Mason & Risch Company
Vocalion, Opus 3277, 1986
Two manuals and pedal
When visitors enter the Orleans Historical Society meeting house, what appears to be a beautiful pipe organ on an elevated platform commands the view at the far end of the room.
Upon closer inspection, the intricately painted organ pipes reveal themselves to be carefully crafted wooden replicas, serving only as a decorative façade.
What sits on the elevated platform in this room is actually a reed organ from the late 1800's, but not a typical reed organ.
This instrument's stenciled name board says this is a "Vocalion", made by the Mason & Risch Company of Worcester, Massachusetts.
Historical records indicate that "Vocalion" was the name given to a unique keyboard musical instrument conceived and marketed by its inventors to exemplify the pinnacle of reed organ building in the late nineteenth century.
In the same way that subsequent lenses of increasingly finer magnification placed before one's eyes during an eye examination reveal surprising new layers of detail, an in-depth analysis of the history of the Vocalion reveals many fascinating aspects of a story that includes complex musical innovations, feverish patent activity by obsessive inventors, clever marketing strategies, protracted court actions, and the battle for the hearts and wallets of upscale musical instrument purchasers in the late 1800's.
The Vocalion was a new idea that made the world's largest manufacturers of musical instruments sit up and take notice.
A great deal of historical information exists surrounding the development and manufacture of the Vocalion.
The people who created the Vocalion were at the forefront of musical instrument manufacturing at the beginning of the twentieth century and much has been written of their accomplishments.
A great deal of valuable information related to the history of the Vocalion can be found in various American and British reed and pipe organ journals, United States Patent Office documents, published books on notable reed and pipe organ builders, and the archives of newspapers including the New York Times.
A considerable amount of background information is also available on the Internet, including restoration data on the websites of various organ restorers.
Unfortunately, many details of Vocalion history are contradictory, especially regarding chronology.
What has not been lost on organ historians is the importance that the Vocalion played in the rapidly changing musical scene in America in the early 1900's.
This report is intended to highlight the most significant aspects of Vocalion history in order to frame the importance of the restoration of the Orleans Historical Society's Vocalion.
Considering that the story of the Vocalion is as equally important as the instrument itself, it is serendipitous that this particular Vocalion is owned by the Orleans Historical Society, where its historical significance can be understood, appreciated, preserved and shared.
These observations are based on several visits to the Orleans Historical Society meeting house for inspection, photographs and measurements and also from conversations with Orleans Historical Society personnel including James Hadley, Tamsen Cornell, Gary Clinton and Len Tomat.
Relatively little information regarding the Vocalion exists in Orleans Historical Society files.
A one-page summary displayed on the Vocalion's music rack states:
"The organ in the Meeting House Museum is a reed organ, popular in the mid 1800's.
The pipes on the organ are decorative and do not contribute to the musical quality.
These particular decorative pipes are thought to be in excellent condition.
Shortly after the Universalist Society built this meeting house in 1834, this organ was purchased from a church off Cape.
Originally it required someone to pump the organ. Young children could earn 25 cents for pumping the organ for a service.
It was electrified in the early 1900's.
The organ was somewhat updated in the early 1990's when it was again used for Christmas programs and weddings.
Presently the reeds need refurbishing and retuning."
Regarding this summary displayed on the Vocalion, it must be noted that the Vocalion was built in 1899 and was therefore not likely to have been relocated to its Orleans location until after 1900.
The "updating" referred to was likely some very minimal maintenance that was performed including temporary patching of leaky bellows.
The Vocalion has two numbers stamped into the case, behind the façade pipes.
The number 3269 has been crossed out and the number 3277 is stamped alongside.
This is very likely the opus number of the Vocalion, dating its manufacture to around 1899.
The handwritten name and two dates, "Jos. H. Marnell 2/10/99 2/12/99" can be found on a pine windchest panel behind the swell shutter assembly.
Joseph Marnell's signature has been found on other Vocalions of this vintage.
It is possible that he was a supervisor of the organ assembly department in the Mason & Risch organ factory.
His signature and dates may represent a final inspection process before the instrument was delivered to the customer.
The handwritten date confirms the estimated date of the Vocalion's manufacture.
A great deal of handwriting can be found on the back windchest panels of the Vocalion, including the pencil-written name of "Herbert D. Nickerson Jr. Orleans".
Some of this handwriting maybe the work of young men whose responsibility it was to pump the organ bellows.
"T23-D17" and "T27-D13" along with the words, "Tufts" and "Dartmouth" appear to be football game scores.
An Internet search of Tufts/Dartmouth football score archives did not turn up football games with these scores or dates associated with specific games.
A pencil sketch of an exhausted-looking gent and written admonitions to "get the hook!" seem to indicate that these writings are the work of bellows pumpers.
The reference to "the hook" may refer to a metal fitting on the lever originally used to pump the organ bellows.
The "Bellows Signal" drawknob on the right side of the console is a mechanical linkage that alerted the bellows pumpers to start pumping.
A sliding scale indicator on the name board above the keyboards is a wind indicator showing the organist how full the bellows are at any instant.
This indicator is connected, via strong line and pulleys, to the bellows.
It is difficult to pinpoint a date when the electric blower was installed in the basement - probably before 1920.
There are a few remnants of the original bellows-pumping mechanism - small scraps of webbing straps and one brass webbing end fitting are on the floor inside the instrument.
The original pumping lever could not be located.
