Hope-Jones at the College of Organists
by Colin Pykett
Posted: March 2004
Last revised: 20 December 2009
Copyright © C E Pykett
Abstract In 1891 Robert Hope-Jones gave a lecture to the College of Organists in London (they were not "Royal" then) about electric actions for organs. The transcript reveals a great deal about him. If it was verbatim, his delivery must have been uncomfortably unctuous. He was also secretive and he seems to have blinded his audience with dubious science. Moreover, some of what he said is difficult to reconcile with the facts. Yet he also demonstrated undoubted competence, and a piercing and accurate technical vision that is impressive even by today's standards. Thus the paper reflects in fascinating microcosm the excesses and contradictions of his future work and his personality.
The way the lecture was received at the time and since is just as interesting. Frequently, commentators ranging from engineers to musicologists and historians seem to have been mesmerised by what he said. These and other matters are the subject of a detailed critique of the Hope-Jones lecture in this article. It examines why there persists to the present day a desire in some quarters to deify the man and his works when the realities were rather different, notwithstanding the positive aspects of his legacy.
Robert Hope-Jones (by kind permission of The Organ)
An author, unfortunately one apparently without the requisite credentials, suggested recently that Robert Hope-Jones might have been mad rather than merely eccentric . Were it true, such a feat of posthumous diagnosis would probably be unique in the annals of psychiatry. He is clearly more than fascinated by the psychology of organ builders because elsewhere in the same volume he ponders at length on Thomas Casson, suggesting he also might have been mad (possibly an occupational hazard at that time), but also describing him as " … a cruel, self-obsessed man ... ". Apparently " … there seems to have been in Casson’s personality the same inflexibility and small-mindedness that one tends to associate with a certain kind of clerical worker". What kind, I wonder? . At times in this article I too shall not mince words. But by taking pains to demonstrate the assertions as fact I hope readers will accept them as fair. To balance the process I shall also point to some positive aspects of Hope-Jones’s work, including his piercingly accurate ability to foretell the future which remains astonishing even with today’s hindsight.
These and other thoughts arose after
reading the transcript of a lecture given by Hope-Jones to the College of
Organists in 1891  – the RCO had not received its Royal Charter at that
In a dozen pages he succinctly exposed just about everything which we associate
with him today: his excesses as he explored the technical envelope of organ
building as it then existed, his extremes of taste, and – yes – perhaps even
I am not competent to judge whether today he would be regarded as mad or even
eccentric as he would be up against some formidable competition for either
condition, but within this article it does not matter.
What does matter is that during this lecture he was secretive, and he seems to
have blinded his audience with science in ways that few could have
followed. He also displayed a tendency to avoid the facts of a situation
on occasion and thus to present his achievements in an excessively favourable
light. His lecturing style might
embarrassing to listen to.
Overall, though, we see in microcosm how he presented himself so convincingly
that, over a century later, much of what he said is still accepted at face value
even though it should have been long dismissed.
Thus the transcript is a fascinating and absorbing document on several levels,
and the remainder of this article discusses these in more detail.
I have mentioned already the curious excess of humility and unctuousness in Hope-Jones’s delivery. Shortly after beginning this lecture he said that .. the task of controlling organs electrically was accomplished by distinguished predecessors almost before my youthful fingers had ever touched a keyboard. Later we find :
.. though I claim no great skill as a
performer … ,
.. the weight of my name in musical matters so slight ...,
… as the evening and probably your patience also are far spent … ,
… I should like, if you will permit me … ,
pray excuse me for having detained you so long.
Even making due allowance for the cant and verbosity of that age, few speakers would actually commit to writing in the published version of their lecture the flourishes of politeness and the informalities which usually adorn a verbal presentation (but see also ). In other words, while a presentation itself might contain several or many instances of such ad lib remarks, they will seldom appear in print. It would be ludicrous if they did, and so it is here. We can therefore surmise that Hope-Jones's delivery was probably brimming over in this respect as he amplified and added to the number of the aphorisms and clichés to which he was apparently addicted.
The foregoing might seem unkind and
However the words are there and they were apparently spoken.
