From the Archives: Feel the Music and Mary Elizabeth Greenewalt


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Guest blogger: Caroline Hayden, Digital Services Manager, Historical Society of Pennsylvania

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It’s common for people to talk about the feel of music; how certain songs can make you feel like gliding underwater and others shoot you into the air, and you brace for a free fall. Not as many people talk about how music looks, matching colors to genres. There is a physical ability to see colors when listening to music or sounds; this phenomenon is called synesthesia. Synesthesia can happen as a result of many things – it’s common for people to attribute it to drug use, but people can experience it naturally – and some artists have used the concept of synesthesia to create dynamic pieces of work.

Publicity photo of Greenewalt with the sarabet. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Publicity photo of Greenewalt with the sarabet. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

One such artist who invented a means to connect music with color was Mary Elizabeth Greenewalt (1871 – 1950). Her inventions include a unique color organ dubbed the Sarabet, a fine art practice marrying color and music known as Nourathar, and is credited with creating some of the oldest painted films which were used to accompany her Sarabet. Throughout her life, Mary Elizabeth Greenewalt fought to protect her intellectual property from the electrical companies and navigate the American patent system while promoting her philosophies on fine art and music.

Mary was born in Beirut in 1871 to the U. S. consul of the Syrian region and a Syrian socialite. Mary and her four siblings were sent to live in the United States when Mary was just six years old; her mother, Sara, was institutionalized in the United States, causing Mary’s father to split the family apart. Mary ended up in Philadelphia. She attended the Chelten School and moved on to study piano at the Philadelphia Musical Academy. She continued studying under the renowned Theodor Leschetizky in Vienna; upon her return she married and began teaching and pursuing research interests in the music field.

In addition to her musical prowess, Mary was sharp and scientifically inclined. She focused on explaining people’s emotional connections to music through biology and physics. Her article, “Pulse and Rhythm,” was published in Popular Science in 1903; this led to an invitation to lecture on her work at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. Mary also researched the idea of using colored light to express human’s physical and emotional responses to music. After years of working with colored photographic film and creating various inventions to improve her work, Mary Greenewalt unveiled her finalized product. She created a color organ, dubbed the Sarabet – it was named after her mother, Sara Tabet. Her unveiling was a success, and she demonstrated the Sarabet for the Illuminating Engineering Society of Philadelphia in 1916. Using rolls of colored acetate and cellulose film, she timed her colored canvas to pieces of music and created a synchronization of music, color, and the emotions they inspired.

Prototype color organ that Mary Greenewalt created. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Prototype color organ that Mary Greenewalt created. Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Mary knew she needed to develop a more precise method of synchronizing music and color to minute levels. She needed the experience of visualizing music’s emotional effect to be stronger. She filed patents for her improvements over the course of four years. Among her inventions were a timed process of controlling the intensity of light and color being displayed while playing the Sarabet, and improved design for rheostats which would control the flow of currents and fluids. During this time, Greenewalt fought patent infringements against other color organists and shortly began fighting the electric companies and engineers with whom she relied for technical assistance. She also began doubting the intentions of her patent attorneys, who would often have electrical companies on retainer. As a member of the National Women’s Party, Mary urged women to support President Franklin Roosevelt’s attempts to gain control of the nation’s utilities.

Mary Greenewalt’s legal victories over intellectual infringement never brought financial reimbursement, and she finally ceased to fight infringements of her patented inventions in the late 1930s. She did, however, receive recognition and some awards for her work. She received a gold medal in the Sesqui-centennial exhibition in Philadelphia, and in 1934 her color organ was installed in the “Century of Progress” exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. She did not let go of her fighting spirit and beliefs regarding her work. Greenewalt continued promote her art through speaking engagements and letters, and continued to call out those companies she believed denied her credit for her inventions.

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Want to learn more about the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and its resources? HSP will be at the 2017 Philadelphia Lantern Slide Salon on Thursday, October 12th, or visit HSP in the evening of Thursday, October 26th for two great events: Steampunk Salon Soiree: An Evening for Curious Conversation and/or Intriguing Sources: A German Murderer and an American General

Archives to explore:

  • Musical Edition of the Mary Elizabeth Hallock Greenewalt Papers (Collection 867), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
  • Mary Halleck [sic] Greenewalt, Papers, 1930s-1940s. Delaware Historical Society of Delaware
  • Greenewalt, M. E. H. Pulse in verbal rhythm. Philadelphia, 1905. (WxG* .21 v.2) (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)


“Background Note.” Mary Elizabeth Hallock Greenewalt Papers (Collection 867), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.