The Vocalion does not appear to have had very much maintenance performed on it over the span of its time at the meeting house.
There are two missing reeds that may have been removed because they were damaged.
One reed has been removed from its windchest position and was placed inside the case.
This indicates that the reed's pallet valve was probably not closing completely, causing a "cipher", a note that plays constantly and cannot be silenced without repairing the problem pallet or removing the reed.
Other notes do not play at all.
This typically indicates that there is accumulated dirt on the reeds, preventing proper speech.
At present, the Vocalion is barely playable. The blower located in the basement of the meeting house is noisy and its wind ducts connected to the Vocalion are leaky and noisy.
The rubberized cloth covering the bellows is completely deteriorated and has been minimally patched.
The amount of air leakage is so great that the reeds are only receiving a small portion of the wind supply they require.
The largest reeds in the Vocalion will not speak properly on this reduced air supply.
Most of the wooden linkages connected to the drawknobs on the front of the organ are not working correctly due to worn felt bushing cloth and binding of various linkage components that connect the drawknobs to their related windchest functions.
Two of the drawknobs have missing faces that would have their stop names imprinted.
The Vocalion has two 58-note manuals (keyboards) and a 30-note pedalboard.
The keys are in relatively good condition with no missing ivories.
The nameboard above the keyboards has some damage to its surface.
The pedalboard is intact and the original bench is present and its top has been refinished.
Directly above the pedalboard is a rectangular swell pedal, connected to swell shutters that control the instrument's volume.
Beside the swell pedal are five "composition pedals" which the organist can use to combine various mechanical operations of the Vocalion to achieve certain musical effects.
These pedals are original to the instrument.
The Vocalion's quartered white oak case is in good condition with no obvious missing parts.
Various panels that are removable for access to interior components were found to be difficult to remove and reinstall, indicating that the Vocalion is not sitting on a level platform and has shifted slightly.
Some of the woodwork in the area surrounding the keyboards is worn from years of playing.
A thorough cleaning and touch-up of the entire case should be done, preserving its patina, but the case should not be "refinished".
The ornate painted and gold-leafed wooden façade pipes are in excellent condition.
In as much as these original pipes cannot be replaced, great care should be taken to prevent any handling of the façade pipes without protective cotton gloves.
An electric blower switch and flexible metal cable have been installed on the front of the Vocalion case - this switch and cable should be removed and placed in a remote location, perhaps behind the Vocalion.
A small mirror, apparently not original to the instrument, is installed above the swell shutters.
This mirror would enable a forward-facing organist to observe the gathered assembly in the meeting house.
Most mechanical components of the organ mechanism appear to be original and intact.
Pallet valves inside the pedal windchest appear to have their original felt and leather facings.
Many of the vertical wooden pedal tracker linkages are broken and have been repaired by gluing on additional wood strips.
Some minimal patching has been attempted on the bellows components in an effort to control air leakage, but as it is impossible to gain full access to the bellows assembly without first removing much of the tracker linkage system, any previous attempts at bellows patching were of limited effectiveness.
A complete inspection of all interior windchest components of the Vocalion is not possible without a complete dismantling of the instrument.
Some leather patches glued onto the exterior of the pedal windchest indicate an attempt to remedy air leakage problems.
This external patching is usually ineffective as most windchest leakage is a result of the drying out of leather gasketing between various windchest surfaces.
Repairing or replacing these gaskets requires complete windchest disassembly and would have been far beyond the scope of an organ technician's typical service visit.
Despite a number of problems that currently compromise the playing capability of the Vocalion, it is in excellent restorable condition.
The complexity of any organ restoration is always multiplied by the number of missing components in an instrument and the number of irreversible changes that have been made to the instrument over time.
In the case of this Vocalion, the entire original instrument appears to be intact and any problems associated with prior maintenance can likely be corrected during the restoration process.
It is important to note that a successful and sustainable restoration of any instrument such as this Vocalion must be a complete restoration, addressing every one of countless individual parts that make up an entire working system.
A superb explanation and photographs of the restoration of a large Vocalion can be found on the Internet at www.reedorganman.com.
This website shows every step of the restoration process for Vocalion number 834, restored by Jim Tyler for the Redmond Oregon Historical Commission.
A complete restoration of the Orleans Historical Society's Vocalion would return the instrument to its original working condition, using historically accurate materials and techniques.
The process would begin with the removal of the instrument to a secure workshop where it would be completely dismantled arid carefully documented for the restoration process.
A complete cleaning of all parts would be done along with the restoration of internal shellac finishes where needed.
All hardware, including screws, would be bead-blasted and lacquered before reinstallation to prevent rust.
For stability, broken or missing wooden parts, such as tracker linkages, would be replaced with duplicate components fabricated from wood of a similar vintage as the original instrument.
Missing brass reeds and any other unique components would be replaced from other unrestorable Vocalions that have been dispersed for parts.
All deteriorated wool felt, leather, and rubberized cloth would be replaced with materials of similar thicknesses and quality as was originally used in the Vocalion.
All materials and glues used in the Vocalion must be historically accurate.
Hide glue was the only adhesive used in the original Vocalion construction and only hide glue should be used in the restoration process.
When it ages, water soluble hide glue becomes crystalline and is easily removed from old wood without damage to the wood fibers, facilitating subsequent restoration work.
The Vocalion is winded by a ¼ horsepower Spencer electric blower located in the basement of the meeting house.
Spencer blowers were extremely well built and can often be successfully restored to their original condition.
