The Organ Project

Or, how I set about building a fairground organ in my own back garden. Casual readers should be aware that this project is very much in its infancy but is making some modest progress.

The Great Steam Organ Project was inspired by a visit to the Lincoln Steam Fair in 2003. David O'Brien had been telling us all, over a pint or two as usual, about the steam fair which happens in mid August each year on the Licolnshire showground. The kids thought that two nights camping would be very exciting (so you can tell that they hadn't done it before) and the grown-ups reckoned that it might be congenial to go and see a lot of static steam, diesel and other engines, stalls, beer tents and fairground organs. As it did indeed turn out. We were lucky with the weather, there was lots to do and it's a very safe and welcoming environment for people with youngish children.

The steam engines and the displays invited hours of wandering about and gawping, whilst some of the home-built scale models left me amazed how much time and effort model engineers were prepared to put in to building such beautiful machines. The same could be said of a lot of the full-scale engines too. The quality and workmanship of the better-preserved steam engines, steamrollers and other traction engines is a delight for the eyes and sets a standard for decorative and functional industrial design that's rare to see nowadays. In itself that's not a great surprise since if you are going to put in so much work to conserve 19th or early 20th century machinery, you are likely to choose the best examples and presumably most of the worst of the examples rusted away a long time ago.

Just why steam power appeals to so many people is hard to say and not many of the crowd gathered seemed inclined to ask themselves. As a social and recreational event it was doing fine.

Of everything there was to see, it wasn't the motive power exhibits that left the biggest impression on me. The moment I heard one of the large fairground organs burst into song I was hooked. What a fabulous noise! Wouldn't it be wonderful to have something like THAT in the back garden? Thoughts of annoyed neighbours and the amount of effort that it would take were far away at that instant and I heard myself saying "I'd love to build one of those". There must have been at least a dozen Gavioli organs around the fairground and numerous smaller Dutch barrel organs, home-built modern instruments and all sorts of things in between. Presumably I could build the thing bit by bit and it shouldn't be too hard to do the software and control circuitry so I could play midi files through it - the mind was racing already.

A few hours later in the beer tent the kids were looking sceptical and my wife's eyes rolled to the heavens while I explained my thinking. The seed had been planted all the same, and when I got home, a few hours of tinkering with plastic waste pipe and odd bits of wooden dowel and putty demonstrated that simple flue organ pipes could easily be made with modern materials. Things languished for a while, there was no urgency and I was teaching myself to weld during the winter of 2003; the project made little progress for a while.

For Christmas 2003 my wife bought me a small xylophone as a present and a contribution to the project. A long time elapsed as I looked from time to time for suitable solenoids to drive the hammers that would play it and I went down several dead ends but eventually I found some at a moderate price. Individually they aren't expensive but even this very basic instrument has 25 notes and that's no small amount of cost and work as you start to put it together. Keeping the cost within reasonable bounds is going to be a challenge.

The project has begun to reach the stage now where enough of it works that it is worth documenting progress as I go. This part of the website will describe the plans, the software and mechanical construction as I go. Of course it will be updated as time permits and no doubt it will be badly out of date at times. If it inspires someone else to do the same or people to share thoughts on how to go then that's all that I want. The links below will take you to the descriptions of the various parts of the project.