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Mechanical Orguinette Company style 'E' orguinette - New York, early 1880s.

Organettes were the first mechanical musical instruments to allow for a wide range of music to be played at will. In 1876, the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia included a small number of self-playing musical instruments from different manufacturers and different countries, and so was probably the first occasion on which a real mechanical musical industry may be said to have existed. Thereafter, a number of companies began to manufacture and sell table-top organettes at the end of the 1870s. Some used perforated cardboard disks, others small, wooden barrels known as cobs, but the majority played cardboard music rolls with a range of fourteen or more notes. This style 'E' orguinette from the Mechanical Orguinette Company included spools at each end, which made the rolls easier to play accurately and to re-roll after use.

Through the mists of an old American tintype photograph, one can see a style 'C' orguinette being played when new, probably in the early 1880s. The style 'C' instrument had no spools, and the music roll can be seen hanging down at each side of the playing compartment.

A very early photograph of an orguinette player - USA, probably early 1880s.

Roller Organs
In contrast to the perforated rolls of most organettes, roller organs used miniature pinned barrels known as cobs, most commonly with a musical range of twenty notes. The simple valve mechanism which operated the reeds looked rather like the keywork of a woodwind instrument, and was actuated directly by the pins or staples of the wooden cob.

Gem Roller Organ - the Autophone Company, Ithaca, NY, late 19th century.

Early Advertising
Most musical advertisements in the 1880s were every bit as cheap and cheerful as they claimed the instruments to be. One might suppose the most wonderful music-producing instrument in the world to have been, perhaps, the Grand Organ at London's Crystal Palace, but the Mechanical Orguinette Company clearly felt otherwise. For its own instruments, the Company altered the spelling of the word organette to orguinette, presumably as an aid to sales.

An early trade card for the Mechanical Orguinette Company - New York, early 1880s.

Perforated Organette Music
The rolls for these earliest instruments were manufactured in the area of Boston, Massachusetts, in workshop space rented from the Mason and Hamlin Organ Company in Cambridgeport, and also at the Mechanical Organ Works in Chelsea, as can be seen from this elusive detail of an early roll. Examples of the machinery used at this early date can be seen on our webpage devoted to Music Roll Manufacture.

Manufacturer's title from the Mechanical Organ Works - Chelsea, Massachusetts, early 1880s.

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John McTammany
If anyone can be hailed as the "father" of perforated music, then it is probably John McTammany, who seems to have been the first to have invented practical musical instruments that were played pneumatically with the aid of paper rolls.

John McTammany, self-proclaimed "father" of the player piano.

After several years of occasional experiment in the early 1870s, McTammany succeeded in interesting the Estey Organ Company in his ideas, and in 1876 Estey provided him with a floor-standing reed organ, into which he installed his roll-playing mechanism. With its spool box around eye-level, McTammany claimed the instrument, as exhibited at Philadelphia, as the origin of the player piano. He may have had some justification, but inventors are only part of the picture; for a successful musical industry one needs capitalists and advertising copywriters as well, and in truth McTammany's many talents did not serve him well in these respects. Despite his claims to precedence of invention being upheld by the US Commissioner of Patents, it fell to others to translate mechanical ingenuity into worldwide commercial success.

McTammany began to market organettes in late 1877 in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts, but there were other important inventors active at the time, and one should not discount their contributions. The Needham family, Merritt Gally, Robert W. Pain, Mason J. Matthews and many others helped to establish worldwide success for this late 19th century, American-led industry.

One of John McTammany's organettes - Massachusetts, 1880s.

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Website Links and Other Sources of Information

Todd Augsburger's Roller Organ Website - A comprehensive website about roller organs, written by a knowledgeable expert with a commercial interest in the instruments.

John McTammany's History of the Player - Detailed article on McTammany by British expert, Julian Dyer.

Kevin McElhone - The Organette Book, Musical Box Society of Great Britain, London, 2002.

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