An expert appraisal of the blower's electric motor would confirm it's suitability for restoration.
This Vocalion appears to have survived the past 109 years very well, considering that its original location was not the Orleans Historical Society meeting house.
Generally speaking, reed organs were relatively stable musical instruments that did not require special care or frequent tuning.
The Vocalion's builders were proud of the fact that their instruments could handle moderate changes in temperature and humidity without ill-effects.
Problems in reed organs and pipe organs are more pronounced when in settings with wide seasonal variations in humidity.
Low humidity is of the greatest concern, drying out and sometimes cracking very old wood components.
Electronic moisture meters are a good way of measuring the moisture content of wood and are helpful tools to organ restorers.
The relative humidity of the Vocalion's environment should be monitored before it is moved to a restoration workshop, while the restoration is underway, and upon return to the Orleans meeting house.
Organ restoration is a very labor intensive and time consuming process, often filled with unexpected challenges.
The scope of any restoration process can be difficult to accurately quantify without careful and thorough inspection of all components.
In many instances, large instruments cannot be entirely removed to a workshop setting, so most of the pre-restoration evaluation must take place on-site.
With this Vocalion, a great deal of information can be gathered on-site, yet removal to a workshop setting would afford the ability to dismantle the Vocalion further to gain a complete and accurate appraisal of its restoration needs.
The recent restoration of Vocalion #834 for the Redmond Oregon Historical Society is likely the best current comparison to the proposed restoration of the Orleans Historical Society's Vocalion.
Opus 834 was restored by California restorer, Jim Tyler, to the highest restoration standards in the organ industry.
The result is a beautifully restored instrument that will provide decades of reliable service.
The restoration of Opus #834 was done on a time-and-materials basis and cost approximately $30,000.
Part of the restoration cost included the duplication and painting of missing façade pipes.
A preliminary budget estimate of $25,000 - $30,000 for a complete restoration of the Orleans Historical Society's Vocalion would be appropriate.
Vocalion Restoration Benefits
The Orleans Historical Society's Vocalion is a very valuable asset to the Society's collection.
The Vocalion holds an important place in the history of musical instrument development in America, and therefore should be preserved to the greatest extent possible. Millions of reed organs were manufactured in the 1800's, but more highly crafted Vocalions numbered only in the thousands.
Today, the number of extant Vocalions is in the hundreds and of those, a much smaller number are in restored and playable condition.
The two-manual and pedal style, such as the Orleans Vocalion, are highly prized, especially when their original wooden pipe facades are intact.
In its present condition, the Orleans Vocalion is barely playable, with many problems that prevent it from operating properly.
Further attempts at playing music on this instrument will likely continue to hasten its deterioration.
In restored condition, the Vocalion would be a showpiece.
Smaller reed organs recently restored for local historical societies and museums in the Boston area are commonly used to play period music for open houses, historical re-enactments and seasonal special events.
As a teaching tool for the understanding of reed organ development, the Vocalion could present many options.
Internet documentation of its restoration would garner much interest and would attract many new visitors to the Orleans Historical Society website.
Special tours and events at the meeting house could include a focus on the Vocalion and a printed history of the Vocalion could be made available to visitors as an additional aspect of their visit.
A fully restored Vocalion would be a valuable research tool for other Vocalion owners and restorers.
The knowledge that a restored Vocalion was located in Orleans and could be seen and heard may attract another new group of interested visitors to the Orleans Historical Society.
The History of the Vocalion
In the early 1880's, self-financed Scottish inventor, James Baillie-Hamilton, was singularly obsessed with creating a unique keyboard instrument that would imitate the sounds of the human voice in ways that no existing reed or pipe organ could.
His earliest experiments, which found their way into his first keyboard instrument, were with thin strings or wires attached to the vibrating brass tongues of reeds commonly found in reed organs of the day.
In theory, the strings would be set into vibration by the air-induced oscillations of the reed tongues.
Baillie-Hamilton believed that the sounds produced would be "the very sounds that baffle the organ builder - voice-like tones peculiar to wind and string".
In reality, the idea was totally impractical. Even with specially fitted springs to hold the strings in constant tension, the strings were impossible to keep in tune due to atmospheric changes, and the speech of the strings was soft and very slow to start. When Baillie-Hamilton exhibited this new musical instrument, which he called a "Vocalion", before the Royal Association in London in 1873, he had a difficult time getting the strings to speak at all.
Despite the technical difficulties at the Association meeting, one board member, Mr. Southgate, was encouraged:
"If we can get a purer quality of tone without any of the disagreeable over
0 tones which are so present in the harmonium, no doubt the invention would
be very valuable, and I think the whole musical world would welcome it."
Facing considerable difficulty in developing his string tone ideas, Baillie Hamilton focused his attentions on the sound-producing brass reeds themselves, obtaining patents for reeds with multiple inter-connected tongues.
By the time that the Vocalion was exhibited at the International Inventions Exhibition held in London in 1885, Baillie-Hamilton had abandoned his ideas about wind-activated string tone in favor of much wider brass reeds, speaking under relatively high wind pressure.
An important new focus of his attention was on the enhancement of reed tone through the use of resonating chambers or "qualifying tubes" as they would become known.
Virtually all American reed organs built after 1840 operated on the suction principal.
In this arrangement, the alternating motion of foot pedals withdraws air from a wedge-shaped bellows that slowly closes due to increased vacuum pressure.
When a key is depressed, the suction created inside the bellows draws air into the organ through the corresponding brass reed, sounding its note.
