History of the American Organ

The principle of the American organ was first discovered about 1835 by a workman in the factory of M. Alexandre, the most celebrated harmonium maker of Paris.

M. Alexandre constructed a few instruments on this plan, but being dissatisfied with them because of the want of expressive power, he soon ceased to make them.

The workman subsequently went to America, carrying his invention with him.

The instruments first made in America were known as ‘Melodeons’ or ‘Melodiums,’ and the American organ under its present name, and with various improvements suggested by experience, was first introduced by Messrs. Mason and Hamlin of Boston, about the year 1860.

A variety of the American organ was introduced in 1874, by Messrs. Alexandre under the name of the ‘Alexandre Organ.’

In this instrument, instead of the single channel placed above the reeds there were two, one opening out of the other.

The effect of this alteration was to give a quality of tone more nearly resembling that of the flue stops of an organ. The reeds were also broader and thicker, giving a fuller tone, and were less liable to get out of order.

The American organ was a free reed instrument similar in its general construction to a harmonium, but with some important differences.

The reeds in the American organ were considerably smaller and more curved and twisted than in the harmonium, and there was a wider space left at the side of the reed for it to vibrate, the result being that the tone was more uniform in power, and that the expression stop when used produced much less effect.

The curvature of the reeds also made the tone softer.

In the American organ the wind channel or cavity under which the vibrators were fixed was always the exact length of the reed, where in the harmonium it was varied according to the quality of the tone required, being shorter for a more reedy tone and longer for a more fluty one.

Another point of difference in the two instruments is that in the harmonium the wind is forced outward through the reeds, where in the American organ, by reversing the action of the bellows, it was drawn inwards.

The advantages of the American organ as compared with the harmonium are that the blowing is easier, the expression stop not being used, and that the tone was of a more organ like quality that was peculiarly adapted for sacred music.

The disadvantages of the American organ were that it was inferior in having much less variety of tone, and not nearly so much power of expression.

These instruments were sometimes made with two manuals; the upper manual furnished with one set of reeds of eight feet and one of four feet pitch, and the lower manual with one of eight and one of sixteen feet, those on the upper manual being also voiced more softly for the purposes of accompaniment.

A mechanical coupling action was also provided by which whole power of the instrument could be obtained from the lower row of keys.

Pedals, similar to organ pedals, were also occasionally added and provided with reeds of sixteen and eight feet pitch.

The names given to the stops varied with different makers; the plan most usually adopted being to call them by the names of the organ stops which they were intended to imitate, i.e., diapason, principal, hautboy, gamba, flute, etc.

The American organ also had an automatic swell and the vox humana.

The automatic swell consisted of a pneumatic lever which gradually opened shutters placed above the reeds, the lever being set in motion by the pressure of wind from the bellows. The greater the pressure, the wider the shutters opened, and when the pressure was decreased they closed again by their own weight.

The vox humana was a fan placed just behind the sound board of the instrument and was made to revolve rapidly by means of the pressure of wind, its revolutions meet the waves of sound coming from the reeds, and imparted to them a slightly tremulous, or vibrating quality.