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Whether at a ballgame, attending a concert, or hearing the word of God, those pleasant notes heard from the music being played are inevitable because of an electric pipe organ.  Did you know that the pipe organ first originated around the 3rd century BC by Greek engineer Ctesibius?  Throughout this article, I will tell you how they have evolved from then to today and how they work.

Ctesibius created an instrument called the hydraulis responsible for producing a wind supply maintained by water pressure sent to a set of pipes.  It also was named the water organ because the source which forced the air up the pipes was driven by water.  The parts of the first organ consisted of a lever, piston, pumping mechanism, water system with conduits and values, a pipe chest, and a rack of pipes. A barrel with water was placed upside down, and the pumping mechanism forced air into the water system, keeping it under pressure until it was let out to an exhaust conduit.  Then from the exhaust pipe, it sent the air to the pipe into the windchest and a slider mechanism that would permit air to flow up the respective pipes to produce intense sounds based on the pressed keys.

From the beginning of time, all organs have always consisted of one or more racks of pipes, a wind chest, a mechanical blower (bellows), and a keyboard to release air into the pipes.  Later, the Romans also used this instrument in their temples with more complex hydraulic water, Ulta Organ, a windmill-like system powered by people.  An example of this organ was found, which dates back to 228 AD., comprised of wood and bronze pipes with four racks of pipes tuned to four different scales of 30 notes each.  They were played using wooden keys on metal sliders, and the sounds were remarkable.

The Water Organ had become vital as it brought classical music to many churches and synagogues but had disappeared by six century AD.  By this time, the organ had become less involved with religious activities but more involved as a secular instrument used for royal ceremonies.  The organ then changed to using leather bellows instead of the water system that was previously created.  This type of organ was played with two people and additional two people that controlled the bellows. 


Around the year 700, bellows replaced water pressure, and they made their way into churches around 900, and by the 1400s, they were in churches and cathedrals all over Europe.  Unfortunately, organs could only. produce one type of sound, no matter how many pipes they had, because they all had their air pushed in one channel simultaneously.  Around the 1400s, mechanisms were designed so sets of lines with different sounds could be stopped.  Thus, by the 1500s, organs had all the sounds a modern organ had.  Around the 1700s, they started to be built in the USA, and the first was built in 1759 in the Old North Church in Boston.

As a result of these changes, the cost of organs was reduced, and it was also easier to build. Did you know that in early Christianity, instruments were forbidden in church? However, it may have been because the organs association with the Roman temple needed to be faster to adoption into the religion. 

There were three different types of organs: the Portative, Positive, and the church organ.  The smallest organ was a portable portative that one person could play with one hand on the keys and the other to operate the bellows.  This organ was capable of accompanying another instrument and singing.  The positive was not portable, free-standing, and could be placed on a stand.  It consisted of more than one rack of pipes, a keyboard played with two hands, bellows operated by another person, a manual but no pedals, and a mechanism to adjust how the lines sounded.  The Positive Organ produced a higher quality of music than the portative and was later used to develop the church organs around today.  The Church Organ was the largest of all three and was installed permanently. That had many pipe racks and could make sound softer or louder. Organs are often made of wood, lead, tin, copper, bronze, pipes, etc.

Did you know the oldest playable organ in the world is the Basilica of Valère in Switzerland, and manual bellows initially powered it and have since been converted to used electric blowers?  The oldest playable organ in the USA was built in 1869 and is located in Denver, Colorado.

Now that we know where the organ originated, everyone wants to understand what makes them work.  Various pipes are made of lead, copper, wood & bamboo in multiple sizes, either flute or reed types.  A flue pipe is designed like a whistle or recorder, a long tube with a narrow opening at one end and a hole with a unique shape that causes the air causing the air going through the pipe to vibrate. A reed pipe works like a woodwind instrument, a clarinet, or a saxophone and is determined by the vibration of a metal tongue or reed, and the length of the pipe determines the pitch. The longer the pipe, the lower the wavelength and the lower the sound.

Since each pipe can only play one note with one type of sound, and thus since there are 61 keys, we need to have 61 pipes referred to as a rank. Therefore with 79 ranks or 79 x 61, 4,819 means will have well over four thousand pipes.  Each pipe sits on a hollow wind chest filled with compressed air.  Most organs get air power from fans and a backroom compressor; each organ stop selects one rank.  Pull out more than one stop, and several ranks will be activated to play simultaneously.  For each pull stop, an electric value is opened under the rank of the specific set of pipes.  When you press a keyboard key, a value is opened, allowing air to flow through the particular pipe and for the rank stops selected.

Today organs can have anywhere from three keyboards to seven, each having the ability to set one or more stops on it for different sets of pipes it will play to produce different sounds.  Older organs were called tracker organs, and each key and stop were mechanically connected to the valves and sliders.  The problem with these organs is that they have thousands that can break off parts, and all must be a specific size.

Organ manufacturers then started to use electrical connections between the console and the organ itself. Now modern organs are controlled by computers, and when a key is pressed, the signal is sent via fiber optic cable to the controller, and that causes a specific value to be opened with such precision never available before. When a key is depressed, it opens a valve that allows air to flow through a particular pipe, which requires simpler and more complex organs. Organs that use computers with fiber optics and process it in a millionth of a second such as recording a performance accurately and playing it back for the performer.

Thus, the next time you are in the presence of a Pipe Organ, take a moment to appreciate how it originated and where it has evolved.  When we take the time to understand something, it makes us appreciate it more.




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