As the playing process draws in an increasing amount of air to refill and expand the bellows, the organ's suction capability is constantly refreshed by continued foot pedaling.
This suction-style system had gained acceptance among American reed organ builders due to its relative ease of construction and the smooth tonalities that resulted from the brass reed tone being drawn into the organ's windchest mechanism and surrounding casework.
By comparison, European instrument builders were more familiar with the pressure-operated style of winding, commonly found in their harmoniums.
Using an organ's bellows to force air past the reeds resulted in a louder, more forceful tone as the reed tone was projected out from the organ.
Baillie-Hamilton likely chose to use a pressure-operated winding system in his Vocalion for two important reasons; he would certainly have been more familiar with European pressure-operated harmoniums than American built instruments, and the larger and heavier brass reeds that he designed for use in the Vocalion needed more forceful air pressure to make them speak properly.
These wider reeds would also require changes in the traditional construction methods being used for reed organs.
In the simplest form of a typical reed organ, the keyboard is located above the windchest and the reed cell assembly is directly behind the keys.
Rectangular wooden pallet valves, covered with soft felt and leather pads, are located inside the windchest.
A small vertical dowel located under each key opens the corresponding pallet valve below it when a key is depressed, allowing air to pass through the corresponding brass reed.
All components related to each note; key, dowel, pallet valve and reed, are located in a straight line along the same front-to-back axis.
In order to fit all of these components into the width of the keyboard, the width of the pallet valves and reeds must be kept relatively narrow and the spaces between them kept to a minimum.
In order to accommodate his wider reeds, Baillie-Hamilton successfully incorporated design elements commonly found in tracker-action pipe organs.
In the tracker-action system, wooden linkages, called "backfalls", fan out horizontally behind the keys, spreading the narrow keyboard dimension to a wider scale, allowing the use of a wider windchest.
The backfalls connect to vertical wooden trackers that are connected to pallet valves inside the windchest.
When keys are depressed, the interconnected linkages open pallet valves, allowing air to pass through organ pipes, or in the case of the Vocalion, brass reeds.
Baillie-Hamilton must have been quite familiar with the tracker-action technology employed by English pipe organ builders of his day and cleverly used it to his advantage.
The Vocalion's large windchest design enabled the use of much larger pallet valves than had ever been used in any other reed organ.
Although he consistently described his invention as an "improvement" of the reed organ, the Vocalion is essentially a tracker-action organ that was designed to play brass reeds instead of pipes.
Baillie-Hamilton was not the only British inventor who explored the concept of modifying reed tone imitative of the human voice.
John Farmer and Baillie Hamilton had worked together for several years on reed tone experiments and shared a number of joint patents.
Another inventor, Hermann Smith, held an 1872 patent on his reed designs and accused Baillie-Hamilton of stealing his ideas.
Whatever the details of these associations may be, the fact remains that Baillie-Hamilton, a self-financed inventor of significant means, was able to engage the firm of William Hill and Son of London, distinguished British pipe organ builders, to build approximately twelve Vocalions.
It was one of Baillie Hamilton's largest Vocalions constructed by Hill that was shown at the 1885 International Inventions Exhibition in London.
The instrument was described as being six feet square and stood on a somewhat larger pedestal which contained the bellows and windchest.
It had three manuals and a pedal board.
The Vocalion received these words of praise from Sir Arthur Sullivan:
"You have achieved an instrument which shall possess all the power and dignity of an organ, without the cumbersome and expensive aid of pipes.
And in doing this, you have obtained a totally different tone from that of Harmoniums and other reed organs.
I was particularly struck with the nobility and purity of the sound, and also with the great variety in the timbre which the instrument displayed."
This comparison with the pipe organ was not lost on Baillie-Hamilton and others involved in the Vocalion's development.
In a few short years, a common thread in every newspaper article, magazine advertisement and catalog related to the Vocalion was that the Vocalion embodied everything that could be found in a pipe organ, and more.
Well into the early 1900's, the Vocalion was consistently described as being as carefully constructed as a pipe organ, but cost much less to purchase, was available immediately from warehouse stock, took up less space, stayed in tune longer in widely varying conditions, was easier and less costly to maintain, and produced tones as beautiful as the finest pipe organs available.
Some of these claims were true and some were greatly exaggerated, but with growing accolades and testimonials, it did not take long for the Vocalion to find its niche among a discerning clientele.
Between 1875 and 1886, James Baillie-Hamilton secured twelve patents for his distinctive reeds, windchest modifications and tone development components, all of which were incorporated into his Vocalions.
It was Baillie-Hamilton's intent to perfect the tone qualifying chambers of the Vocalion to make the instrument produce and modulate reed tone in the same way that the larynx, throat nasal cavities, and mouth shape sounds generated by human vocal cords, hence the name, Vocalion, commonly pronounced "vo-cAl-ion", with the accent on the second syllable.
Stressing the importance of his concept, Baillie-Hamilton repeatedly referred to these human anatomical structures in the descriptive text of his patents.
In 1884, Baillie-Hamilton traveled to Boston in an attempt to convince American organ builders of the value of his instruments.
He sought to develop a partnership with Mason & Hamlin, a prominent Boston reed organ firm, but the two parties couldn't reach an agreement based on the special manufacturing considerations that the Vocalion required.
Baillie-Hamilton then went to Canada and worked with the firm of C.S. Warren for approximately two years on production of what was called the "Canadian Vocalion".