I have included them because of their contrast with some other ingredients of
the lecture, of which the tendency of Hope-Jones to blind his audience with
science was one.
On the one hand we have him seemingly wringing his hands and almost apologising for having
dragged his audience away from their comfortable firesides to listen to one with
so slight a name, yet in the next breath he stuns them into silence with matters
few if any of them could possibly have comprehended.
Who can say? Whatever the explanation, it was all part of a lecturing style which
was astonishingly successful, given the uncritical acclaim it has since
received. Here is an example of the contrasting material within the
Early in the lecture he mentioned the
self-inductance of electromagnets and pointed out that large ones with heavy
armatures can be slow in response.
(It is interesting that this monochrome view persists today in the Orwellian
form of “direct electric Bad, electro-pneumatic Good”.
Whether “slow” is “unsatisfactorily slow” requires that we examine the
characteristics of a particular action, and I have shown elsewhere that a direct
electric action with a large magnet need not be any slower than an
electro-pneumatic one working the same pallet. ).
He also pointed to the problems of excessive sparking at the key contacts.
Both matters were possibly familiar to at least some of the audience, provided
we grant that terms such as self-induction were within their intellectual
horizon at that time.
Therefore I do not consider this an area where Hope-Jones was intending
necessarily to blind them with science.
However he then went on immediately to
mention the effects of the self-inductance and capacity of the cable, not
the magnet, and how these factors affect the propagation speed of an electric
impulse along it.
Here he must have been way beyond the ken of any of the musical members of his
audience, unless they were polymaths and had an understanding of these matters
comparable to that of the speaker.
Unfortunately he was also wrong, because he had raised issues which were
irrelevant to an organ action.
To demonstrate the truth of this more details appear in Appendix
Moreover, he must have known he was talking nonsense, so we have to ask why he
did it. When we do ask such questions it becomes difficult
to see how Hope-Jones could duck the charge that he was deliberately blinding
his audience with science at this point.
In the space of the next six lines in the
transcript he then took the audience on a whirlwind tour of topics such as
circuit resistance, magnet efficiency and depolarisers.
None were explained; instead he terminated matters by saying “But enough, I
will not weary you further by enumerating the hundred and one things which have
demanded careful consideration …”.
Yes, these are the tactics of a speaker who wants to impress, yet with little
desire to explain.
He did indeed blind his audience with science, and incorrect science at that.
In the previous section we have seen that
Hope-Jones raised a matter which was of no relevance to an electric action, the
self-inductance and capacitance of the connecting cable.
Because he must have known that it was irrelevant, he was skating on thin ice as
far as the truth was concerned.
Elsewhere in the lecture he went further, because we find material which was
unsupportable by the facts.
He repeated several times that the actions of his organs could be energised
reliably for long periods by dry cells.
On the first occasion he said “
… to reduce the current required to play a large four manual organ for some
six months to such an extent that it may all be obtained from a little dry cell
…. (He then produced a cell and proceeded for some reason to put the
terminals into his mouth).
He repeated the words “little dry battery” later on and they recurred
again during the post-lecture discussion.
The story became oft repeated, indeed it
has played a part in the apotheosis of the man by those willing to believe it.
Visitors to St John’s Birkenhead, where he was then the organist, were shown a
single (though quite large) dry cell and given the same tale .
After the lecture he was questioned at length on the matter.
He was asked if the bellows produced the current required (it is unclear what
was meant though we can surmise it related to the current being generated by the
Hope-Jones replied that, although he had done this formerly using a dynamo
(presumably driven by the gas engine used to blow the St John’s organ), and
that he had also used secondary cells (accumulators), the action now only
required “little dry cells”.
This is not incompatible with a description of that organ which had appeared
only a couple of months earlier .
A matter of days after that he had also written that an organ like that at St
John’s can be
‘constructed to consume a fraction of an ampere and on a pressure of one
and a half volts. It will be seen that a single cell will suffice for the
The facts could not be more different.
It is impossible that a Hope-Jones organ could have been made to work at all
using only a single dry cell, let alone work for six months, and his figures for
voltage and current consumption just quoted are incompatible with the nature of
the instrument at St John’s.
