At the NC State Engineering Fair in 1940, first prize went to NCSU physics professor
Sidney Wilson for his invention of the world's first fully electric guitar. The instrument
was also the first to have single-string pick-up. Clearly the sensation of the fair, the
guitar was played by physicist Mickey May.
The Gibson Corporation had introduced a converted acoustic guitar - the ES-150 -
in 1937 that used a single bar to pick up the signal from all strings. The instrument
achieved some popularity, but was plagued by unequal loudness across the six strings.
Professor Wilson reasoned that: 1) individual pick-ups could remedy the unequal loudness
problem, and 2) the acoustical body was not necessary for a fully electric instrument.
He developed the guitar shown in the figure and entered it in the annual engineering
fair. The highlight of the fair was the playing of the guitar by Mickey May, and
the invention won the fair's first prize.
Patents from academia were quite unusual in the 1940s, so it is not unexpected that
Professor Wilson did not patent his invention. Had he done so, it would have been
one of the first patents granted to NC State faculty. In 1949 Gibson incorporated
both the individual string pick-up and the cut-away body in its model ES-175. The
design was attributed to Ted McCarthy of Gibson Corporation, but the features were
first conceived and implemented by NC State physicists.