A return trip to England to raise capital for Vocalion production was very successful: Baillie-Hamilton soon returned to America with approximately $200,000 in investment funds.
In 1886, Baillie-Hamilton settled in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he organized his manufacturing efforts and started the Hamilton Vocalion Organ Company.
With a firmly established operating base, production in Worcester began in earnest and the Vocalion's reputation began to spread.
In its October 1, 1886 edition, The New York Times reported that upon Baillie-Hamilton's visit to the new factory,
"The employees.., gave Mr. Hamilton a handsome gold watch and chain as a wedding present.
On the back of the watch was engraved the monogram of the Vocalion Organ Company, together with the inscription: To James Baillie Hamilton, Esq., from the employees of the factory. Worcester, Mass., Aug. 10, 1886."
The date inscribed on the gold watch, August 10, 1886, was the date of Baillie-Hamilton's wedding to Lady Evelyn, fourth daughter of the Duke of Argyil, at Westminster Abbey. A Vocalion was played at the service.
Baillie-Hamilton's decision to settle in Worcester was a wise one: Worcester was an active manufacturing center with many musical instrument builders, including several prominent reed organ companies.
Among these was the Munroe Organ Reed Company, the largest supplier of brass reeds and other components to the reed organ industry.
William Munroe was a prominent investor in Baillie-Hamilton's new corporation. In the intensely competitive reed organ business, many builders provided important components to other organ companies, forming a complex web of business relationships.
The Vocalion had appeared on the music scene at the cusp of reed organ popularity in the United States.
In the period between 1850 and 1900, approximately one million reed organs were manufactured and sold to customers in the United States.
Reed organs had been a dominant musical presence in the American home for as long as most people could remember.
After 1900, those numbers would decline precipitously, owing to the increasing availability and popularity of newer musical technologies.
In the late 1800's, astute reed organ manufacturers knew that the listening public wanted more musical diversity than their mass produced "parlor organs" could provide.
Several builders, including Baillie-Hamilton, had experimented with changes in the reed organ's basic mechanical design in order to accommodate larger and more forceful sounding reeds. Many builders included larger and more ornate instruments in their catalogs, with model names like "Church", "Chapel", "Chancel", and Cathedral", hoping to capture a portion of the lucrative church organ market.
Testimonials received from clergy and church musicians were extremely valuable advertising assets for arty organ builder.
For other companies, the challenge meant exploring the realm of roll-operated player organs.
The resulting time and energy spent on developing new player technologies was astounding, as United States Patent Office records show.
Self0' playing roll-operated reed organs from several builders began to appear on the scene, accompanied by catalogs advertising thousands of available roll titles.
Player reed organs, especially the Aeolian Company's Orchestrelle, gained popularity from about 1885 to 1910.
The ability to reproduce a musical performance and play it repeatedly was a concept that would significantly change the musical landscape.
These instruments were followed in the late 1890's by "push-up" roll-operated piano players which could be attached to the front of any piano.
By 1910, the popularity of pianos with built-in roll players was soaring.
At the same time, development continued on the phonograph and its introduction to the music loving public wasn't far behind.
The most successful organ builders were the ones with an eye to the future, yet despite their best efforts, their reed organs would soon be overtaken by new musical inventions.
Compared to rapidly changing developments in musical listening technology at the beginning of the 20th century, the reed organ's decades-long dominance in the 1800's was truly remarkable.
Considering that ever-evolving modern music listening technology includes satellite radio and the hand-held Ipod with its unlimited Internet music options, these new devices put the reed organ's amazing longevity into true perspective.
Reed organ builders persevered by constantly frying to improve on the quality and musicality of their instruments.
While his company was busy producing many different styles of Vocalions, Baillie-Hamilton kept busy with his patent activity and secured additional patents on his improved reed organ designs.
Vocalions took more time to build, required a higher level of craftsmanship and were more difficult to mass- produce than conventional reed organs of the late 1800's.
The more elaborate Vocalion models, intended for upscale clients and churches, were some of the most expensive reed organs available.
While a good quality reed organ from any number of manufacturers could be purchased for less than one hundred dollars, more decorative Vocalion models cost nearly $1,500.
With high manufacturing costs and a very competitive marketplace, Vocalions were not profitable and by early 1887, James Baillie-Hamilton's Vocalion Organ Company was floundering financially.
In a curious turn of events, Baillie-Hamilton disappeared from the Worcester organ scene, spent some time in Chicago continuing his organ design work and later returned to England.
Patents associated with the Vocalion were sold by the corporation to the New York Church Organ Company of Worcester, and Vocalion production continued.
One of the new company's principals, and a person who would figure very prominently in the Vocalion's future was Morris S. Wright, himself an accomplished inventor.
Morris Wright had entered the reed organ business in the late 1870's with Edwin P. Carpenter's reed organ company in Brattleboro, Vermont, working his way up from apprentice to factory superintendent.
His first three organ-related patents, granted in 1885 and 1886, were for reed organ improvements developed with Carpenter.
In 1886, Wright moved to Worcester and began working in the action department of the Hamilton Vocalion Organ Company, focusing his attention on the manufacturing challenges of the Vocalion.
Between 1885 and 1928, Morris Wright was granted over forty patents.
More than half were related to reed organs and others were related to his later interest in vacuum cleaning machines.
On July 27, 1887, shortly after the Hamilton Vocalion Organ Company had failed, Wright filed a patent application for what was to be his most significant contribution to the Vocalion.