The key action alone would have required a voltage much greater than that of a
dry cell before it would have
functioned reliably (some evidence suggests his dynamo generated at least 8
Moreover, his value for the current drawn was meaningless because it would have
depended on how many notes were keyed simultaneously.
It is more useful, and honest, to estimate the storage capacity in ampere-hours
required of the battery, and calculations show this to have been beyond the
capabilities of dry cells.
More importantly, there is no way a single dry cell could have been used to power the stop and
combination actions used in that organ because currents of many amperes would
have been necessary.
I have presented a detailed justification of all these assertions elsewhere .
He continued to be pressed on the
question of dry cells, as he was then asked whether one cell did all the work.
Instead of repeating a story that was well distanced from reality, he now seemed to retreat a
little and said that it all depended on the length of the interconnecting cable.
If this was long, he maintained its resistance would demand
the use of a higher voltage, thus more cells.
Again, however, this was quite untrue as a statement of physics. We can be sure of this from the considerations which are rehearsed here in
Then he was asked to confirm yet again that any three or four manual organ would
work with dry cells.
Presumably having recovered his sang froid, he replied brazenly that it
would, and that they would last for six months.
We can state with certainty, therefore,
that Hope-Jones had no compunction about dispensing with scientific and
engineering fact when it
suited his purposes.
At times during the lecture Hope-Jones
displayed a coyness amounting to a refusal to answer questions.
Although this would have been all of a piece with a man who could dispense with
facts so casually, secretiveness is of a lesser order and a different kind and it
is worth discussing further.
We have noted already his tendency to
skim over issues without explaining them properly.
During the discussion which followed the lecture, Hope-Jones was asked “what
came between the armature and the pipes?”.
In other words, he was being asked to describe the totality of his
electro-pneumatic action beyond the chest magnet.
He declined to reply on the grounds that his patent agent had cautioned him
against over-exposure at that moment.
On the face of it this was a reasonable response, and it is the case that at the
time the lecture was delivered he was in the midst of patenting his ideas ,
Yet earlier in the lecture he had already mentioned most of the novel aspects of
his mechanisms which were among the claims in these patents, including a magnet
which consumed a tiny amount of current (but not so tiny that hundreds of them would run
for months on a dry
cell), an armature which moved only a
minute amount (it could have been thus adjusted but it was unnecessary) and his
ideas for producing sound entirely electrically (q.v.).
He had merely been asked what came beyond this point in the action and the
answer, had he given it, was that there was nothing particularly novel.
It was merely a two stage pneumatic mechanism of the sort that had been used
routinely in most tubular pneumatic and some electro-pneumatic actions already.
One can conclude that Hope-Jones resorted to secretiveness on this occasion
to hide the fact that there was really nothing out of the ordinary about his
actions in these respects.
The organs designed by Hope-Jones were
usually replete with novel facilities and devices.
It would be a digression to include all of them here, and also unnecessary
because the lecture itself contained enough of them to prove the next point.
During the lecture Hope-Jones referred to
some of the attributes of the organ at St John’s.
These included his “stop switch” registration aid, multiple couplers (nineteen) including
those giving the quint of the note played, “suitable bass” to select pedal
stops automatically, a stop tab to
open the swell shutters rapidly, and so on.
He also outlined his concept of the fully unified organ in which all concept of
separate divisions was eschewed in favour of all the stops being available on
all the keyboards.
Here we see plain evidence, at an early
stage in his career, of Hope-Jones’s
apparent inability to discriminate between what was necessary to assist the
player and render the music, and what was a luxury or irrelevant.
He seemed to be obsessed by a compulsion to include everything that the
technology could conceivably offer.
Engineers today with this outlook are usually accused of creating solutions for
problems which do not exist, and it is not an uncommon phenomenon in many
However they become unpopular with their employers when their ideas threaten
profitability, and that fate also overtook Hope-Jones later in his increasingly
sad life as he seemed unable to shake off these urges.
Even that most extreme realisation of
Hope-Jones’s unification ideas, the theatre organ, retained distinct divisions
though it need not have done if its design was solely technology-driven.
