Saturday, January 07, 2006

A Better Mousetrap? One Inventor's Story

Emerson was famously quoted as saying that "If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mousetrap than his neighbor, though he lives in the woods, people will beat a path to his door" But, as any inventor can tell you, that’s not the way it works in practice. No one more vividly underscores this than pipe organ builder Robert Hope-Jones.

The pipe organ has ancient roots, but only grew in popularity through its association with the Church. Early Christians were enamored neither of the Cross nor the Organ, two objects that would later grow to symbolize the house of God. In the early years, too many Christians met their end on a cross; or alternatively as food for the lions in the Roman circuses, to the accompaniment of the primitive pipe organ (called a hydraulis) invented by Ctesibius. Not until the 11th century did the pipe organ start appearing in churches, ostensibly to provide a clear, euphonious ‘human voice’ that could be heard over that of discordant monks and parishioners. We would hardly recognize the organ of the 11th century – keys the size of two-by-fours, with an action so stiff that the organist, forced to wear leather gloves, came to be known as an ‘organ beater’ (really). Keys got smaller over the ensuing centuries, but there were no great leaps forward until Hope-Jones appeared on the scene.

In the late nineteenth century (before television, I might add) evening entertainment often included a visit to the local bandstand or orchestra – every community had one. But getting a large group of talented musicians together to practice and perform could be a daunting task. A viable substitute was to hire the local church organist to play symphonic and popular pieces. Thus did the ‘orchestral organ’ begin. It was only natural that when silent movies came onto the scene at the turn of the 20th century, the preferred accompaniment would be a piano or (better) a ‘theater organ’ – essentially an orchestral organ with additional ‘traps’ – drums, cymbals, and other percussion instruments. The incentive: having to pay only one musician, who while playing a pipe organ could produce sounds approaching those of an orchestra of dozens of players.

Many of the innovations which lead to the perfection of the theatre organ were the work of one man, the electrical engineer Robert Hope-Jones. Hope-Jones was chief electrician with the Lancashire and Cheshire Telephone Company, and expert in low voltage electrical circuits. His work with the church in Hooton Grange led to it’s application to the pipe organ. Churches were wealthy in those days, and Hope-Jones left the competitive field of telephony to tackle the lucrative field of church organs, producing a continuous flow of patents for electrical innovations in low pressure air valves for organs, and new types of pipes.

Business was good. By electrically connecting the keyboard to the air valves (rather than the clumsy mechanical valves of the day) Hope-Jones could place his consoles anyplace that the church wanted, giving them incredible architectural flexibility.

Hope-Jones was versed in the theory of acoustics and electricity, which gave him an advantage in his invention of very slender low-voltage magnets (one under each pallet-valve) and the use of two different precious metals as rubbing contacts; design features which significantly improved the operating characteristics of organs. Charles S. Barker, Aristide Cavaille-Coll, Father Willis, and other builders had applied their own electric parts to it, but these were made from heavy machinery and required high voltages for operation. Cables were thick, many stop actions utilized sliding strips of wood under pipes, swell shades were not electrically moved, and large pedal valves were still hard to open quickly. Hope-Jones overcame key and switch contacts that oxidized quickly, low amperage from inefficient batteries, cables limited in length by their weight, and even pneumatic tubes that leaked.

The Hope-Jones Electric Organ Co. in England, first at Battersea and then at Norwich with Norman and Beard built more than 40 organs. But success did little to endear him to either parishioners or organ builders. By 1903, sabotage of Hope-Jones organs was epidemic in England, and Hope-Jones’ family were threatened with violence. He and his wife quickly packed their bags and boarded a ship for America

He eventually ended up in Elmira, New York, where he employed about 50 men, many of whom followed Hope-Jones from England (Mark Twain once made a $100,000 investment in the Elmira factory). In the United States, he built around 38 organs in total. A pivotal contract for Robert Hope-Jones was that of the organ for Carnegie Hall in New York. Andrew Carnegie was still around in those days, and personally signing off on additions to Carnegie Hall. Hope-Jones prepared a tour de force of pipe organ innovation, including theatrical additions such as drums, lightening and storm machines and so forth. Unfortunately, when Carnegie saw Hope-Jones demonstration of the installed theater organ, he simply walked out, exclaiming that Carnegie Hall was a concert hall, not a bawdy theatre.

Depressed, Hope-Jones' business languished, and he himself lost resolve. His wife left him and the factory went into bankruptcy. Eventually, Hope-Jones sold his patents, name and goodwill, to a manufacturing company named Wurlitzer, a small producer of of musical instruments including some automatic organs. They saw the Hope-Jones organ as something to further their production line. "The Wurlitzer-Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra," quickly became just the "Mighty Wurlitzer" in the eye of the public.

In 1914, just before silent movies initiated a craze for theatre organs all over the United States and England, Robert Hope-Jones ended his own life. His suicide was fittingly innovative. In a dilapidated rooming house he hooked a rubber hose to a gas outlet, attached a T-junction placing one end in his mouth, and lighted the other end to hide the smell of leaking gas.


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