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The Royal Albert Hall Organ in London.

These days, when we talk about mechanical musical instruments, we mean those which not only produce the sound, but also choose the notes. The weighty pipe organ at London's Royal Albert Hall has many tons of mechanism within its massive casework - far more indeed than a whole showroom full of pianolas - and yet it is not considered to be a mechanical musical instrument. It does not appear in Grove's Dictionary under the heading of Mechanical Music. The distinction seems to lie in the necessity or otherwise for a human being to choose in real time which notes shall be played, in which order, and in which way: fast, slow, staccato, legato, humorous, soulful. Indeed the word "mechanical" has its own distinct meaning when applied to music, one expressed with a slight curl of the lip, indicating either a lack of humanity or a too easy mastery of the musical text.

It can be confusing to speak of pianolas in the same breath as mechanical musical instruments, because the foot-operated player piano was only intended to provide the notes of a composition, leaving a human being to create the expression. In this respect it is very similar to a symphony orchestra, where the conductor guides the interpretation. By contrast, earlier mechanical musical instruments were indeed fully automatic, though by and large simply because they ignored the subtler details of musical expression. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was surely enough of a wonder that an inhuman machine could produce recognisable melodies at all.

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Very Early Instruments
In historical terms, though, one can certainly make a case for regarding pipe organs as the earliest distinctly mechanical musical instruments. The first organs were pre-Christian, and can be traced to a number of countries around the eastern Mediterranean. An early illustration comes from an Arabic translation of a treatise by a Greek known as Muristus, and shows, in a stylised bird's-eye view, a bellows with four pipes for human blowers to inflate, tubing to channel the wind, and twelve pipes with sliding valves to control their operation. The instrument is described as being audible for up to sixty miles.

The Muristus Pneumatic Organ

In contrast to this thunderous oversized bagpipe, the Ancient Greek hydraulis was a less cumbersome instrument, with a keyboard, a range of pipes, and a supply of air created by water pressure. The hydraulis also passed to Rome, Byzantium and the modern world, and this Roman floor mosaic dates from the 2nd or 3rd century AD. The photograph was taken in 1988 by Barbara McManus, and is reproduced by courtesy of www.vroma.org

A Roman Hydraulis Organ

Automatic devices for producing predetermined sequences of musical sounds can also be traced very far back in time. Heron of Alexandria, who lived in the first century AD, wrote an extended treatise on Pneumatics, in which he described his use of pneumatic power to control a variety of mechanisms, including automata and whistling birds. It is clear that his birds emitted their tweets by means of air forced through small organ-like pipes, and anyone who has heard the bird sounds in Haydn's Toy Symphony will know that this simple means of sound production can give remarkably realistic results. But perhaps the most important aspect of the multiple bird automaton is that it laid down a sequence in which the birds would sing, and so it stands as one of the very earliest precursors of what we know nowadays as mechanical music.

Heron's Sequential Automaton of Singing Birds.

It is said that Leo the Mathematician, the cleverest man in Byzantium in the 9th century, built two similar automatons for the Emperor Theophilos Ikonomachos which had artificial trees and singing birds. Liudprand, later Bishop of Cremona, was sent on an embassy to Constantinople in 949, and reported on the appearance of just such a mechanism:

"In front of the Emperor's throne was set up a tree of gilded bronze, its branches filled with birds, likewise made of bronze gilded over, and these emitted cries appropriate to their different species. Now the Emperor's throne was made in such a cunning manner that at one moment it was down on the ground, while at another it rose higher and was seen to be up in the air. This throne was of immense size and was, as it were, guarded by lions, made either of bronze or wood covered with gold, which struck the ground with their tails and roared with open mouth and quivering tongue".