The basic ingredients of light popular music are a melody, a contrasting
accompaniment and a bass line, and these were reflected in the design of the
smallest two manual theatre organs with Accompaniment and Solo departments, as
well as the larger ones.
If Hope-Jones was able to perceive the importance of history and music as it
affected organ design, he demonstrated little evidence of it at a technical
level nor, as his later work showed, at a tonal level either.
Is it not all the more astonishing, then,
that a matter of only five years after giving this lecture he had more or less
completed his monumental organ at Worcester cathedral?
The reasons for this rapid ascent to stardom among organ builders are not a
legitimate part of this essay, but it must have had something to do with an
almost hypnotic quality that he was able to exercise.
We shall return to this later when we review some of the things which subsequent
authors have written about him.
In this lecture there was an example of
Hope-Jones’s ability to forecast the way that organs would develop, long after
his death, in a rather uncanny way.
His closing subject concerned what he called the Electric Organ, an instrument
which would contain no pipes.
(It was a confusing designation because he also referred subsequently to his
pipe organs in the same way, indeed one of the companies he formed to build them
was called the Electric Organ Company ).
What he described was a purely electrical
instrument using what we now call additive synthesis, in which the tones were
formed by combination of the various upper partials with the ground tone,
each in differing degree (his words).
It is interesting to pause and take stock of the historical context of his
The French mathematician J-B J Fourier
(1768-1830) had shown many years earlier that any periodic waveform, such as one
which has a definite musical pitch, can be decomposed into its fundamental
frequency and a number of harmonics.
The inverse process, additive synthesis, reconstructs the original sound by
adding the individual pure tones together with the appropriate strengths.
So far so good; it is not remarkable in itself that Hope-Jones was aware of
To the German polymath von Helmholtz, this was apparently the key to
understanding subjective timbre or tone quality as described in his famous book
of 1865 .
Although his ideas were shown subsequently to be over-simplified, they still apply
quite well to organ pipes with their sustained and relatively time-invariant
Presumably Hope-Jones was also aware of this work, which was by no means novel
at the time he was giving his lecture.
What he did not do during the lecture was to illustrate the means he had in mind to generate the necessary pure tones and cause them to be heard. However he described them in another contemporary patent  which contains some remarkably prescient notions. The diagram of a toothed or serrated disc rotating near a coil of wire is remarkably like the tone generator made by Laurens Hammond for the Hammond electronic organ of the 1930’s, over 15 years after Hope-Jones died and some 40 years after he gave his lecture. To properly appreciate the novelty of Hope-Jones’s vision though, we have to remind ourselves that no notion of “electronics” existed at that time. The subject as we know it today had to await the invention of thermionic valves (vacuum tubes) by pioneers such as Fleming and de Forest more than a decade after the lecture. Without these there was no hope of amplifying the tiny voltages generated by his rotating discs, and of course loudspeakers were completely unknown and a thing of the future. Therefore he had also to propose means for causing the signals to become audible, and for this he described a combined fluidic amplifier and loudspeaker using water power. An article elsewhere on this website discusses all these matters in more detail .
It was a wholly impractical system
because he was limited by the bounds of the technology of the day.
However the lecture contains hints of the excitement he felt (“This …
makes one long for leisure uninterruptedly to follow it out”, and “…
the need for earning daily bread has materially interfered with the rapid
progress in this matter …”, etc). It is obvious that he foresaw clearly the development of
what we would call the electronic organ long before a
shred of the necessary technology was available, and some of today’s digital
instruments such as the Bradford Computing Organ and its derivatives (patented
nearly a century after the lecture ) still use additive synthesis.
Unfortunately he was also probably the first of many future electronic organ enthusiasts to go over the top about its potential: “ The huge wind organ will certainly ere long breathe his last, and will become … as extinct as the Dodo”. One suspects that such hyperbole relating to a contrivance that had not then been made may have rather spoilt his case in front of that particular audience. He went on to say “ … I venture to entertain the hope that it may fall to my lot upon some future occasion to exhibit to the members of this college an electric organ which shall carry all before it” .
