Hydraulis (Water Organ): 3C B.C.
The earliest known keyboard instrument is credited to the Ancient Greek scientist Ctesibius. The hydraulis – a type of pipe organ – was powered by converting flowing water into air pressure. The pressurized air could be released into a sounding pipe through a valve, which was unblocked with the touch of a key.
The hydraulis did not have the pivoted keys of modern keyboard instruments; keys were shaped like right angles. The top of the angle hooked onto a wooden slider, and the bottom was pressed to pull the slider horizontally off a valve, which allowed the pressurized air to escape into a sounding pipe.
Some water organs were powered by a built-in water wheel (and therefore remained fairly mobile); while other models – usually larger ones – were attached permanently to an external source of water. Water organs varied in size from about 5 to 20 feet in height.
- Hear the ethereal voice of a modern hydraulis (which, as you’ll see, operates differently)
Bellow Pipe Organs (Ancestor to Many Modern Organs): 2C A.D.
By the 2nd century, a revolutionary system for sounding organ pipes had appeared. Bellows – sacs that fill with air when opened and expel it when compacted; like lungs – provided the organ’s air, and had to be pumped constantly by an assistant. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that these methods would be replaced by electric organ motors.
Originally, bellow organs used the same slider action as the hydraulis; but by the 9th or 10th century, organs were finally being built with pivoted keys. A key was attached to a vertically strung “tracker,” which was directly attached to an air valve above it. When a key was depressed, the tracker would pull open the valve, sounding a note. Upon release, a spring above the tracker would snap the valve close and stop the flow of air.
However, at first, this improvement to the organ action did have a downside: a key was the same width as the pipe it affected, and some pipes were up to three inches wide! Things began to even out in the 14th century when the organ’s range was increased to three octaves, and sharps and flats were introduced to the keyboard (see short octave).
Unfortunately, these organs fell out of use in Western Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire, but still thrived in the domain of the Byzantine Empire. They were reintroduced to the West as gifts from the East in the 8th century, at which point their popularity quickly spread and their evolution continued.
Portative Organ: 12C – 16C
A portative (or portatif) was a small pipe organ* that was played tabletop, or strapped to the body of a performer. As its name suggests, it was a portable organ, and had one rank of pipes (which were organized into two rows), and rarely had more than 1-1/2 diatonic octaves.
Each note of the portative was assigned one vertical pipe – made of either metal or bamboo – which ranged from about 5-18 inches tall. Behind or to the side of the keyboard was a bellow that was operated by the musician during play; and under the keyboard was the action, which controlled the sliders that opened the appropriate pipes.
Single bellowed portatives could only produce one note (or two weak notes) at a time due to its short-windedness. Later models used two bellows, which were behind the keyboard and operated by a second musician.
Some instrument makers today specialize in building portatives, which gives us insight into its warm flute-like sound:
* (Not to be confused with the positive organ; another early, portable pipe organ that’s still in wide use today. Positives vary in size from about 4' to 12' in height, and generally stay around 4' to 5' wide. They have a range of four octaves on one manual.)
Regal (Ancestor of the Accordion and Similar Instruments): 12C
A regal was a flat, tabletop reed organ, with two long bellows directly behind its manual. The bellows – which were operated by an assistant – pushed air through short metal reeds located just behind the keys.
The regal had an impressive range for its time (up to four octaves) and even the “bible regal” – a compact version of the instrument that could be folded into a book, hence its name – averaged three octaves. The regal eventually fell out of use due to its abrasively nasal and treble tone; the buzzing and rattling of its bass reeds, and its constant need to be re-tuned.