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Which was the First Unit Organ?

Ian R McIver (2001)


It is generally believed that the unit organ was the conception of Robert Hope-Jones, and that it followed as a natural corollary of electro-pneumatic action. It therefore comes as some surprise to discover that unit organs apparently existed before Hope-Jones even started to build organs and many years before he launched his first "Unit Orchestra". In the course of research into other matters, I came across an interesting reference in Audsley's The Art of Organ-Building which sheds new light on the origins of the unit organ, which was developed into the theatre organ as we know it.

Audsley(1) quotes an interesting pamphlet by M. H. V. Couwenbergh entitled L'Orgue Simplifié, written in 1887, a year before Hope-Jones commenced organ-building work, and twenty years before Hope-Jones' first unit organ (1907, the New York State School for the Blind, Batavia, N.Y.)(2) . Couwenbergh describes a design for an organ in which extended ranks of pipes were made available on two of the instrument's three manuals and also on the pedals independently at a variety of pitches. The Grand-Orgue, Positif and Pédales formed a unit organ of six ranks:

Montre (Diapason) 32 - 1 ft

Bourdon (Stopped Flute) 32 - 2 ft

Violon 16 - 4 ft

Flûte Harmonique 8 - 2 ft

Bombarde (Trumpet) 32 - 4 ft

Basson (Oboe) 16 - 8 ft

These six unenclosed ranks were extended and unified to form 46 stops from 540 pipes. The second division (Récit Expressive), which was constructed according to the Système Ordinaire, comprised 11 stops, and as it included two compound stops of five and seven ranks, required 1039 pipes.

The unit section was certainly not constrained by economic factors, as three of the ranks were extended to 32ft. pitch, and all but one were available fully at 16ft. Viewed as an organ in its own right, this was a most lavishly appointed section, and would be the envy of organists today. Its flexibility, of course, would have been that much greater had it been enclosed in one or two chambers. Even more surprisingly, the ranks are very similar to those in the six-rank instruments built by Compton for some of Britain's ABC circuit cinemas in the late 1930s (although only two ranks would have gone down to 16ft. and none to 32ft.)

The pamphlet gives a very incomplete description of the mechanisms by which this was achieved, but also provides some insight into other nineteenth-century exam-ples of borrowing and duplication of stops:

Organ builders have always dreamed of making organs more simple. The renowned Abbé Vogler was one of the first to advocate a system to achieve this. In more recent times, the transmission system was invented in Germany, which achieved some success in Belgium and is still used by several builders, to play some of the great-organ basses from the pedals. This system led to another, called "duplexing" or "transforming", which, as the name suggests, consists of duplexing or transforming a rank of pipes into several independent stops. It is this system which Messrs P Schyven & Co., organ-builders of Ixelles-Brussels, have used for the past four years.

But the concept of duplexing, which, in brief, comprises obtaining effects of volume with few pipes, was not new when adopted by Messrs Schyven & Co. in 1884 and earlier (1872) by Messrs Delmotte Frères, organ-builders of Tournay. M. Léonard Dryvers, then an organ-builder at Rotselaer, built duplexed organs at the Ursuline Convents at Lièrre and Werchter in 1871. His techniques were very different from those used by Messrs Delmotte and Schyven. The results which these latter achieved through an extended use of transmission, M. Dryvers had already perfec-ted to a greater degree, by using mechanical components on a single pallet. He was thus able to derive from seven ranks of pipes more than 35 duplexed stops, available freely over all manuals and pedals.

The long, narrow wind-channels, grooves and numerous pallets of normal wind chests are replaced by a very simple mechanism, made up of brass and iron rollers and levers which are not, like a standard mechanism, subject to many forms of malfunctioning.

Each pipe is separately winded. This arrangement means that regularity of the speech of the stops is ensured, with a plentiful supply of wind which is always sufficient and constant to each pipe in accord-ance with its size and pitch.