After he was granted United States Patent number 380,071, all Vocalions began wearing a label on the back which stated, "Wright Patent March 27, 1888'.
Wright's newly patented windchest design for the Vocalion perfected the earlier concepts of James Baillie-Hamilton and firmly established the specifications for the windchest assembly and tone-qualifying chambers that were used in all subsequent Vocalions.
The development of the Vocalion by Baillie-Hamilton and Wright soon captured the attention of the Aeolian Organ Company.
Harry B. Tremaine, President of the Aeolian Company, had spent years building on the foundation of his father, William's, musical instrument enterprise, developing a highly profitable line of roll-operated reed organs.
Aeolian had been phenomenally successful selling small reed organs with roll player actions, all of them built to Aeolian's specifications by other companies, including the Munroe Organ Reed Company of Worcester.
Tremaine's larger vision was to expand operations beyond anything previously imagined in the musical instrument trade.
With the help of several prominent financial backers, the Aeolian Company methodically purchased many smaller piano and reed organ manufacturers, greatly expanding production and distribution capabilities and quickly becoming the largest manufacturer of musical instruments in the world.
Ever aware of the advantageous position that they held over their competition, Aeolian aggressively protected every aspect of their enterprise with patents, trademarks and copyrights.
Aeolian's interest in the Vocalion was related to their own attempt to produce the most highly refined reed organ the market had ever seen.
In 1897, Aeolian introduced the Orchestrelle, an elegantly cased reed organ which played music automatically from a perforated paper roll.
The Orchestrelle was based on the Vocalion concept using individual resonators over each reed which modified the reed tones.
The Orchestrelle also used the larger Vocalion-style reeds produced by the Munroe Organ Reed Company.
With Aeolian's purchase of the Munroe Organ Reed Company in 1892, Harry Tremaine had gained control of the manufacturing source of the special reeds his company would later require for the Orchestrelle.
The purchase of the Munroe Organ Reed Company also gave Aeolian the valuable knowledge and insight of William Munroe who had been an investor and treasurer of James Baillie-Hamilton's original Vocalion Company.
Many of the details of what transpired in Worcester in the late 1890's are sketchy, but the end result is well-documented; by 1900, the Aeolian Company owned all patent rights related to the Vocalion and was in full control of Vocalion production.
From 1887 until 1890, Morris Wright and the New York Church Organ Company streamlined Vocalion production and put a renewed focus on advertising and promotion.
A twenty-four page Vocalion catalog issued in 1888 described the instrument's unique qualifies and it's "Special Mission" to smaller churches where "it will fulfill all demands better than a pipe organ".
Ten pages of testimonials from prominent composers, organists, and clergy attest to the Vocalion's popularity.
The Mason & Risch Organ Company, a Canadian reed organ manufacturer, purchased the New York Church Organ Company in 1890 along with the patents and manufacturing rights to the Vocalion.
Production of the Vocalion continued in the Worcester factory and Morris Wright once again assumed his role as factory superintendent and the primary person responsible for ongoing development of the Vocalion.
Between 1890 and 1900, many Vocalions of all sizes and styles were manufactured and sold bearing the Mason & Risch stencil on their name boards.
Well before the Aeolian Company acquired the Vocalion patents, they used the term "Vocalion style" in some of their advertising text.
In one Orchestrelle advertisement from 1897, the Orchestrelle is described as being ". . .constructed on the celebrated Vocalion principle The Aeolian Company's working relationship with Morris Wright probably began when they purchased licensing rights from Wright for a pneumatically assisted windchest that Wright had patented in 1893.
This windchest was used in later versions of the Vocalion and the Orchestrelle, and until the time when Aeolian obtained Wright's patents, all Orchestrelles had a Wright patent label on the back of the case identifying the "M.S. Wright Pneumatic System".
Earlier Vocalions bore a similar patent label for another Wright patent windchest.
Although it has been generally reported that Wright became an employee of the Aeolian Company upon their acquisition of the Vocalion and its patents from Mason & Risch around 1900, Federal Court records from a 1905 lawsuit indicate that Wright had been employed under contract with Aeolian in 1898, possibly while he was still an employee of Mason & Risch Regardless of the chronological confusion, Morris Wright was a brilliant inventor who undoubtedly would have been keenly interested in the possibilities that working with Aeolian could have provided.
As someone who was always looking for new ideas, Wright must have been intrigued with the energy that Harry Tremaine's Aeolian Company was putting into the development and marketing of their Orchestrelle.
The Orchestrelle was envisioned as the pinnacle of reed organ tonal quality combined with the marvel of roll playing capability.
Aeolian had been producing roll-operated musical instruments for years, but the Orchestrelle was a giant leap forward in quality and beauty.
Factories in Meriden, Connecticut and London, England, produced the Orchestrelle Like the Vocalion, the Orchestrelle was priced at the highest end of the market Various models of the Orchestrelle were advertised at prices from $1,500 to $3,500 and were marketed to prestigious clients.
Mark Twain was a purchaser of an Orchestrelle for "Stormfield", his home in Connecticut.
A list of "Prominent Patrons" in a 27-page full-color Orchestrelle catalog included the names of "Rulers and Royal Personages" who owned Orchestrelles.
President Theodore Roosevelt Queen Victoria, and Czar Nicholas II shared space on this list with J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Cornelius Vanderbilt, William Rockefeller, and many others.
