The Aeolian Organ - Mechanical Orguinette Company Catalogue, New York, 1886.
As table-top organettes became more established, their restricted range inevitably told against them. Fourteen notes were only enough for the very simplest of music, shared as they were between a melodic range and a few deeper and non-consecutive notes for a rudimentary accompaniment. So there was an inexorable impetus towards the design of roll-operated organs with wider ranges of notes, to stand as attractive pieces of musical furniture in their own right.
John McTammany's Invention
John McTammany claimed to have been the first, in 1866, to have conceived of a roll-playing American organ, but he published a photograph from 1880 as evidence. The organ he used was manufactured by the Taber Organ Company of Worcester, Massachusetts, and the roll mechanism was clearly very simple. A small handle can be seen at the right of the keyboard, turning the roll in similar fashion to an organette.
A Taber Reed Organ, adapted to music roll by John McTammany - Worcester, Mass, 1880.
Merritt Gally of New York had designed something very similar, which he called an Autophone, and which appeared in the Scientific American in June 1879. Again, the roll is of a very simple kind, though it is interesting that Gally also describes a push-up device, based on the same principle.
Merritt Gally's Autophone - New York, USA, 1879.
The Aeolian Organ
Other manufacturers were not long in following suit, and were undoubtedly a great deal more successful from a commercial point of view. The Mechanical Orguinette Company's Aeolian Organ was exhibited at the International Inventions Exhibition in London in 1885, and included a novelty in the shape of a wind motor, which used suction to turn the roll, avoiding the need for the little crank handle.
The new Aeolian Organ - Mechanical Orguinette Company Catalogue, New York, 1886.
In July 1887 the Aeolian Organ and Music Company was founded in Meriden, Connecticut, as a merger between the Mechanical Orguinette Company of New York and the Automatic Music Paper Company of Boston, with substantial extra capital from a number of Meriden businessmen, notably Horace Wilcox, who was also the main investor in the Wilcox and White Organ Company. A new factory was built, directly across the street from Wilcox and White, and for the first time both instruments and rolls were manufactured on the same premises.
The Aeolian Organ and Music Company - Meriden, Connecticut, 1893.
At the outset, the business of the new company was still very much founded in orguinettes and popular music, and its advertising styles began by reflecting this tendency!
A Trade Card from the Aeolian Organ and Music Company - New York, c. 1890.
However, while organettes remained little more than toys, the new player organs gradually became musically respectable, and their complexity increased, with many ranks of reeds in the larger models, and a range of 58 notes on the latest rolls. In 1891 the Aeolian Company opened smart new showrooms on New York's fashionable West 23rd Street.
The Aeolian Company's new Showrooms on West 23rd Street - New York, c. 1893.
Famous patrons provided testimonials, public recitals were given, and well-known musicians took them into their homes. Paderewski had an Aeolian in his music room, the Grand Duke Alexander Michailovich of Russia had no less than three of them, and Pope Leo XIII granted the instrument a private audience. Fermin Toledo, a well-known Spanish concert pianist and friend of Sarasate, had the honour of playing before His Holiness in the Throne-Room at the Vatican.
Pope Leo XIII grants an Audience to the Aeolian - Rome, 10 June 1895.
The Angelus Symphony
In many respects, the player reed organ business was essentially a one-horse town, with the Aeolian Company far and away in the lead, but Wilcox and White, its neighbour and competitor in Meriden, brought out its own range of self-playing organs, known ultimately as the Angelus Symphony. Some models of its Angelus piano-player even had a set of reeds to accompany the piano-playing fingers.
A 44-note Angelus Self-Playing Organ - Meriden, Connecticut, 1890s.
The Aeolian Orchestrelle
The ultimate roll-operated reed organ was the Aeolian Company's Orchestrelle, playing in some cases the same two-manual, 116-note rolls that were used by the Aeolian Pipe Organ. In an age before disc recording of orchestras was possible, such instruments allowed their wealthy owners to bring complete symphonies into the home, with ranges of tones designed around the different orchestral instruments. In contrast to the other Aeolian reed organs, the Orchestrelles operated on air pressure, not suction.