Of course that cherished hope remained
unfulfilled. So on that somewhat wistful note I end this
analysis of what Hope-Jones said in this interesting lecture and turn to how his
ideas were received by others.
We have discussed already some of the
questions Hope-Jones fielded at the end of his lecture, and have seen that there
was possibly some justified if polite scepticism concerning his battery claims.
Others seemed to rush to his defence, especially a certain Mr Threlfall who trumpeted that “Mr
Hope-Jones had absolutely and entirely succeeded in everything he had put
forward” [regarding the organ at St John’s, Birkenhead].
He went on to say that “Mr Hope-Jones might have added that he had given
his advice and assistance to organ builders without any further charge … ”
and that “The royalty was extremely low …”.
It was therefore poor repayment to this naïve and supportive gentleman when the
shameless and redoubtable speaker assured him subsequently that a large organ would
work for six months on dry cells!
But although Mr Threlfall may
have been technically naïve, he was probably an astute and successful businessman.
He was most likely Thomas Threlfall, the chairman and major shareholder of
Hope-Jones's first company at Birkenhead, and he owned the brewery of the same
name in Liverpool. It can scarcely be coincidence that some of
Hope-Jones's largest subsequent organs arose under the patronage of, and in the
localities of, other wealthy brewers . Thus it is interesting, though
not perhaps surprising, that this important figure in Hope-Jones's future career
was apparently in the audience.
But although Mr Threlfall may have been technically naïve, he was probably an astute and successful businessman. He was most likely Thomas Threlfall, the chairman and major shareholder of Hope-Jones's first company at Birkenhead, and he owned the brewery of the same name in Liverpool. It can scarcely be coincidence that some of Hope-Jones's largest subsequent organs arose under the patronage of, and in the localities of, other wealthy brewers . Thus it is interesting, though not perhaps surprising, that this important figure in Hope-Jones's future career was apparently in the audience.
A curiosity of the aftermath of the lecture is that its shortcomings have been seldom, if ever, exposed. On the contrary, virtually everything Hope-Jones said seems to have been taken at face value both during the lecture and subsequently. This persists to the present day. Equally remarkable is the converse: that Hope-Jones’s detractors could have seized on many opportunities for objective criticism, yet they have routinely descended into subjective and emotive censure which demonstrates solely their abandonment of scholarship. This also has persisted. Examples of the latter will not be given, not to spare embarrassment to the often eminent authors, but because they do not merit yet further opportunities for parading their views. As to the former, we need only look at one or two instances to illustrate the point.
Bicknell wrote recently that “by using the combined armature/valve
electro-magnet he [Hope-Jones] was able to use low voltages and reduced
the current consumption of the organ to manageable proportions, opening the way
to a solution to the battery problem” .
Here the author seems to have assumed
that because the magnet armature was small and only moved a short distance, the
associated magnet only needed a small amount of power.
These were precisely the arguments advanced by Hope-Jones himself during
his lifetime as the alleged advantages of his chest
In fact there is no relation between the two, because the current required by a
DC electromagnet is determined (for a given voltage) solely by the resistance of
its coil and not the mechanical work it has to do.
The fact is that the Hope-Jones magnet would have drawn more current than those
of most of his competitors .
Here the author seems to have assumed that because the magnet armature was small and only moved a short distance, the associated magnet only needed a small amount of power. These were precisely the arguments advanced by Hope-Jones himself during his lifetime as the alleged advantages of his chest magnet. In fact there is no relation between the two, because the current required by a DC electromagnet is determined (for a given voltage) solely by the resistance of its coil and not the mechanical work it has to do. The fact is that the Hope-Jones magnet would have drawn more current than those of most of his competitors .
A useful paper referred to earlier was published by no less a body than the Institution of Electrical Engineers (now the IET) itself as recently as 1989 . However it largely failed to investigate critically the claims made by Hope-Jones during his career and during his lecture to the College of Organists, which the authors mentioned in their article. They revealed their take on the matter by concluding that without Hope-Jones “ … the world would not have known the Wurlitzer which … encapsulated many brilliant ideas from one man …. That man was Robert Hope-Jones, MIEE”.