When Aeolian absorbed the Mason & Risch Organ Company and all Vocalion patent rights, they obtained one of the best equipped reed organ manufacturing facilities in Worcester with sophisticated woodworking machinery and highly skilled workers.
Morris Wright became an employee of this new Aeolian subsidiary in Worcester, named the Vocalion Organ Company, and once again continued to manage Vocalion production in his role as factory superintendent.
With the blessing of Aeolian's president, Harry Tremaine, Wright was given complete freedom to use all of the Vocalion Company's manufacturing resources and personnel to continue working on his organ innovations.
In the first two years that he worked for Tremaine, Wright had been paid $3,600 per year.
On July 1, 1900, Wright signed a five year contract with the Vocalion Organ Company with a new salary of $5,000 per year (approximately $125,000 in 2008 and royalties based on the company's annual production, a princely sum considering the average annual salary in 1900 was $450.
This new agreement stated that Wright would assign his employer one-half ownership of all new organ-related patents obtained during the duration of his contract.
Morris Wright flourished in his new situation and continued working on improvements to his pneumatic windchest, many of which were incorporated into the Orchestrelle Wright was sent to the Aeolian Company's new Garwood, New Jersey, factory for a year and a half to help streamline factory production and, upon returning to Worcester, is reported to have experimented with the of a roll-playing mechanism into the Vocalion.
Although no evidence of a roll playing Vocalion has currently been located, The Proceedings of the Worcester Society of Antiquities, April 1902, describes an instrument that was included in the Society's 1902 Musical Instrument Exhibition in Worcester.
In the midst of a display of Guarneri, Amati and Stradivarius violins was a Vocalion:
"Item #15 Vocalion, made by Worcester Vocalion Organ Co Latest pattern, having the automatic attachment; case of Assyrian Walnut and of beautiful design and finish Loaned by the company"
If the instrument described in these historical records was in fact a roll-playing it may have been a unique design of Wright's, possibly a prototype prepared for this exhibition with what must have been an exquisitely built walnut case.
In 1903, the business relationship between Morris Wright and the Vocalion Organ Company began to take a very different course.
Wright had taken full advantage of the resources available to him in the Vocalion Company's Worcester factory and had secured several new patents for his efforts Wright became increasingly concerned that his patented ideas were being used by Vocalion's parent company, Aeolian, in their continued efforts to bring a roll operated piano playing device to the marketplace.
Wright believed that this was in violation of the terms of his contract which stated that the Vocalion Company was only entitled to one-half ownership of his organ-related patents. Any patents specifically to other instruments such as pianos were to remain the property of Wright.
Because both parties knew that Wright had obtained patents for technologies that could be used in instruments other than organs, the situation immediately became troublesome and Wright began to withhold some of his patent information from Vocalion Company management.
He reportedly began telling associates that if his work went unrecognized by Harry Tremaine and the Aeolian Company, he was prepared to market his inventions elsewhere Tremaine protested, claiming that the company was entitled to Wright's patents because the technology the patents described could also be used in organs.
Discussions continued, but on December 9, 1903, the Vocalion Company withdrew its offers and terminated negotiations for purchase of Wright's piano-related patents and on December 28, 1903, Morris Wright was fired. He once asked to be rehired, but his requests fell on deaf ears.
On May 2, 1905, proceedings began in the First Circuit Court in Massachusetts in the case of Vocalion Organ Company vs Wright.
In court records of this case, amazing details are revealed about Morris Wright's obsession with the success of his inventions In a letter to Harry Tremaine dated October 8, 1903, Wright had proclaimed that the patents he held on his improved Orchestrelle and roll player designs were so significant that, in his words:
"I am assured it will allow me to control the world on this type of instrument."
In this letter, Wright proudly announced to Tremaine that he had obtained patent rights to his new inventions from thirteen other countries and had submitted applications to a total of 156 countries.
Court testimony from Vocalion Company officials revealed that Wright had insisted that in exchange for his patents he be given a royalty of fifteen dollars for each instrument sold by Aeolian in addition to five dollars for each piano player and twenty dollars for each player piano sold.
Based on their production numbers, this royalty demand was estimated by Aeolian to total $250,000 to $300,000 annually.
(Wright's 1903 demands would be the equivalent of several million dollars in 2008).
Wright had also insisted on a $10,000 incentive bonus and a lump sum payment of $100,000 for his patents.
Faced with demands for such incredibly huge amounts of money, it's understandable that Tremaine took legal action against Wright.
In a brief filed by Tremaine's legal counsel, Morris Wright is accused of having taken advantage of his employer while having spent a great deal of the company's money and resources to further his own ideas.
Relative to the contract between Wright and Vocalion, it was pointed out in the brief that the sign on the manufacturer's building in Worcester read, "Vocalion Organ Company", so all business conducted within its walls was, in fact, organ-related.
The company also believed that the case wasn't simply about organ or piano developments; Tremaine's attorneys asserted that when Wright realized the money making potential of his inventions, he began operating in secrecy in an effort to extort large sums of money from his employer.
By the time the court case began, Wright must have realized that Harry Tremaine had used the months leading up to that point to get all of his legal ducks in a row.
Wright must also have remembered that Tremaine was famous for putting the full weight of his resources behind legal efforts to crush anyone who he believed infringed on Aeolian's patents or threatened to put roadblocks in the path of the Aeolian Company's success.
It is unexplainable that Morris Wright the man who had apparently been so sure of himself and his convictions, chose not to attend the court proceedings to present Ms side of the story.
