Tag Archives: num:ScienceMuseum=1876-590

The Amazing Adventures of Kastner’s Miraculous Pyrophone (Part Two)

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.

Pyrophone, 1869. (Science Museum, London)

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”.

Bronze medal to commemorate J. H. Dunant (front) 1908-1920 (Science Museum, London)


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.

The Amazing Adventures of Kastner’s Miraculous Pyrophone (Part One)

This article was written by Rob Sommerlad, Volunteer Research Assistant for Electronic Music.

There’s more to the relationship between fire and music than simply bad metaphors and innuendos, as I learnt this week at Blythe House. In a dark corner of the Science Museum’s storage facility sits a small, awkward-looking wooden box with intriguing glass pipes sprouting out of it. However, this unassuming little object just so happens to be one of the world’s last remaining pyrophones, an instrument which, as the name suggests, combines fire and sound!

Pyrophone, 1869. (Science Museum, London)

 Patented by the Strasbourg-born musician and scientist Fréderic Kastner in 1873, the pyrophone was a musical instrument in which flames encased in pipes similar to those of a traditional organ were used to produce musical notes. Kaster took advantage of Dr B Higgins’ 1777 discovery that a hydrogen flame positioned at the lower end of glass tube could produce a note and combined this with his musical knowledge (his father was the composer Georges Kastner) in order to produce a “Fire Organ”, as the instrument was also known.  This name perhaps suits the device better than pyrophone, as it did in fact function much like any other organ, with the size and shape of the pipes regulating the note’s pitch and a keyboard acting as the musical interface. The only real difference is that the pyrophone’s notes were produced not by air pressure, but through a quirk of combustion first discovered by Higgins.

Poster advertising the Orchestral Fire Organ, Electric Singing Chandelier Lustre and Electric Singing Candelabra. (Science Museum, London)

 Sadly, the pyrophone and its cousins the Electrical Singing Lustre and the Electrical Singing Candelabra, did not set the musical world alight (with excitement). Both Hector Berlioz and Cesar Franck visited Kastner in order to try the pyrophone, and Charles Gounod considered using it in a production of Jeanne d’Arc, but in general the public’s reaction to the instrument was somewhat underwhelming. The only composer to actually write any music specifically for the instrument was Theodore Lack who wrote several pieces, including an arrangement of God Save the Queen that was later performed publicly. Kastner wrote a book about his instrument and The Times also paid the pyrophone some attention, but the instrument’s success was limited.


"Le Pyrophone, flammes chantantes" by Frédérique Kastner, 4th edition, 1876 (Science Museum, London)

To discover more about the pyrophone, its bizarre conection with the Red Cross and how it found its way into the Science Museum you’ll have to tune into the second part of The Amazing Adventures of Kastner’s Miraculous Pyrophone next week.