This article was written by Rob Sommerlad, Volunteer Research Assistant for Electronic Music.
Last week we looked at a curious fire-powered organ invented by Strasbourg’s Fréderic Kastner in 1873. For part one of The Amazing Adventures of Kastner’s Miraculous Pyrophone click here.
The instrument wasn’t a great success, but Kastner’s family connections brought it a certain amount of acknowledgement. While he “was not a distinguished physicist …he had a rich and influential mother who, it has been said, encouraged him in the development of the pyrophone in order to provide him with an occupation that would keep him out of mischief”. Amongst Mme Kastner’s acquaintances was Henry Dunant, the Swiss social activist who had founded the Red Cross, inspired the Geneva Convention and who would later become the recipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize. While down on his luck in the mid-1870s, Dunant accepted a 50,000 Franc commission from Kastner’s mother to take the pyrophone abroad and use his eloquence, persuasive skills and social connections to promote the instrument. Dunant managed to secure the chance to demonstrate the pyrophone at the Royal Society of Arts on the 17th of February 1875, where he demonstrated the instrument with Lack’s God Save the Queen after introducing it with a flowery speech: “The sound of the pyrophone may truly be said to resemble the sound of the human voice… like a human and impassioned whisper, as an eco of the inward vibration of the soul, something mysterious and indefinable, besides, in general, possessing a character of melancholy, which seems characteristic of all natural harmonies”.
Even with Dunant’s help the pyrophone was not a great success, and the promotional tour soon faltered. The instrument itself had also started malfunctioning and so Dunant donated it to South Kensington Museum, the original incarnation of the Science Museum. Dunant moved on to other projects and Kastner sadly died an early death in 1882. Since then the pyrophone has grown in fame a small amount and has even been exhibited and played occasionally. However, in recent years the original instrument has simply been sitting in the Science Museum’s stores, patiently awaiting its chance for a shot at the Christmas Number One. Occasional attempts to recreate or redsign the pyrophone and similar “fire organs” have been made, but none of them quite match the elegance of Kastner’s petite slice of 19th Century insanity. Peckham’s Experiment 1 have made some interesting artworks using similar ideas.
And what’s more they have even provided some good sound and video files, so you can even hear Monsieur Kastner’s instrument in action! Sort of.