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February 16, 2015, 11:00 AM

History of the Pipe Organ: Beginnings

The flush toilet and the pipe organ have many similarities. Crazy as that sounds...hear me out!

They both use “plumbing” made up of pipes to channel water or air, they both use valves to regulate flow, and they both were components of Roman society. In Roman culture, the hydraulis provided music for festivals, games, and circuses, and was loud enough to be used outdoors.

The forerunner to the modern pipe organ was invented when the Ptolemies ruled Egypt (between the Greek and Roman kingdoms.) In the 3rd century BC, Ctesibius of Alexandria, source history suggests, built the first musical instrument composed of winded pipes activated by a keyboard. Described as a “syrinx (‘set of pipes’) played by the hands,” this ancestor of the pipe organ was called the “hydraulis” because it relied on water pressure to regulate the amount of air entering each pipe.

It might have looked something like this photo to the right.

Compare the graduated pipes of the hydraulis with the syrinx (panpipes), which is played by blowing air across a hole in the end of each pipe (below).

Both the panpipes and the hydraulis require pressurized air to sound the pipe. When a person plays the panpipes, he pressurizes the air with his lips, akin to how we whistle. When we whistle higher tones, we purse our lips together tightly and form a smaller opening. Lower tones are made by relaxing our lips and opening them up slightly.

The hydraulis uses water to pressurize air. First, air is manually pumped into a domed chamber (C) via levers (K, L) and pistons (M, N). When it reaches the chamber, it is pressurized by the water (D). Playing a key opens a valve to the pipe, and the air escapes, making a sound. The water rises as the air leaves the chamber and maintains a constant pressure inside the dome, which keeps the air at a constant pressure and stabilizes the musical tone. Were there no water to stabilize the pressure, the musical pitch would rise and fall with the fluctuating air pressure.


Here is a short clip featuring a performance upon a table-top hydraulis in Bath, England. There is a gentleman pumping the bellows on the back side of the instrument. Below the keyboard, the chamber filled is built with plexi-glass so that we can see the water bubbling inside.

The hydraulis was equally lauded as a mechanical feat and a musical accomplishment; its descendant, the pipe organ, is “together with the clock, the most complex of all mechanical instruments developed before the Industrial Revolution,” according to the Grove Dictionary of Music. The hydraulis provided the essential mechanics of the modern pipe organ; since its invention, organ-building continued to evolve, but at a glacial pace.

Later in this blog, we'll delve into other historical aspects of the pipe organ as our congregation's pipe organ restoration project continues its progress.

Jaime Carini
Organ Scholar

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