From the Library — Mechanical Instruments

Today’s pro­gramme in our From the Library series focus­es on mechan­i­cal instru­ments of one sort or anoth­er, from fair­ground and street organs to musi­cal box­es and oth­er devices com­mon­ly found in the Vic­to­ri­an par­lour or cof­fee house.

The com­mon fac­tor with all these instru­ments was that a pat­tern of pins or holes was drawn across a read­ing sur­face to pro­duce the sound. Pins might be mount­ed on a drum or disc, which would pluck the tines of a musi­cal box. Holes might be “read” by blow­ing com­pressed air through them or by a spring-loaded pin ris­ing through the hole, allow­ing the sound to be made. In many sens­es, then, these instru­ments were “pro­gram­ma­ble” in the way that a (now rather old-fash­ioned) punched card sys­tem allowed a com­put­er pro­gram to be read in. Indeed, reams of punched cards strung togeth­er — very much like those used in Jacquard looms — were utilised in a great many fair­ground organs. The instru­ments were fre­quent­ly dri­ven by steam and com­pressed air was blown through the “card read­er” to actu­ate not only pipes but also drums and oth­er per­cus­sion instru­ments.

In the street, a com­mon sight in Vic­to­ri­an times, and famil­iar today from peri­od dra­mas, was the bar­rel piano (not to be con­fused with the bar­rel organ, a very dif­fer­ent instru­ment), where a rotat­ing (and gen­er­al­ly change­able) bar­rel with a pat­tern of pins actu­at­ed the notes of a piano-like instru­ment.

In the par­lour or pub, com­mon mechan­i­cal instru­ments used rotat­ing discs with slots or pins. The mighty three-disc Sym­pho­nion looked like a grand­fa­ther clock, but in the case were three ver­ti­cal­ly-mount­ed discs. You could load the instru­ment with three dif­fer­ent discs, each con­tain­ing part of the arrange­ment of the same song or med­ley. Or you could load three of the same discs and get a more basic — but rather loud­er — arrange­ment of the same mate­r­i­al.

You will hear all of these instru­ments today. How­ev­er, there are two addi­tion­al curiosi­ties. One is the work of Huub de Lange, a mod­ern Dutch com­pos­er who has arranged his own com­po­si­tions for street organ and string quar­tet. He learned the painstak­ing process of cut­ting the reams of cards required to play the organ and has pro­duced some haunt­ing­ly beau­ti­ful pieces.

Also haunt­ing­ly beau­ti­ful in rather a dif­fer­ent way is the Glass Har­mon­i­ca or Armon­i­ca, a mechan­i­cal devel­op­ment of a set of tuned wine-glass­es played by the fin­ger. In the most com­mon arrange­ment (prob­a­bly invent­ed by Ben­jamin Franklin), a range of 37 or so glass bowls are mount­ed hor­i­zon­tal­ly on a trea­dle-rotat­ed spin­dle. They are played with wet fin­gers and pro­duce a most ethe­re­al sound. Unlike the oth­er instru­ments in today’s selec­tions, this instru­ment is played by hand.

Today’s pro­gramme ties in with the Cale­don Library’s exhi­bi­tion, Augus­ta Ada Byron King – A Fairy In Your Cor­ner, which cel­e­brates the life and work of Lord Byron’s daugh­ter, Lady Lovelace, the woman wide­ly regard­ed (as a result of her notes on Mr Charles Bab­bage’s Ana­lyt­i­cal Engine) as the world’s first com­put­er pro­gram­mer. For more details, please vis­it the Cale­don Library web site. You can vis­it the exhi­bi­tion, curat­ed by Miss Siri Wood­get, at the Jack & Elaine White­horn Memo­r­i­al Library, Cale­don Vic­to­riaC­i­ty (, between August 1 and Octo­ber 25th, 2008.

• From the Library is pro­duced by Radio Riel in con­junc­tion with the Cale­don Library in Sec­ond Life. Today’s pro­gramme was pro­duced by Elrik Mer­lin.

For more infor­ma­tion on the Cale­don Library, cur­rent exhibits and the work of Sec­ond Life ref­er­ence libraries in gen­er­al, please vis­it the Cale­don Library Web site, or one of their loca­tions in-world.

You can lis­ten now at — the ide­al URL for you to use in your home par­cel media address in-world — or sim­ply vis­it any Cale­don Library branch in-world and press Play on your embed­ded music play­er. (If you want to lis­ten off-world, eg in Winamp or iTunes, and the above address does­n’t work for you, click here.)

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