Sumner remarked on the polarised attitudes of commentators on Hope-Jones’s work when he said he “has been the cause of uncritical encomiums on the one hand and wholesale condemnation on the other” . This confirms what we have noted already, that little exists in the middle ground. Unfortunately Sumner himself muddied the waters through his inability to decide which side of the fence he was on. In two successive sentences in his book he said that “ … Hope-Jones’s influence on organ design … was entirely unfortunate. The cinema organ with … its convenient reliable electric action, was the direct result of the work of Hope-Jones”. Since when has a convenient and reliable action detracted from the work of any organ builder? More regrettably still, he praised Henry Willis elsewhere in the same book using exactly the same words ("with the production of convenient and reliable electric action, the control of the [Willis] instrument became easier and more satisfactory in response). Sumner also poured scorn on Hope-Jones's organ at Worcester cathedral because its action lasted for only a quarter of a century, yet he eulogised Willis for his Canterbury organ whose action he claimed "would have continued working for an indefinite time” [had the organ not been rebuilt]. What a daft and meaningless statement! These examples of slack writing illustrate as well as any the phenomenon whereby logic seems to desert some scholars when Hope-Jones is their target, a phenomenon still encountered today.
The situation depicted in this article is
actually a simple one.
Hope-Jones was, firstly, adept at obscuring simple facts about his work, which means that
virtually everything he said has to be examined independently for veracity.
Secondly, that is relatively easy to do because he has left us plenty of clues.
It is unfortunate that Hope-Jones’ scholarship has not, on the whole, taken
The effect that Hope-Jones's lecture and
his subsequent work had on
contemporary and posthumous commentators has been outlined.
Probably the most singular feature is the bifurcated view of him. On the
one hand there persists a widespread “will to believe” in the
man and his works when the facts are rather different, and some of the
quotations above demonstrate this.
On the other he has been the target of quite inexcusable opprobrium sometimes,
one suspects, by those whose own motives deserve closer scrutiny. Without doubt he was extremely intelligent, well versed in the then novel and
exciting exotica of his chosen profession of electrical engineering.
His vision of today’s electronic organ and the extent to which he pursued it was really quite remarkable by any
Yet this alone does not seem able to account for the almost mythical way he has
Evidence from elsewhere suggests he had a flamboyant and charismatic
personality, and if the effects of this are added to his undoubted competence,
perhaps the situation becomes more understandable.
However one has to set against this shortcomings such as those which have been discussed here.
True scholarship cannot avoid taking them into account, any more than it should
neglect his indisputable strengths in favour of innuendo and smear.
However one has to set against this shortcomings such as those which have been discussed here.
True scholarship cannot avoid taking them into account, any more than it should
neglect his indisputable strengths in favour of innuendo and smear.
In his lecture to the College of Organists he exposed just about everything that subsequently characterised his life and work. It must have been a fascinating experience to have been in the audience.
Grateful thanks are due to David Hemsley
for having drawn my attention to some additional routes into the literature, and
to the publishers of The Organ for permission to reproduce the photograph
of Robert Hope-Jones.
Sending an “on” or “off” message
from a key to the magnet of an organ with an early electric action is, at first
sight, exactly the same as sending a dot or a dash in Morse code along a
Victorian telegraph wire.
In both cases a contact is closed and then opened, resulting in a pulse of
current which activates an electromagnet at the far end.
Thus it is interesting to set both the electric telegraph and early electric
organ actions in an historical context, so that we might then be able to
understand why Hope-Jones raised esoteric subjects such as the self-inductance
of wires in his lecture to the College of Organists.
The electric telegraph was developed from
about 1840, and as line lengths increased it was found that problems arose which
were not simply due to the increased electrical resistance of the length of wire
(which could have been overcome merely by raising the voltage used).
These problems came to a head in the mid-1860’s when transatlantic submarine
cables were laid (one of the first by Brunel’s monumental Great Eastern
It was found that a data rate of only a few dots or dashes per minute was
possible on these enormously long lines, because the rapid closure or opening of
the contact at the sending end appeared as a smeared-out pulse of long duration
at the receiving end.