Wright's absence from the courtroom was in stark contrast to the presence of Harry Tremaine and his associates who had made the long train ride from New Jersey to Boston for the proceedings.
Compared to the detailed and methodical presentation made by the Vocalion Company's attorneys, the defense of Wright's position was feeble, at best.
District Court Judge Hale decided the case in favor of the Vocalion Company, stating that Morris Wright's patents in question were equally applicable to organs as well as pianos and, as stated in the original contract a one-half interest was to be transferred to Vocalion.
One year later, an appeal by Wright to the First Circuit Court of Appeals was heard, and the 1905 decision was reversed, which must have given Wright a small degree of satisfaction.
By that time, however, Tremaine and his Aeolian associates had already received and studied Wright's patent documents and had absorbed some of his ideas into their musical instrument production.
For the most part, Aeolian did not pursue the aggressive manufacturing path that Wright had envisioned, but instead chose an alternative course.
Like Icarus of Greek mythology, Morris Wright's single-minded passion for soaring above all others led to his unfortunate fall.
No longer involved with production of the Vocalion, Morris Wright continued his patent work in Worcester, doing business as the M.S. Wright Company.
He obtained several additional patents for designs of player piano mechanisms and roll playing systems for pipe organs.
He also obtained many patents for his innovations in carpet sweeper and vacuum cleaner technology.
A study of his detailed vacuum cleaner patent illustrations shows that Wright incorporated his detailed knowledge of the pneumatic technology used in organ building into his vacuum cleaner designs.
Wright experienced firsthand the challenges of protecting his patents when he was forced in 1916 to defend his vacuum cleaner patents from infringement by the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company.
While continuing to include the design elements of the Vocalion in their Orchestrelles, Aeolian manufactured and sold Vocalions built in their Worcester factory before consolidating operations into their Garwood, New Jersey factory.
Vocalion production ceased by 1910 and Orchestrelle production ended by about 1914.
In 1916, after reed organ popularity had significantly declined and Vocalion organs were no longer being manufactured, the Aeolian Company resurrected the Vocalion name with the introduction of the Vocalion phonograph and records with prices starting at $150.
The Aeolian Company continued to be at the forefront of musical instrument production for decades.
As the Orchestrelle faded from the music scene, elaborate Aeolian pipe organs with Duo-Art roll player attachments were the instruments of choice for the homes of prominent patrons around the world.
In 1932, the Aeolian Company merged with the Ernest M. Skinner Organ Company of Boston and emerged as the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company.
From their Dorchester, Massachusetts, factory, Aeolian-Skinner rose to prominence as the foremost builder of pipe organs for churches and institutions across the United States. To this day, restored Aeolian-Skinner pipe organs are highly prized for their craftsmanship and tonal resources.
James Baillie-Hamilton arid Morris Wright were innovators who worked tirelessly to develop one of the most innovative keyboard musical instruments of the late nineteenth century. When Harry Tremaine and the Aeolian Company took an interest in the Vocalion, it was because the Vocalion concept had opened up a wide new spectrum of musical options that would greatly assist in the Aeolian Company's quest to offer the most finely crafted musical instruments available.
The Aeolian Company's success is legendary and the Vocalion's role was pivotal.
This report was prepared by:
55 Concord Avenue
Milton, MA 02186
Aeolian Company: Catalogs, Brochures, Advertisements, Factory Records, 1887- 1932, collection of Nelson Barden
Baillie-Hamilton, James, On the Application of Wind to String Instruments, Proceedings of the Musical Association, London, 1874-75
Bowers, Q. David, Encyclopedia of Automatic Musical Instruments, Vestal Press, 1972
Gellerman, Robert F., The Reed Organ Atlas, Vestal Press, 1998
Kopp, Dave, Morris. S. Wright and the early Aeolian Company - the story of the Aeolian Orchestrelle, ROS Bulletin vol. VI no. 1, February 1987
Proceedings of the Worcester Society of Antiquities, 1902
Richards, James H., The Vocalion, The Diapason, August 1975
Smith, Rollin, The Aeolian Pipe Organ and its Music, Organ Historical Society, 1998
The Federal Reporter, Cases Argued and Determined in the Circuit Court of Appeals and District Courts of the United States, Vol. 137, 1905
The Vocalion, Proceedings of the Musical Association, London, 1883
Vocalion Organs, catalog of the New York Church organ Company, 1888, reprinted by the Organ Literature Foundation, Braintree, MA
Williams, Keith B., Morris S. Wright and his Contributions to the Vocalion, Reed Organ Society Bulletin, vol. VIII no. 4, November 1989
Williams, Keith B., The Vocalion and Its Manufacturers, Reed Organ Society Bulletin, vol. VIII no. 4, November 1989
Internet archives of the New York Times
Internet records of the United States Patent Office
Personal conversations with:
Nelson Barden, Nelson Barden Associates, Boston, MA, organ restorer and Aeolian Company historian
Paul Carey, Carey Organ Company, Troy, NY, organ builder and Vocalion historian, curator of the Vocalion Group Internet website
Kristie Randall, Research Librarian, Joseph Moakley Courthouse, Boston, MA
Orleans Historical Society personnel - James Hadley, Tamsen Cornell, Len Tomat, Gary Clinton
Rollin Smith, author and Aeolian Company historian
Jim Tyler, San Francisco, CA, Vocalion and reed organ restorer
Source: Orleans Historical Society, Orleans, Massachusetts