Flute Clock Reborn

My part-time employers the Academy of Letters are charmingly unworldly in a muscular way. They’re not a government body and are beholden to nobody except King Gustav III who laid down their bylaws in the 18th century. He hasn’t cramped their style in quite a while. And they are quite comfortably funded indeed through various bequests and donations they have received through the centuries. The Academy is essentially an invitation-only club for professors in the humanities and social sciences, and their priorities are not of this world. Edit and publish the correspondence of a 17th century royal chancellor? Sure. Re-paint one of their manors in the baby pink colour it had in the 1820s? You got it. Renovate a 200-year old automatic flute clock that plays Mozart for five minutes every hour? Yep.

I attended a demonstration of the flute clock the other day. It’s a squat neo-classical obelisk-like cabinet with a clock at the top and an 66-pipe miniature organ in the base, built by Pehr Strand’s firm in Stockholm. All of the machinery is powered by a 43 kg lead weight that you crank up by hand. But for the past century it hasn’t been working. The clockwork was gummed up. Most of the organ pipes and the entire gear box were missing. Importantly though, the data storage medium was still there: a collection of log-like wooden rollers covered with little metal pins and staples. On each roller is a label bearing names like Haydn, Mozart and Naumann.

So when musicologist prof.em. Jan Ling comes across this piece of pretty but dead machinery in the Rettig collection (into which I run the constant risk of being acquisitioned, as my office is on the same floor), what does the Academy do? They commission an organ builder, a barrel organ builder and a watchmaker to renovate the thing. To replace the missing parts with period materials and make it work again. Make it able to play those rollers. But the rollers of this tech tradition followed no standard. Every machine was unique. The artisans have to reverse-engineer the whole thing, starting from the extant rollers and general principles known from similar surviving contraptions.

And they got it to work. At 14:55 it started playing, sounding fluty indeed, performing every little flourish of the Mozart piece on the roller slotted into it, before chiming three times. And when I heard it, I immediately thought of the Beatles. Because the 18th century technology of that organ clock survived through the 19th century, when the counterweight could be replaced by a steam engine, and those calliopes survived in English amusement parks into the 20th century, where some of the last ones were recorded on tape. And when John Lennon wrote a song based on a poster for a Victorian fun fair, George Martin got the idea to put a collage of calliope recordings into the song, “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”. That’s what the Academy’s flute clock sounds like.

People still build flute clocks! Check out Matthias Naeschke.

Comments

  1. #1 Birger Johansson
    November 9, 2012

    These kind of instruments must be the earliest form of digital processing devices, the wooden rollers controlling the automata. Earlier intricate clocks in clocktowers -with automata performing routines like big cuckoo clocks- were limited to a single set of instructions hard-wired into the cogs.

  2. #2 Steven Blowney
    A windowless room
    November 9, 2012

    A cynic would sneer that the rebuilding of flute clock is proof that antiquarianism isn’t dead. I disagree; the examination and occasional rebuilding of older technologies is a testament to the ingenuity of our ancestors.

  3. #3 Bret Williams
    In a State of Confusion
    November 9, 2012

    I think its very interesting to see actual operating copies of these relics. Its these kinds of things that show us today that people we thought to be far more primitive were actually extremely talented and ingenious.

  4. #4 Birger Johansson
    November 10, 2012

    Bret, this is also an antidote to the nonsense peddled by those who claim that the Egyptians could not have built the pyramids on their own/ the indians must have had input from Old World civilizations to build their temple pyramids/ Great Zimbabwe must have been build by engineers from North, et cetera.
    Pre-modern people were just as clever as the people today, a point deserving to be made again and again.

  5. #5 Martin R
    November 10, 2012

    The year 1800 is not very pre-modern. That period boundary is usually set at the Reformation. And the technology needed to build flute clocks was restricted to a few cultures at the time, which kind of speaks against the point you’re trying to make. (-;

  6. #6 dustbubble
    November 10, 2012

    They’re still at it, them English.
    That’s Bradford Scene stuff right there (I’m so down wit’ da kidz)
    Way to recycle all that scrap textile machinery, no?

  7. #7 Peter Lund
    Copenhagen
    January 8, 2013

    “These kind of instruments must be the earliest form of digital processing devices, the wooden rollers controlling the automata.”

    It’s not that different from what Heron describes.

The site is undergoing maintenance presently. Commenting has been disabled. Please check back later!