From the Library — Mechanical Instruments

in Daily Programme

by Elrik Merlin on Monday, 4 August, 2008

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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