At first there was only the vaguest understanding of why this occurred, until
minds such as that of Lord Kelvin focused on the matter.
His work and that of Oliver Lodge laid the foundations of transmission line theory which ultimately
enabled the development of waveguides for microwave radar during the second
world war, and the optical fibres of today. Lodge's beautiful piece of
work which led to his famous "telegrapher's equation" emerged at
almost exactly the time Hope-Jones gave his lecture.
Early transatlantic cables were
the ocean itself was used for the return leg.
Not only was the resistance of the cable substantial, but its self-capacitance
was enormous as a result of the water surrounding it.
When a current pulse with the rapid rise and fall times from a Morse key was
applied to such a cable, the waveform was grossly distorted at the receiving end
into one which had sloping rather than vertical edges.
Because the received pulses were so stretched out in time, it was difficult to
distinguish a dot from a dash, and they could only be sent slowly.
One way to analyse the situation is to represent the pulse at the sending end as
a sum of an infinite number of sine waves with different frequencies (Fourier
integral analysis). Each of them in effect travels at a different speed down the
cable - they are subjected to a frequency-dependent phase shift.
Therefore, when they emerge at the other end they are no longer in step with
each other, thus they add up to produce a distorted pulse with a completely
The transmission speed of each frequency component could be made the same by adding coils of wire to augment the self-inductance of the cable itself. The inductances compensated for the self-capacitance of the cable by inserting time delays which varied in an inverse manner with frequency. Thus the emerging pulse then had the same shape as that which was transmitted, although there was now an overall propagation delay – contrary to what might be believed, the pulse in such a compensated cable does not travel at the speed of light. This is a crucial point when we examine what Hope-Jones said in his lecture because it enables us to decide whether he understood the subject or not. For telegraphy the delay was not an issue however, as the main problem of pulse distortion had been overcome. Dots and dashes could then be sent at normal speeds and transatlantic telegraphy rapidly became big business.
Hope-Jones was a professional
His 1891 lecture was delivered only some twenty years after these epoch-making
developments had first arisen, and they must have been fresh in his mind.
No telephone engineer could demonstrate competence unless he had a working
practical knowledge of transmission lines, if not the details of the
On the face of it, one can therefore understand why Hope-Jones mentioned these
matters in his lecture: electric actions were superficially similar to telegraph systems, and these
required special transmission line techniques before they would work properly.
However, there were some important differences between organs and telegraphs
because the line lengths differed markedly.
Even Hope-Jones’s organs with their much-vaunted moveable consoles seldom used
more than 50 metres of cable, thus the line resistance would not have exceeded a
few ohms (see Appendix 2), hundreds or thousands of times less than that of a
typical telegraph line.
Nor would there have been any significant self-capacitance or inductance on such
Therefore pulse distortion and transmission delay at the magnet end of the line
would both have been completely negligible.
One is led to ask, therefore, why
Hope-Jones mentioned the matter at all.
There seem only to be two possible explanations: either he was more incompetent
and ignorant of his subject than is usually supposed, or he wanted to blind his
audience with science.
Because of the seniority of the positions he held, one must surely discount the
Moreover, in his lecture he said that “We all credit electricity with great
speed, but … its speed is considerably affected by the capacity and
self-induction of the line … “.
Therefore it is plain that he understood the effects described above.
What he did not say, though he must surely have known it to be true, is that
these effects were irrelevant for the short line lengths used in an organ
Therefore we can only assume he wanted his audience to agree that, in his own field, he could justifiably say “see how clever I am”. If this was so, why? Maybe he then felt it easier to demonstrate submissiveness to them in musical matters, as he did during the lecture. We might also ascribe to his performance a desire to sow the seeds of misinformation to baffle erstwhile competitors. He certainly did indulge in such tactics at other points during the lecture, and frequently later in his career. The electrical aspects of an organ action are fundamentally simple, and we can only conclude that Hope-Jones thought his interests would be best served by disguising this at a time when electricity mystified most people, including other organ builders.