An Orchestrelle in a genteel American home - New York, 1906.
Kaiser Wilhelm's Yacht, the Hohenzollern, with shipboard Orchestrelle - North Sea, 1902.
Roll-Playing Pipe Organs
From 1887 onwards, the firm of Welte and Sons in Germany had used paper rolls to control its orchestrions, but the first normal pipe organs to play from music roll were the invention of Edwin Votey, an organ builder from Detroit, Michigan. Votey went on to invent the Pianola in 1895, but he produced his first Aeolian Pipe Organ in 1893, and it was installed in the Aeolian Company's New York showroom at 18 West 23rd Street. Such instruments were generally designed as residence organs, for the homes of the very wealthiest of patrons.
A very early Aeolian Pipe Organ in a Private Residence - Cincinnati, c. 1893.
Like other roll instruments of the time, the Aeolian Pipe Organ played mechanically arranged rolls, though by the clever use of 116 separate note perforations, it could manage two manuals and pedals. Twenty years later, both Welte and Aeolian had developed Reproducing Pipe Organs, which could play back rolls recorded by famous organists of the time, but the earlier variety still needed tempo and registration to be controlled manually, and special markings were printed on the rolls for the player to follow.
An Aeolian Pipe Organ Roll, showing Expression Markings - Aeolian Catalogue, 1907.
The Aeolian Pipe Organ was an important musical phenomenon of its time; for example, in January 1896, C-M. Widor's Symphonie Gothique received its North American premiŤre by means of Aeolian organ rolls, and several composers wrote special music for its 116-note compass. The list is not extensive, but a number of respectable composers were involved, including Saint-SaŽns, Humperdinck and Moszkowski. The Aeolian Company was able to sell a small number of these very expensive instruments to the wealthy, and in return many of these invested in the Company's venture into the mass market by means of the Pianola.
Part of the Fantasie pour Orgue Aeolian, Op 101, by Camille Saint-SaŽns.
Fascinating as they may be, musical instruments can be rather impersonal, and it is often their association with human beings that brings them alive for us. The Aeolian Pipe Organ at the Great Northern Hotel in Chicago, built and installed in 1896, was a renowned landmark in its day, but the following story from the Chicago Chronicle in October 1897 must have endeared it to the hotel guests for ever and a day!
The Aeolian Pipe Organ at the Great Northern Hotel, Chicago, c. 1897.
"A few nights ago, when the big Aeolian at the Great Northern began its usual evening programme, it didn't seem to work just right. The Aeolian was doing its level best to play the wedding march from "Lohengrin," but made an awful mess of it.
"The first strain, which everyone remembers goes "Rum-tum-te-tum," was followed by "Meouw-wow-ow." All the crowd looked up at the organ and tried to locate the spot where the unusual accompaniment came from. The next strain of the march was followed by a screeching yowl that was heard clear up to the "G" floor. People at dinner dropped their knives and forks and looked nervously at each other and then at the doors and windows. Just as the third yell came out of the Aeolian, Proprietor Eden was seen on the second floor, stealthily moving toward the instrument with a ladder in his hand. Mr. Eden crept up close to the Aeolian and listened for a moment. Then he put his ladder against the right side and slowly made his way to the top. When he got up he reached over and put his hand down inside of the E flat pipe. There were no results at first. Then he stood on tiptoe and shoved his arm to the shoulder down the mouth of the pipe. There followed a terrible yowling and scratching, but the Colonel pulled, and with a noise like the departure of a tight cork from the neck of a beer bottle, he pulled the hotel cat out of the pipe and carried it down to the baggage room, where it belongs."
Website Links and Other Sources of Information
The Aeolian Organ at Duke University Chapel - Copious photographs, description and specification of the organ, located in Durham, North Carolina.
The Aeolian Organ at Longwood Gardens - Photographs, description and specification of the organ, located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.
The Aeolian Organ at Callanwolde - Photographs, description and specification of the organ, located in Atlanta, Georgia.
Rollin Smith - The Aeolian Pipe Organ And Its Music, The Organ Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia, USA, 1998.
Edwin Votey - Private Papers, Photocopy Material stored with the Pianola Institute, London, England.