April 1981: Transforming a 1920s Pipe Organ #ThrowbackThursday

"It's like wiring 240 doorbells to ring at the same time," said IBM's Karl Achterberg (center). Red Ryles and retiring ophthalmologist Theodore Martens completed the organ repair team.
"It's like wiring 240 doorbells to ring at the same time," said IBM's Karl Achterberg (center). Red Ryles and retiring ophthalmologist Theodore Martens completed the organ repair team.

In 1918,  the aeolian pipe organ was known as “the millionaire’s organ,” which could be played manually or with paper rolls similar to player piano cylinders. The organ was installed in the Will Mayo house, now called the Foundation House. Over the years, the organ deteriorated. However, in the 1980s, thanks to Dr. Theodore Martens and a couple of his electronically gifted friends, the old organ was once again on line for music, interfacing with digital tapes.

Intricate circuit cards attached to the back of the organ were wired to instruct the old machine in sophisticated new tricks.
Intricate circuit cards attached to the back of the organ were wired to instruct the old machine in sophisticated new tricks.

Through a friend, Dr. Martens heard of a man in Dallas who owns a similar organ. The Texan was in touch with a firm that specializes in organ parts — not just pipes and bellows, but high tech digital gadgets. The company had not only devised a system for translating the existing paper rolls into electronic signals which the organ could be wired to understand; engineers had also found a way of encoding the actions of the organ stops so that a live performance could be programmed and replayed. That is, the “tape” of the program doesn’t reproduce the sound as such, but tells the organ how to behave to make the live sound through its own pipes.

Sets of cables and diminutive circuit boards installed in the back of the console were the secret of this organ transplant.

Through correspondence with the Texan — and help from IBM and Northwestern Bell friends — Dr. Martens was able to match the circuitry of the Foundation House organ with that of its twin in Texas. As a result, tapes from the live performances as well as those made from the original paper rolls were played interchangeably in either location.

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Alyssa Frank

Alyssa Frank is a Marketing Associate at Mayo Medical Laboratories. She supports marketing strategies for product management and specialty testing. Alyssa has worked at Mayo Clinic since 2015.