After his lecture Hope-Jones was pressed
repeatedly on the issue of how many dry cells would be required to power the
action of his organs, presumably because he had emphasised several times that only one was necessary.
Perhaps the audience smelt a rat.
It is not difficult to show that even a battery consisting of several dry cells,
let alone a single one, would be inadequate .
However Hope-Jones continued, unabashed, to point out that when the cable
connecting the console to the organ was long, or consisted of thin wire,
it might be necessary to use more cells.
This, like so much else in the lecture, was
a red herring.
The resistance of his action magnet (the one in the key action which was
energised when a key contact closed) would likely have been between 100 and 50 ohms
The length of the cable would seldom have exceeded 50 metres (about 165 feet).
It would not have been practical to have used individual wires in the cable
thinner than about 26 SWG (diameter about 0.5 mm) as otherwise they would have
been too fragile for a cable which was subjected to frequent movement.
It is probable the wires would, in fact, have been thicker than this on the
basis of what we see in surviving fragments of Hope-Jones's actions.
However the electrical resistance of such a wire (26 SWG) is about 0.1 ohms per
metre, therefore the total resistance of each wire in a 50 metre cable would
have been around 5 ohms.
This would have been to all intents and purposes negligible compared to the
resistance of the magnet it was feeding (assuming there was a common return wire
made of thicker material whose resistance was insignificant, or multiple thinner
return wires in parallel).
Therefore there would have been no need to multiply the voltage by a factor of
two or three, using two or three cells instead of one, in order to bring the
current up to a value large enough to work the magnet.
The fact is that the magnet would not have
worked reliably, if at all, on the voltage provided by a single dry cell (1 ½
Therefore, to introduce the resistance of the cable into the argument was a
diversion with no substance in reality.
Hope-Jones was hoodwinking his audience.
The remark is contained in a book review written by Relf Clark in the Journal of the
British Institute of Organ Studies, volume 26, p. 192, 2002.
2. Clark 2002, op cit, p. 72.
3. “Electrical Aid to the Organist”, R Hope-Jones, Proceedings of the
College of Organists, 5 May 1891.
4. It is possible the transcript was not by the hand of Hope-Jones but written
afterwards by a stenographer and/or a secretary.
Just as nowadays, it would be usual in this situation to have allowed the speaker to read the
proof before publication and, if he did, the observations regarding excessive
humility made in the body of this article still stand.
However, if he was not offered this opportunity it would be reasonable to
attenuate or withdraw them.
“Response Speed of Electric Actions”, C E Pykett 2001, currently on this
Reprinted from Musical Opinion in “Organs and Tuning”, T Elliston, 3rd
edition, p.166, Weekes, London 1898
The Musical Standard
vol. XL no.1388
7 March 1891
8. The Musical Standard
vol. XL no.1390
21 March 1891
9. “Hope-Jones and the Dry Cell”, C E Pykett 2003, currently on this website. (read)
“Development of the electric organ and the significance of the contributions
of Robert Hope-Jones, MIEE”, C E and A J Ramsbottom, IEE Proc, 136, Pt A
(6), November 1989.
British Patent 15461, September 1890.
British Patent 18073, October 1891.
British Patent 18803, November 1890.
“A Brief Description of the Hope-Jones Electric Organ now being erected in
Worcester Cathedral by the Electric Organ Co Ltd, London and Birkenhead”,
company pamphlet dated April 1896.
“On the Sensations of Tone”, a translation by Ellis in 1872 of the German
original by H L F von Helmholtz, Brunswick, 1865.
British Patent 15245, 1890.
British Patent 1,580,690, December 1980.
18. “The History of the English Organ”,
Stephen Bicknell, Cambridge 1996 ISBN 0 521 55026 2.
19. “The Organ”, 3rd edition, W L Sumner, Macdonald, London 1962.
20. "From Wirral to WurliTzer", Roger C Fisher, Classfern Ltd, Wirral 2001. ISBN 0 9532991 9 8.
21. "Robert Hope-Jones and the Pipeless Organ", C E Pykett 2010, currently on this website (read).