuner product lines, and the appointment of Richard’s son, Scott R. Peterson, as Company President after serving as Design Engineer, Production Manager, and Vice President.

Peterson Strobe Tuners - MSP programming module
A new microprocessor-controlled combination system called the MSP-1000™ employed an innovative method of configuring an organ’s custom features using a special “Set-Up Terminal”. This eliminated the need for custom factory programming for each job or the use of an on-site computer. Another new product called the MIDI Resource System™ could add enormous capabilities as a “MIDI Controller” to most pipe organ consoles using intuitive and familiar organ functions, and allowing an organist to record and later play back all key, stop, expression, and other controlling movements.

Later in the 1990s, a sophisticated new version of swell shade operator called the RC-150 was brought to market utilizing advanced motor control methods and a convenient and flexible on-screen setup procedure.

On the tuner side, the 1990s saw the introduction of the SC-5000™ 12-wheel strobe tuner that, for the first time, used digital stepper motors and sophisticated motor control technology that allowed each motor to operate independently. This facilitated tuning to non-equal temperaments.

Soon the AutoStrobe™ series, a new line of single-wheel variants using the same motor technology and automatic note detection, was added. (Click here for our separate “Tuning History” article.)

Peterson Strobe Tuners - Hi Res image
Peterson Strobe Tuners - Beer Bottle Organ at Peterson Booth
In 1998, the Peterson Company celebrated the 50-year anniversary of its founding. In preparation for a celebration at the exhibit area of the American Institute of Organbuilders convention, several Peterson employees created the now-famous “Beer Bottle Organ”.

The “BBO” uses pipe organ components, specially-designed air nozzles, and beer bottles with liquid (tuned with a Peterson tuner, of course!) to create a surprisingly clear and pleasant musical sound. Several BBOs have been built in various forms and displayed worldwide since the original prototype was created.

During the late 1990s, a considerable investment was made in additional technical equipment and software for the Peterson R&D department to support an ever-increasing level of development sophistication. It was during this time that both the new “Virtual Strobe Tuner™” and “ICS-4000™ Pipe Organ Control System” projects were started.

As the 21st century dawned, Peterson began shipping its world-class ICS-4000 pipe organ control system, which is featured on the website

Peterson Strobe Tuners - ICS 4000 CDU
Peterson Strobe Tuners - Strobe VS-I

In 2001, the model “VS-1™ Virtual Strobe Tuner” was proudly introduced as the first in a new line of portable, handheld tuners that utilize a true high-resolution stroboscopic effect to give unprecedented usable tuning accuracy in a package affordable to nearly any musician or student. To date, several additional Virtual Strobe™ models have been developed, including the VS-II™, V-SAM™, StroboStomp™ and StroboStomp2™, StroboFlip™, and StroboRack™. Peterson engineers have also created a computer-based high precision tuning software called StroboSoft™. For more details regarding the history of Peterson tuners see the Tuning History section of this website.

Today Peterson continues its passion for innovation, its focus on unprecedented customer service, and its commitment to uncompromised quality. After sixty years, the future looks brighter than ever!


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