Mechanical Music Through the Ages

A collection of Mechanical Music and Arcade Machines – highlighting examples of the development in mechanical entertainment over time.

Reed Organs

Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein (1723–1795), professor of physiology at Copenhagen, was credited with the first free-reed instrument made in the Western world, after winning the annual prize in 1780 from the Imperial Academy of St. Petersburg. The pump organ, reed organ, harmonium, or melodeon is a type of free-reed organ that generates sound as air flows past a vibrating piece of thin metal in a frame called a reed.

At the peak of the instruments’ Western popularity around 1900, a wide variety of styles of harmoniums were being produced. These ranged from simple models with plain cases and only four or five stops (if any at all), up to large instruments with ornate cases, up to a dozen stops and other mechanisms such as couplers. Expensive harmoniums were often built to resemble pipe organs, with ranks of fake pipes attached to the top of the instrument. Small numbers of harmoniums were built with two manuals (keyboards). Some were even built with pedal keyboards, which required the use of an assistant to run the bellows or, for some of the later models, an electrical pump. These larger instruments were mainly intended for home use, such as allowing organists to practise on an instrument on the scale of a pipe organ, but without the physical size or volume of such an instrument. For missionaries, chaplains in the armed forces, travelling evangelists, and the like, reed organs that folded up into a container the size of a very large suitcase or small trunk were made; these had a short keyboard and few stops, but they were more than adequate for keeping hymn singers more or less on pitch.