Volume 1, Issue 11; 15 Jun 2017

And now for something completely different. <Cue the organ music.>

Music is the only language in which you cannot say a mean or sarcastic thing.

John Erskine

Over the weekend, The Museum of the Broads, a neat little museum near where my mom lives had some sort of event. There was a bus that looked practically steam powered parked nearby and various other machines. We had other plans, so I didn’t get to see the actual event.

However, there was organ music drifting through the air first thing in the morning and it was still going strong when we returned from our outing. I wandered over to take a look.

It was “Lucy”, a 68 key Decap Band Organ from 1946. Originally installed in a café, it now lives in the back of a big truck so it can be moved about easily.


Here’s a brief description of the organ and its origins.

Lucy description

It originally played paper (actually, thick, accordian folded cardboard) tapes.

Paper music

The whole thing is pneumatic. Each of the little levers near the middle of this picture, in front of the roller,

Tape reader

are long rocker switches. In the down position, they hold a stopper over a tube filled with compressed air. As the card is pulled through, pins “pop up” as the holes in the card go by; this raises the stopper, releases the air pressure, and activates the mechanism that performs some action on the corresponding instrument.

Tape reading

The trouble with cardboard is that it’s heavy. The full collection of tapes weighs tons, far more than the instrument, and far more than you could practically carry around in the back of a small truck.

So this clever chap

Keith Pinner

constructed a card reader that outputs zeros and ones instead of moving a lever. This way, they create MIDI files from the tapes. (They also have the tooling to go the other way, constructing tapes from MIDI files, if desired.)

Then they built a MIDI controller using Arduino that operates solonoid valves:

MID controller

And now they can play as much music as you can fit on a laptop:

MIDI music

Delightfully, you can find vidoes of this very organ playing on YouTube: one from 2016 and another from 2008.

Very cool.

(Alas, I failed to get any contact information for Keith. If anyone who stumbles across this post knows him, please forward him the link.)