The Water Organ: An Early History of the Organ

Karen Harthan

Worshiping communities around the world come together weekly to worship. It is common, perhaps even expected, that worship will be assisted by a pipe organ.The prelude can be soft background music that allows us to meditate, and prepare for the coming worship, or the music can change our mood and the atmosphere around us using music that is dark, in a minor setting with long sustaining tones or lifting us up with the use of brighter light quicker tempos and familiar hymn tunes. The organ can create a triumphant sound such as during the processional of pastor, lay assistants, banners and the Word. Why the organ? How did the first pipe organs function and sound?

The very first organ was the water organ or hydraulic organ is a kind of pipe organ. It was created by Ktesibios (285-222 B.C.), A Greek inventor, who gave this particular organ its name. He called his invention "Water Aulos", or Greek "Hydraulos", of which the word "hydraulic" is derived. The "Aulos" was a double reed instrument like the modern oboe.
As in the pipe organ, the sound is made by air blowing through the pipes, but power to make the air blow does not come from bellows or from electricity as in the modern organ, but from water, for example from a waterfall. The water would fall onto a barrel with raised areas, as the water hit them they produced sound. Their barrels are similar in appearance to those found in a player piano, however, in player piano the barrels sound by being plucked. The water organ works by having water and air arriving together in the camera aeolis (wind chamber). Here, water and air separate and the compressed air is driven into a wind-trunk on top of the camera aeolis, to blow the organ pipes. Two perforated 'splash plates' or 'diaphragms' stop the water spray from getting into the organ pipes.

To start the Hydraulos organ (see video above), the tap above the entry pipe is turned on and, given a continuous flow of water, the organ plays until the tap is closed again. The Hellbrun Palace and Water Gardens  provide an example of animated figurines and music, water of animated figurines and music, water powered garden displays, sights and sounds – all created by water:

During the Renaissance many Italian gardens had water organs. The most famous water organ of the 16th century was at the Villa d'Este in Tivoli. It was about 6 meters high and was powered by a beautiful waterfall. It could play three pieces automatically, but there was also a keyboard.
The first organs probably had a strong, close, very direct sound like our current tongue pipe stops (e.g. "Trumpet", "Crumhorn", and "Shawm"). Later flute-like stops were added with open and covered pipes, sounding one octave lower. It contained up to eight pipe rows (stops), which could be switched on separately or together alternatively. Because more wind was necessary, the instrument had now two piston pumps. These operated alternately, in order to keep the wind pressure stable.

The organ at St. Munn's Church, Kilmun is one of the few remaining hydraulic driven organs left working in Scotland. Made by Norman & Beard in 1909 and refurbished in 2006, the organ can be seen and heard in all its glory in this video with views of the bellows, the water engine and the unique placement of the organ console.

The Hydraulophone, a more recent invention, is a water fountain that's a highly expressive musical instrument. It is played by blocking the water jets in various ways, which forces the hydraulic fluid (water) into the sound-producing mechanism in various ways. It works a lot like a pipe organ, except that it uses water instead of air.
In the last few centuries the organ advanced to be the main accompanying instrument for church services – and this is how it all began!