Simanaitis Says

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IF YOU’VE ridden a carousel, you’ve heard the music of an orchestrion. Think of this pneumatically controlled collection of pipes and percussion as sort of a high-level music box, but with enough mechanical sophistication to match today’s electronic counterparts.

Orchestrions have come close to achieving mention at this website a couple of times. A Mortier orchestrion was the centerpiece of the shrine for their mother set up at the Schlumpf brothers’ car collection (


A Luise-Decap orchestrion entertained me during my 1999 visit to the Auto & Technik Museum Sinsheim (

The Sinsheim museum has several orchestrions, all in working order. These provide the focus of what follows here. There’s even a link—albeit an indirect one—to America’s first World Drivers’ Champion.

Orchestrions are typically electrically driven with pneumatics in charge of the notes played and percussion struck. Sinsheim’s Decap Dance Organ, built around 1934 in Antwerp, Belgium, features a pair of Hohner accordions, four rows of wooden pipes, percussion—and a saxophone.


This smaller Sinsheim orchestrion gets its instructions from a perforated roll. Its percussion instruments are visible; other tubes control the organ pipes.

The musical scoring can come from a punched metal disc (some of them, 2 ft. in diameter), one or more rolls of perforated paper or what’s essentially a book of punch cards. (The earliest use of these last, by the way, came with the Jacquard loom, first demonstrated in 1801).


Books of punch cards control Sinsheim’s Decap Dance Organ.

The earliest mechanical generation of music, beyond simple music boxes, came in the early 1800s. Predating any electric drive, they depended on bellows, often pedal-driven.


This Welte orchestrion made the London Illustrated News, September 20, 1862. It appears to be bellows-driven with a full array of organ pipes.

The evolution of mechanically generated music, even into home instruments, lasted more than 100 years. A great Wagnerian example can be heard at Edison’s 1877 phonograph (initially using cylinders), the Berliner gramophone (with discs from its 1889 introduction) and, by the late 1920s, the radio put paid to their popularity.


This Mortier exhibit at the Sinsheim Museum shows the glitzy ambience that accompanied an orchestrion.

Mechanically generated music reached its peak in the 1920s, when more than half of all pianos sold had some sort of player-piano mechanism. The height of this technology was the reproducing piano, with sufficient bandwidth of input (that is, wide-enough rolls) to control not only the notes being played, but their timing and dynamics.

In 1926, the American Piano Company brought out its Ampico B, a full-range reproducing piano accompanied with recording hardware for perforating its rolls. Performers and composers of the era “cut” their own recordings that are highly prized today.

Larry Givens, my editorial mentor at the Society of Automotive Engineers in the 1970s, was already one of the world’s authorities on Ampico pianos and their restoration. Among his prized reproducing-piano rolls was George Gershwin playing a piano arrangement of Rhapsody in Blue.


The workings of an Ampico grand piano, c. 1926.

Phil Hill, America’s first World Drivers’ Champion, included among his many mechanical talents expertise in restoring reproducing pianos. After seeing the innards of such a device, I can appreciate how trouble-shooting a 1927 Packard must have seemed straightforward to Phil. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2013

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This entry was posted on July 8, 2013 by in And Furthermore... and tagged , , , .
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