M. Dryvers has taken economy of pipes to the maximum possible limit: from four ranks of 16-ft pipes he derives 31 stops; with six ranks of 32, 16 and 8-ft pipes he derives over 46 fully independent stops distributed over all keyboards at will.(3)

The detailed specification of the instrument was as follows:

Ranks from which the Grand-Orgue, Positif and Pédales are derived:

A Montre 32

B Bourdon 32

C Violon 16

D Flûte Harmonique 8

E Bombarde 32

F Basson 16



Principal (A) 16

Bourdon (B) 16

Montre (A) 8

Flûte Harmonique (D) 8

Viole di Gambe (C) 8

Prestant (A) 4

Flûte Octaviante (D) 4

Violine (C) 4

Doublette (A) 2

Flûte Champètre (B) 2

Piccolo (A) 1

Trompette (E) 16

Trompette (E) 8

Clairon (E) 4



Bourdon (B) 16

Principal (A) 8

Flûte Harmonique (D) 8

Viola (C) 8

Bourdon (B) 8

Prestant (A) 4

Flûte Octaviante (D) 4

Flûte Douce (B) 4

Violine (C) 4

Octavin Harmonique (D) 2

Basson (F) 16

Basson-Hautbois (F) 8

Trompette (E) 8



Montre (A) 32

Bourdon (B) 32

Contre-Basse (A) 16

Violon Basse (C) 16

Sous-Basse (B) 16

Montre (A) 8

Flûte Ouverte (D) 8

Violon (C) 8

Flûte Bouchée (B) 8

Octave (A) 4

Flûte Douce (B) 4

Bombarde (E) 32

Bombarde (E) 16

Basson Basse (F) 16

Trompette (E) 8

Basson (F) 8

Clairon (E) 4  


Récit-Expressif (enclosed)

Salicional 8

Flûte Harmonique 8

Voix Céleste 8

Flûte d'Echo Harmonique 4

Kéraulophone 4

Cor Anglais 16

Musette 8

Voix Humaine 8

Quinte 5 1/3

Fourniture VII

Cornet V


Récit to Grand-Orgue


From the scant technical details given, it appears that, although electric organ actions had been known in France since 1866 (4), the instrument described used mechanical or Barker-lever action (a form of pneumatically-assisted mechanical action much used by French organ builders such as Cavaillé-Coll) to drive its "rollers and levers". It is unfortunate that how this was accomplished is not detailed. It would seem that individual pallets were provided for each pipe. Certainly, this cumbersome method of constructing unit organs was not likely to represent anything more than an quaint eccentricity, an amazing complexity which, despite the assurances given, must have been prone to all varieties of mechanical maladjustments. One imagines the mechanisms must have been on a par with Babbage's mechanical computer. It is small wonder that one manual was provided with a traditional action, and thus could be expected to work when the others fell out of adjustment. Audsley dismisses it thus:

If we were not forced, by the general tone of this remarkable pamphlet to recognise that the "Nouveau Système" was seriously advocated, we should feel satisfied that the whole affair was intended as a cleverly organised joke (5).

Although Couwenbergh's pamphlet was published in 1887, it can be surmised that it received little circulation, at least in England, prior to Audsley's inclusion of extracts from it in his 1905 book. When Hope-Jones delivered a lecture to England's Royal College of Organists on 5 May, 1891, in which he described "a scheme of treating the organ as a single unit and rendering it possible to draw any of the stops on any of the keyboards at any (reasonable) pitch" (6), it was regarded as revolutionary.

Perhaps it was not quite as revolutionary as it appeared at the time.



1. Audsley, George Ashdown, The Art of Organ-Building, Dodd Mead & Co., New York, 1905, Vol. 2, pp. 13-18.

2. Webb, F., Hope-Jones in the United States, "The Organ", London, January, 1934, p.155.

3. "L'Orgue Simplifié ou Notice sur le Nouveau Système d'Orgues, inventé par M. Léonard Dryvers, Facteur d'orgues à Kessel-Loo-Louvain, par H. V. Couwenbergh, Organiste à l'Abbaye d'Averbode, quoted by Audsley, op. cit, pp. 13 - 15, extracts translated by Ian Mac.

4. Hinton, J. W., Story of the Electric Organ, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co., London, 1909, p.56.

5. Audsley, Op. cit., p. 13.

6. Miller, George L., The Recent Revolution in Organ-Building, Charles Francis Press, New York, 1913, p. 69.


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