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Renaissance Barrel Organs
Five hundred years later, in 1453, Constantinople finally fell to the Turks, at which point any surviving cultural artefacts were destroyed, although in 1204 the Fourth Crusade had plundered most of the important historical and religious treasures anyway. If there were any lions still roaring in Byzantium, then they failed to frighten the invaders. And yet in a curious way the roar of Muristus' pre-Christian organ did survive; around 1500 we find the Archbishop of Salzburg in Austria ordering a mechanical organ to be built, so that its roar could be heard throughout the city, and thereby act as a signal for the local population at the start and end of each day, and no doubt in time of war as well. Nearly 150 years later a barrel mechanism was added, which now plays music by Leopold Mozart, Joseph Haydn and others, but the original signal organ had no keyboard or barrel. Salzburg was not the only fortified town to have had such an early municipal alarm clock, but the instrument is the earliest to have survived until the present day. In 2002 it was restored and re-opened, to celebrate its five hundredth birthday.

The Salzburg Stier, high up on Fortress Salzburg.

The Salzburg organ is located in a small chamber (ringed in the photograph above) which juts out dizzyingly from the high walls of Fortress Salzburg, a vast fortification overlooking the whole city. The roar that it still produces by a thick F major triad at all octaves can be clearly heard, along with a selection of other music composed for it, on a dedicated webpage hosted by Ron Schmuck, of the Great Canadian Nickelodeon Co. Ltd.

Inside the Salzburg Stier - the pinned barrel has several sets of tunes side by side.

Not all early barrel organs were intended for the whole municipality. Rich landowners wanted to provide music as a diversion for their noble guests, and it became fashionable to include an element of automation, both aurally and visually. One of the best sources for the design and construction of these renaissance ghetto blasters is Athanasius Kircher, in his treatise on mechanical music, Musurgia Universalis, published in 1650. This is not the place for a detailed account of Kircher's designs, but the following water-powered organ and automatons will give a flavour of his work. In many ways, the true descendants of such pleasure garden instruments are not Michael Welte's orchestrions, but P.T. Barnum's roller coasters and roundabouts, with their automatic horses and loud, repetitive music.

A water-powered barrel-operated pipe organ, with moving figures, illustrated by Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) in his scientific treatise on mechanical music, Musurgia Universalis, published in 1650.

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Chiming Clocks
Even before they were used in mechanical organs, pinned barrels were to be found in clocks, allowing regular bell chimes to be played every hour, and in some cases complete carillon-like melodies as well. The use of pinned barrels to operate such instruments can be traced back at least to the fourteenth century. The original astronomical clock at the cathedral in Strasbourg was built around 1350, complete with mechanical cock that crowed and flapped its wings at every hour. A similar clock in Olomouc, in the Czech Republic, was built in about 1420, and survived unscathed until the Second World War. The present clock at Strasbourg dates from the nineteenth century.

The Astronomical Clock at Strasbourg Cathedral.

The Former Astronomical Clock at Olomouc in the Czech Republic.

Nowadays we take chiming clocks for granted, and in Great Britain, for example, the sonorous tones of Big Ben at the Houses of Parliament are broadcast by the BBC, and help to define the British working day. NB: Big Ben is the deepest bell in the Westminster Tower at the Houses of Parliament in London - it is NOT the tower itself, though nearly everyone thinks it is!

The Westminster Tower in London, which houses Big Ben.

The barrel mechanism of such a clock is usually heavy, and built around a metal barrel frame. The mechanism illustrated below comes from the Royal Palace in Amsterdam, and plays melodies a great deal more complicated than Big Ben's Westminster Chimes.

Clock Barrel from the Royal Palace, Amsterdam.

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Website Links and Other Sources of Information

The Role of Automata in the History of Technology - Succinct introduction to early automata from Silvio A. Bedini, the Smithsonian expert.

The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria - Complete eText version of an 1851 English translation.

Heron of Alexandria - Detailed history and discussion of Hero by Michael Lahanas, with many interesting links.

Bells and their Music - An excellent standard work by Wendell Westcott, arranged for the web by James Daggy, and hosted by Michigan State University.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry - The Story of Big Ben - Authoritative and amusing history from the manufacturers of the bell.

Henry George Farmer - The Organ of the Ancients, William Reeves, London, England, 1931.

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