Brief History of the Organ
from Hydraulis to Miditzer
by Jim Henry
Pipe organs have a history that stretches back centuries B.C. The complexity of these instruments has kept them at the intersection of music and engineering. Advances in organ building have generally been driven by the application of new technologies.
Ctesibius of Alexandrea, who lived about B.C 200 and is variously described as a musician and an engineer, is generally credited with building the first pipe organ, the hydraulis. Supplying the pressurized wind needed by a pipe organ in sufficient quantities at stable pressures was a major challenge for early organ builders. Ctesibius employed an ingenious system using water pressure to regulate the pressure which may have been pumped by a windmill. Some feel that organ building did not progress beyond the achievements of Ctesibius until more than a thousand years later.
The availability of electric power fueled a great leap forward in the art of organ building. Most immediately it replaced the mechanisms for providing the wind supply, often notoriously unreliable human blowers who operated hand pumps. English organ builder Robert Hope-Jones (1859-1914) radically rethought the design of the pipe organ including the application of electricity to connect the organ console to the pipes with an electro-pneumatic action.
Hope-Jones was a brilliant engineer but not a business man. Eventually he sold his business to The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company, a highly successful importer and manufacturer of a wide range of musical instruments. Wurlitzer's entry into the organ business in the early 1910s coincided with rapid advances in the movie business. This was a time when the technology for reproducing sound for large audiences did not exist.
Movie exhibitors were experimenting with ways to add the experience of sound to the motion pictures they were showing as a way of drawing audiences from their competitors. Piano music was a popular choice for this job. The success of movies in an era where the main competition was live theatre lead to ever larger movie theatres. This culminated in ornate movie palaces some which seated over 4,000 patrons.
Pianos could not fill such large theatres. The most luxurious theatres employed orchestras to accompany their screenings. However this was an expensive undertaking and the pipe organ was called upon to allow a single musician to provide the music necessary to fill a theatre. Hope-Jones never set out to build a "theatre organ." But his organ with its orchestral voices, advanced console features, and relatively compact size was the ideal choice for placement in a theatre and use in accompanying films. Wurlitzer seized the opportunity to become the pre-eminent supplier of pipe organ to theatres. Sold as the Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra, Wurlitzer produced over 2400 instruments, the bulk of which were sold and installed in the 1920s. The Mighty Wurlitzer reigned supreme as the sound of the silents.
With the advent of sound movies, most theatre organs fell silent. In the 1950s and 60s the advent of Hi-Fi records lead to a rebirth of theatre organs because of there ability to showcase the new advances in recording technology. During this period many theatre organs were saved by being relocated to the homes of theatre organ enthusiasts.
In recent years, organs have taken another leap forward as modern advances in electronics and computers have allowed organs to be built without bulky and power hungry pipes. This has made it practical for individuals to have increasingly faithful replicas of pipe organs in their home. The Miditzer has taken advantage of modern computer technology to provide a replica of the Mighty Wurlitzer that almost anyone with a modern computer that runs Windows® can use to experience the wonder of a theatre organ first hand.
Learn more about the history of the organ at these sites: