The Vocalion

Paul Carey of the Carey Organ Company, USA, has collected a lot of information about Vocalion organs. The following introduction is taken from Paul's Web site There are several characteristics that set Vocalions apart from the typical reed organ with which we are all familiar. Vocalions operate on pressure rather than suction. The reeds are large-scaled and speak into chambers called qualifying tubes. Just as in the finishing process for pipe organs, the individual stops on a Vocalion can be regulated note by note. Slightly enlarging the tone opening sharpens the pitch thus the reed is flatted to correct pitch. The individual sounds between the ranks are astoundingly different one from another.

The action for the Vocalion is on the tracker system as in mechanical action pipe organs. There are backfalls that spread the key scale to chest scale [because the reeds are wider than normal] and trackers run from them to the pull wires coming out of the chest. The original wind systems were fitted out with two feeders, parallel for the earlier organs and diagonal by the time Aeolian was doing the building (c.1900). The reservoir was double rise. A pump handle was furnished plus capped holes ready to accept a wind line from a blower.

Last but not least is that, in appearance and in playing these instruments were legitimate organs both in the playing ``feel'' and physical appearance of a miniature pipe organ.

Thanks also to Paul for the following brief historical timeline.

1875 - Roots in England with James Baillie Hamilton, around 10
       instruments built by Wm. Hill and Co.
1885 - Introduced in Worcester, MA.
1886 - Hamilton Vocalion Mfg. Co.
1890 - Mason and Risch, New York and Worcester
1903 - Aeolian Ownership
1910 - Demise of the type - total production figure not known

Some idea of the links between the various individuals and firms involved in the history of the Vocalion is shown in the figure.


A. Cavaillé-Coll (c.1855)

One of the greatest French organ builders, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, (b.1811) learned the art of reed voicing on harmonium reeds while in his teens. He was particularly influential on English builders in the mid-19th Century, especially Henry Willis who also began his career working with free reeds. Cavaillé-Coll did build early reed organs - the Poikilorgue is one built between 1833 and 1848. Much less well known are three 2MP monumental reed organs. One was in the Kaiser's hunting lodge in Louppy near Metz. A surviving working example is in the church of Ban de Sapt near Nancy [23]. These were built in 1855 and may be a precursor of the Vocalion, not technically but in terms of important pressure reed organs built by a well known pipe organ builder.

Despite its appearance with a spectacular array of false pipes above the console (hiding the swell shutters, action and wind chests), the instrument is actually a very large harmonium with 38 stops. The Grand division (lower manual) has 16 stops, some 4:6 ranks. The Recit (upper manual) has 14 stops, 4:4 ranks. Pedal division (3 ranks) and overall effects are controlled by 8 foot operated latches. It also has Barker lever action on the Grand, which is mentioned again near the end of this chapter. Much of this is familiar from Cavaillé-Coll pipe organs. This instrument has been restored by German pipe organ company [which?] and is fully described in an article of HVN, the Dutch harmonium society [23].

Whilst I have included this instrument (preserved as a historical monument in France since 1993), there is currently only circumstantial evidence of its influence on the Vocalion development. As noted, it is a very large harmonium of unusual design, built for church or salon use as an alternative to a pipe organ, but it did not have any of the sound changing devices which will be described in the rest of this chapter.

As an aside, I note that the most complete remaining instrument in the UK by Cavaillé-Coll, originally built for Bracewell Hall in Barnoldswick, is in the Parr Hall, Warrington where I live. Despite its historical significance and fabulous sound, it is rarely played and appreciated by few in its current location.

J.B. Baillie Hamilton (c.1872-c.1921)

The story of the vocalion voiced reed organs started with Hermann Smith, John Farmer and James Baillie Hamilton. The latter was a self financed Scottish inventor who tried to perfect the sound of musical instruments using free reeds in the 1870s by incorporating various devices including sympathetically vibrating strings, wires and resonator boxes. Some history of this kind of instrument and its origins is given in the Feb'1985 edition of ROS Bulletin by Richards (re-produced from The Diapason Aug'1975) [154] and by Arthur Ord-Hume in The Organ [141]. There is also a book by R.H.M Bosanquet [17].

John ``James'' Buchanan Baillie Hamilton (b.24/4/1850-d.28/5/1921) was the son of Admiral William Alexander Baillie Hamilton, later to become secretary to the Admiralty, and Lady Harriet Hamilton. He was born in Westwick, Middlesex; his siblings included Harriet Eleanor (a poet and author), Laura Frances, George, William Alexander (later Sir William, Private Secretary to the Chief Secretary of Ireland and Secretary of State for the Colonies, Gentleman Usher of Blue Rod of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, invested KCMG in 1897) and Charles Robert (Clerk to the Treasury).

James Baillie Hamilton was married in the Henry VII Lady Chapel at the east end of Westminster Abbey on 11/8/1886 to Lady Evelyn E. Campbell (b.17/8/1855-d.22/3/1940) fourth daughter of the Duke of Argyll. The Campbells were another wealthy Scottish family. Lady Evelyn was also the 6th cousin of Wilbraham Egerton, so often visited Tatton Park which is about 10 miles from where I live.

A Vocalion played throughout the wedding. Augustus Hare, who attended the wedding, noted ... their future depends for the bread and butter of life [on the Vocalion], at present supplied to them by America for looking after it. They have also a camp, in which they propose to train boys for hardships in the colonies, and the sweet little bride began her own hardships by having to walk two miles to this, through the wet grass and fern of a desolate moor, carrying in a basket the cold chicken and bread which her sisters had.... The camp was to be set up on a island off the south coast of England to educate young people following the ideas of General Gordon.

The wedding had been announced in the New York Times on 28/7/1886. They were proud to mention that Baillie Hamilton would become brother-in-law of the Marquis of Lorne and the Marchioness of Percy. The employees of the Worcester, Massachusetts, Vocalion factory which he had recently set up, presented him with a gold chain and watch engraved on the rear with the emblem of the Vocalion Organ Co. This was presented to him by William Monroe.

He lived in Studland Street, Hammersmith, London in 1884 and after his marriage at 14 Cheyne Row in London in 1891 and in 1892 at Argyle Lodge, Kensington and in 1915-26 at 29 Upper Berkeley Street off Portman Square, London. His last patent was for a combined piano and reed organ in which the wind chest incorporated the piano sound board. This returned to the original concept of reeds and strings.

For a period around 1885-7 the couple lived in Worcester, Mass. as will be explained below. It is noted [154] that a Vocalion was exhibited there in 1885.

James Baillie Hamilton died in 1921.


There is some doubt over the actual origin of the vocalion principle, and it is widely attributed to John Farmer who had the first patent with J.B. Hamilton on 13/11/1872. Hermann Smith claimed it was his idea and accused Hamilton of stealing it. Smith and Hamilton had filed a joint USA patent no.181,490 in 1876 illustrating the use of free reeds with attached control wires. Hamilton and Farmer later also had a number of joint patents. The Vocalion was demonstrated at Harrow Public School on 23/3/1875 and was described, with illustrations, at a seminar at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on 21/5/1875.

When Baillie-Hamilton exhibited this new musical instrument, which he called a "Vocalion", before the Royal Association in London in 1873, he had a difficult time getting the strings to speak at all. Despite the technical difficulties at the Association meeting, one board member, Mr. Southgate, was encouraged: If we can get a purer quality of tone without any of the dis-agreeable over-tones which are so present in the harmonium, no doubt the invention would be very valuable, and I think the whole musical world would welcome it.


Perhaps Hermann Smith's most significant individual patent (as relevant to this story) was UK no.4,942 from Dec'1978 also patented in France and in USA no.233,038 on 5/10/1980. This was for ``improvements to reeds for harmoniums, organs and other musical instruments''. Here, he patented the results of his numerous experiments in shaping the reeds and frames for voicing. It also showed various shaped cavities into which the reeds would speak.

The early Vocalions were clearly rather different from the ones we know today. An article in the Daily News from 17/4/1882 note The tones of the Vocalion are produced by parallel bands of brass, sometimes two, sometimes three to each note; and to these are attached wires or metal ligatures acting in sympathy or constraint, assisting as well as regulating the speech of the note... The tone is most peculiar, and becomes more liked the more it is heard. There is nothing metallic about it, the effect being something between that of a sympathetic human voice and the sighing sweetness of the Aeolian Harp.

Westminster Abbey

From New York Times 1/10/1886: The chief specimen in England is in Westminster Abbey, where it recently played at Mr. Hamilton's wedding. This instrument is to be embodied in the Great Organ and played in connetion with it. A small one has been in use in the Abbey a long time.

Big Question: We don't know if the Westminster Abby instrument was built by Hills or by the Worcester factory. But see under Hill below.

As cirumstantial eveidence we cite a brochure dating from 1970 [94] and a more extensive book from 1937 [144].

The firm of Ellis and Hill had a long association with Westminster Abbey. The main pipe organ was re-built by Hills in 1848 as a somewhat limited 3MP instrument. By 1875 it was found to be un-satisfactory and an order placed with Hills to again re-build and greatly enlage it to be a 4MP instrument. This coincides with the possible Vocalion as it was finally opened on 24/5/1884 (Queen Victoria's birthday). There is however no mention of an other organ attached to the Great. A 5th Celestial department was added in 1895, but there is still no mention of free reeds.

Henry VII Chapel

Another has been ordered and will be placed in the Henry VII Chapel. Installed prior to 17/4/1882, this is in Westminster Abbey were he was married. Possibly designed by Herman Smith, see below.

The people who had purchased Vocalions [date?] were listed as follows:

Her Most Gracious Majesty the Queen
The Duke of Northumberland
The Duke of Sutherland
The Duke of Argyll - Baillie Hamilton's father in law
The Earl of Dysart
The Earl of Radnor
The Earl of Ellesmere
Lord Tollemache (related to Dysart?)
Lady Ashburton
Sir Sydney Buxton
Sir Charles Nicholson
The Right Hon. W.E. Gladstone
Lord Iveagh
Mr. William Geogahan
St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh
and Alexandra School, Dublin

The evidence for some of the quotes in contemporary advertising material comes from a discussion of the Vocalion on 5/2/1883 chaired by J.F. Bridge [99].

[more TBA]

Despite an elite clientele, and the Vocalion having been demonstrated in many places including Westminster Abbey, there are a number of recollections of these demonstrations, a number of which are not favourable. Having failed in England, Hamilton tried to persuade the American manufacturers to take on his ideas. England's loss became America's gain as we shall see below.


Facing considerable difficulty in developing his string tone ideas, Baillie Hamilton, un-deterred, focused his attentions on the reeds themselves, obtaining patents for reeds with multiple inter-connected tongues. By the time that the Vocalion was exhibited at the International Inventions Exhibition held in London in 1885, Baillie Hamilton had completely abandoned his ideas about wind activated string tone in favor of much wider brass reeds, speaking under relatively high wind pressure. An important new focus of his attention was on the enhancement of reed tone through the use of resonating chambers or ``qualifying tubes'' as they were to become known.

Hamilton had teamed up with John Farmer in a variety of experiments. They used pressure wind and very broad reeds with channels to give exceptional stability of pitch. They were later described as achieving their unique sound through a combination of pallets, soundboard, and reeds with cavity boards, one above the other, the lower one containing the nostrils and the upper one the mouths, and an intermediate controlling slide (from the 1884 patent). A main peculiarity of the instrument is that the reeds are placed above the pallets and below the slides and that although the sliding ``plug'' of three reeds is only the width of the groove, the cavities are more than twice as wide. Some drawings of these reeds from the 1884 patents are reproduced by Ord-Hume [140]. They appear to have been influenced by the inventions of J.C. Briggs and Merritt Gally from around 1856-86. Gally's US patent number 344,443 for instance includes the following illustration.


Hamilton held a British patent for the device, number 7708 from 14/5/1884.

The American patent for ``unison bar reeds'' (i.e. reeds with multiple tongues) was taken out in 1884 while Hamilton was in Boston, MA. He possibly worked with Mason and Hamlin to develop the instrument but left after a disagreement over details of its construction. It is noted that Emmons Hamlin was particularly skilled in reed voicing and curved the tongues to produce a smooth sound. The problem with the Vocalion, was that the special reed resonators and other devices also had to be individually tuned, which obviously gave the best sound, but was very labour intensive and not what M&H were used to or wanted.

There was a similar reed with two tongues known as the Clarabella reed and invented by Charles Newell Rand. It was featured in the Saxophone stop of some rare organs by Ferris and Rand. These reeds were extremely hard to voice and tune.

As an aside, we note that some of these forms are free reeds but are also similar to precursors of the diaphonic sound producers of Robert Hope-Jones which were brought to perfection by John Compton and used in most cinema organs. The diaphone is a beating valve not like the ``free'' valves illustrated here. What is more important for this chapter is the shape of the resonators hinted at above some of the reed forms.

The Vocalion was successfully exhibited at the International Inventions Exhibition of 1885 and at Westminster Abbey. This was a 3MP/11 instrument built by Hill and Sons and possibly taken to New York in 1886 [latter may have been another built in USA?].

In order to accommodate his wider reeds, Baillie Hamilton incorporated design elements commonly found in tracker action pipe organs. In the tracker action system, wooden linkages, called ``backfalls'', fan out horizontally behind the keys, spreading the narrow keyboard dimension to a wider scale, allowing the use of a wider wind chest. The backfalls connect to vertical wooden trackers that are connected to pallet valves inside the windchest. When keys are depressed, the inter-connected linkages open pallet valves, allowing air to pass through organ pipes, or in the case of the Vocalion, brass reeds. The Vocalion's large wind chest design enabled the use of much larger pallet valves than had ever been used in any other reed organ. Although he consistently described his invention as an ``improvement'' of the reed organ, the Vocalion is essentially a tracker action organ that was designed to play reeds instead of pipes.

Between 1875 and 1886, James Baillie Hamilton secured twelve patents for his distinctive reeds, wind chest modifications and tone development components, all of which were incorporated into the Vocalions.

There is reference in Musical Opinion of vol.25, no.295 (1902) p513 from John Rogers who notes: I have only heard one satisfactory instrument of this class; it as the one that Baillie-Hamilton made in Boston, Mass., and afterards played before the late Queen. But I know of no second nistrument of this kind.


Pipe organ maker Thomas Hill, son of the firm's founder William [*] built a small number of instrument based on Hamilton's principe around 1886 or slightly earlier, introducing additional high quality components then used in pipe organs. They are now desireable, but very rare. A history of all the vocalion instruments and their manufacturers was given by Keith Williams [213]. Hill vocalions are probably the best English reed organs ever made, but also the most expensive! A letter was published in Musical Opinion 18/11/1902 by one Philip de Soyre who said the tones produced by the reeds appeared to me to be very pipe like: but the cost of a small instrument with three or four stops on each manual seemed to me to be prohibitive, when compared with that of a small two manual organ posessing far greater power.

Louis Huivenaar noted: the downward [octave coupler] is only available till today in Indian little harmoniums and the first Vocalions build by Hill in England Under supervision of Baillie Hamilton. They had an upward and a downward straight octave coupler, Beautifully made!!

Baillie Hamilton Vocalion Limited was based at Avondale Hall, 23 Baker Street London W. They were advertising instruments (probably made by Hill as an illustration is shown) available with free delivery from London or Dublin (from Illustrated Guide to the Church Congress 1897. These were as follows:

No.1 (the Chancel Model) - 1M, 3 stops, 15 guineas
No.1A - 1M, 6 stops, 30 guineas
No.2 - 1M, 10 stops, 60 guineas
No.3 - 2MP, 2 stops, College of Organists' pedals with organist's bench, 130 guineas

The 2MP instrument is 8' high, 5'3'' wide and 4'6'' deep including the pedals. Larger instruments of 3 or more manuals were built to order and cases could also be specially designed.

A couple of articles, again from the New York Times confirm some dates as follows:

26/5/1886 Novelty in Organ Building: Special Features of Mr. James Baillie Hamilton's Vocalion.

1/10/1886 To be built in America: Mr. James Baillie Hamilton's Vocalion Factory at Worcester.

These are backed up by the actual patents which are now on-line following USPO links such as

Note that Oct'1886 is after the date of the wedding in July 1886, and that the instrument must already have been in New York in May 1886. The contemporary account from The New York Times of 26/5/1886 reads as follows.

                      NOVELTY IN ORGAN BUILDING

A private hearing of the Vocalion Organ, the invention of Mr. James
Baillie Hamilton, was give at No.28 East Twenty-third Street yesterday
afternoon. Mr. Hamilton is an Englishman, who began when a boy to
study the science of acoustics, and is now an authority on that branch
of physics. While pursuing his studies in the University of Oxford,
Mr. Hamilton's attention was directed to the treatment of organ tones,
and he eventually devised a new method of treating reed tones which
promised what it has finally accomplished - a notable advance in organ
building. The ordinary pipe organ, as is well known, is a large
instrument, complex in structure, occupying an amount of space that
precludes the possibility of building an effective instrument except
in a large church, and costing more than congregations of small means
can afford. Musicians also know tha the pipe organ gets out of tune
very easily. ...

Mr. Hamilton's Vocalion Organ is founded on a rational treatment of
the reed by a system copied as closely as possible after that employed
by nature in the human throat. In fact, instead of the cumbrous pipes
used in the common church organ, Mr. Hamilton's Vocalion contains a
number of throats, ranging in size far above and far below the
capacity of the human throat. The air passes from a wind chest, which
corresponds to the human lungs, through these throats, causing the
reeds to vibrate, and then goes into cavities modeled after the human
mouth, whence it escapes. The production of tone thus proceeds upon a
natural, vocal method. The tones of the 8-foot and 16-foot stops are
produced perfectly by this method, but without any need of the long
pipes used in a pipe organ. This at once does away with the necessity
of great space for the instrument. The Vocalion Organ exhibited
yesterday was 6 feet high, 6 feet wide and 2-1/2 feet in depth, yet it
had three manuals of keys, a pedal board, and 18 stops, including some
of 8 feet and some of 16.

This economy of size at once reduces the price of the instrument and
brings it within the reach of congregations whose purses are far from
bottomless. The instrument shown yesterday will sell at about $1,500.
A pipe prgan containing the same stops and giving the same volume of
tone would cost $5,000. But a saving on price and space would go for
little if power and quality of tone were sacrificed. The Vocalion
sacrifices nothing. Its power is simply remarkable, while the quality
of tone is rich, sweet, and sumpathetic. The stops in the organ shown
yesterday are arranged with a view to instrumental effects, and the
organ was essentially an orchestral instrument. The leading stops were
the violin, viol de gamba, viol d'amour, flute, clarionet, trumpet,
and bassoon. The Vocalion stop is a new and beautiful tone, combining
something of the qualities of the French horn and the bass
clarionet. Mr. Emanual Moore yesterday performed the introduction to
"Lohengrin" producing instrumental effects that admirably resembled
those given by the master in the orchestra score. The vocal quality of
all the stops in the instrument was particularly noticeable, showing
at once that it was thoroughly suited to the support of the voice. In
combination with the piano, played yesterday by Miss Garrigue, a most
charming mingling of instrumental and vocal effects was produced.

That this instrument has a distinct mission in the future cannot for a
moment be doubted. It can be combined with the pipes of the usual
organ with fine results. Its elastic and peculiarly responsive action
will make it invaluable for concert purposes, as it is throughly
adapted to the performance of any class of music. The field in which
it will probably find its greatest usefulness in America is among
churches of moderate size and wealth. It will supply them with all the
power, richness, and variety of the great pipe organ at one-fourth the
cost and at the expense of a much smaller percentage of space. The
instrument is in use in Westminster Abbey, in St. Giles's Cathedral,
Edinburgh, and in other churches where organists praise it
heartily. Sir Arthur Sullivan, Dr. S. Austin Pearce, Henry Carter,
A.H. Messiter, and E.H. Turpin, President of the College of Organists,
London, and other musical experts have fully tested the Vocalion and
are unanimous int their praise of it.

You can't say he didn't try!

This was followed by the article on 1/10/1886 announcing the factory in Worcester, Mass. This also noted that for sales in Europe, the action would be made in Worcester and the cases built locally.

Hamilton then went to Canada to work with pipe organ builder C.S. Warren for two years resulting in the ``Canadian Vocalion''. He afterwards had an agreement with Mason and Risch from around 1890 to handle sales of the instrument then referred to as the Canadian Vocalion manufactured by S.R. Warren and Son.

Hamilton and Warren visited London to try to raise capital for further development, but sales of the instrument were poor and there was insufficient interest, perhaps because of the cost. After returning to the USA, Hamilton set up the Hamilton Vocalion Organ Mfg. Co. Worcester, MA. which started production in 1886. They also later made the tone ranks for the Aeolian Orchestrelle; in fact Aeolian acquired the Vocalion company around 1903 and then Mason and Hamlin in 1911. More information on the Aeolian Orchestrelle is given in Chapter 29.16

Baillie Hamilton Vocalion Limited still had assets in Europe, a return to an Order of the Honourable The House of Commons (14/3/1905) noted their registered office at 36 College Green, Dublin. At that time they had nominal capital of £20,000 divided into the same number of shares.

A number of companies in the USA made vocalion reeds which were of particularly large scale and voiced by twisting. These included Estey [197] who were a member of a corporation set up by Baillie Hamilton which also included the Munroe Organ Reed Company, later to be taken over by Aeolian in 1892.

The full story of how the Vocalion patents and manufacture were taken over by Harry Tremaine of the Aeolian Company assisted by as technical genius Morris Wright formerly of the New York Organ Co. is told here

After Baillie Hamilton returned to the UK, American vocalion voiced instruments continued to be built by S.R. Warren, New York Church Organ Mfg. Co., Mason and Risch and Aeolion. Imported Vocalions were often known as Gregorians in Europe. Around 1926 he [Smith? can't have been as he died c.1914?] was living in Berkeley Street, Portman Square, London and patented an idea for a combined piano and reed organ in which the windchest was formed from the soundboard of the piano itself. The reed organ was above the hammers and strings. It is thought that James Baillie Hamilton died around 1927.

In 1919 one Arthur Clayton wrote a note in Musical Opinion about his experiences with Baillie Hamilton. Acting as an expert voicer for Mr. Hamilton for a number of years, I carried out many experiments, and during that time we were able to determine many points regarding free reeds. I have several times reversed the reeds of an American organ and put them on pressure wind and the results were most satisfactory, the tone being much bigger and more characteristic. Clayton lived at 25 Whitechapel Parade, Archway Tavern, London, and had advertised in 1898 that he specialised in enlarging and altering the pitch of harmoniums and reed organs. His business started before 1890. He also sold pianos, sheet music and other small goods.

J. Farmer (c.1872-5)

According to Richards [154] and Wikipedia, John Farmer (b.16/8/1835-d.17/7/1901) was an organist and music master at Harrow Public School from 1862-85. He appears to have been well liked by his fellow teachers and students. His Uncle Henry was an organist at High Pavement Chapel in Nottingham and ran a music warehouse. Henry ensured that young John was well trained in Leipzig, Coburg and Zürich. He later became organist at Balliol College, Oxford. John was a particular enthusiast of the seraphine and from the mid-1840s [Henry?] had given demonstrations of John Green's instruments in major British towns. Farmer made several attempts to use free reeds to re-produce the human voice and tried to get Green to manufacture them, this however did not happen as resources were not available and Green died a few years later.

John Farmer devised an instrument which had vibrating strings to improve the sound of free reeds. This was based on previous work of the Parisian harmonium builder Gabriel Joseph Grenié. The reeds produced the primary tone and were attached to the strings which acted as ``resonators''. Stopping the strings would produce various tones. Farmer's instrument was patented on 13/11/1872 but there was apparently no further development. Farmer's work with Baillie Hamilton is described above.

The Pall Mall Gazette contains a contemporary account of the performance at Harrow in 1875 []. The Princess Louise, accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Gladstone, went to Harrow on 25th inst. Mr. J. Farmer, the able music master of the school, performed a selection of music on the new instrument... that Mr. Baillie Hamilton has put before the world... The sound is produced, we believe, by wind that produces the Aeolian character by the vibration of ``free'' reeds, connected together in triplets and cunningly balanced by wire spirals. The human like character is added by means of a sounding box of small dimensions into which the windy vibrations pass; and which performs, and performs successfully, the corresponding functions of the thoracic cavities in the human body.

This was also reported in The Daily News. ...Since then it has been used in Westminster Abbey, and is now placed permanently in Henry VII's Chapel... The Vocalion resembles a small organ, and is available in various dimensions, some having but one row of keys (or manual), others having two keyboards and pedals... Although not calculated for the execution of extremely rapid music, it is fully capable of supporting a large number of voices, with which its tones are peculiarly suited to amalgamate; indeed, there is a charming sostenuto efetc, and sometimes almost pathetic in the quality of tone, that render it eminently fitted for devotional use, in which respect it should prove a desirable acquisition where the expense of an organ cannot be afforded.

Although the name Aeolian used for the later instruments derives from the district of New Jersey, perhaps the first extract above shows how appropriate it was.

H. Smith (c.1872-1910)

Hermann Smith of 29 Shaftesbury Road, Hammersmith is widely credited with being the true inventor of the vocalion voiced reed organ. He was born in Maidenhead in 1824 and died in Hampstead in 1910. He is recorded as a harmonium builder, clerk in the piano trade and was the author of several books [176,177]. Smith suggested many improvements to harmonium design including a bellows and reservoir which was placed along the width of the instrument and hinged along the lower edge, so that it operated vertically very like that of the American organ. His keyboard and reed chamber modifications were covered by a British patent of 24/8/1886, number 10,795 for a new mode of arranging the blowing device. In this patent he notes that he is building ``Vivatone Organs''.

Smith had carried out a series of experiments based on the principles of acoustics explained in the famous book by Hermann Helmholz []. The mathematician Alexander Ellis had translated Helmholtz's book from German to English and was by all accounts very impressed with Smith's experiments. He thus wrote an appendix On the Action of Free Reeds in which he explained the latter's findings. This included a determination of the optimal size and shape of resonators (based on those discovered by and named after Helmholtz) for free reeds. It begins as follows: Knowing the long, patient, and practical attention which Mr. Hermann Smith had paid to the action of reeds, I requested him to furnish me with an account of the results of his experience. He obligingly sent me a series of elaborate and extensive notes, which the space at my command utterly precludes me from giving at proper length... These notes concern not only free reeds, but also clarinet and oboe reeds, etc.

Smith himself noted that he had planned an instrument in 1874 [12] of large design, using free reeds, broad channels and chambers and actuated by pressure of wind. Broadly speaking, such work is simply the carrying out of the system of larger chambers for each note than we give in harmonium. For instance, there would be perhaps a cavity of 9'' long x3'' broad, whereas in the harmonium you do not get above 4'' x3/4''. The whole system depends upon giving sufficient body of air to afford resonance of tone. Usually the voicing of the reeds is of importance. But in the little instrument (mentioned above) I did not voice the reeds at all. He goes on to describe the other essential ingredient, the broad reeds, which he asserts have a certainty of movement which the narrower reeds never have, source [74]. The Flukes concluded that Hermann Smith must have been influential in the design of the Hill Vocalion which was probably first built around 1880.

The London Gazette of 13/10/1868 curiously notes: Notice is hereby given ... Date of execution by Debtor 9th October, 1868. Name and description of the Debtor, as in the Deed James Henry Smith, of no.238 Oxford Street, in the county of Middlesex, Corset Maker (trading as Herman Smith, of the same place, Harmonium Maker). The names and description of the Trustees or other parties to the Deed, not including the Creditors. A short statement of the nature of the Deed for payment to all the debtor's creditors a composition of one shillings in the pound within twelve months from the registration of the deed. When left for Registration 10th October, 1868, at half past eleven o'clock. THE SEAL OF THE COURT.

Smith carried out experiments and wrote books about musical instruments and had business connections with a corset maker in Marble Arch where Sir Henry Wood's father had a mechanical toy shop nearby. He was befriended by Sir Henry and they regularly dined with guests at the latter's home in Elsworthy Road, North London. It was noted at the time, that Hermann Smith may have been from a military family although was himself very short in stature. He had a long flowing beard and would have been easily recognisable when walking in central London. He contributed articles to The English Mechanic in the 1870s, as did one Mark Wicks who had also written a book on organ building for amateurs. Smith moved later to England's Lane in Hampstead, where he died in 1910. His last book was published posthumously in 1911 [177] after several years of work.

E.A. Ramsden (1860-94)

Archibald Ramsden's involvement with harmoniums is told in Chapter 23 and mentioned elsewhere in this work. It is pretty certain that Ramsden was a retailer, but was responsible for suggesting several ``improvements'' to harmoniums and was certainly aware of the latest designs which he promoted.

J.B. Hamilton's US patent 295,868 of 1884 states that it is one third attributed to E.A. Ramsden.

The 3MP/11 vocalion for the Inventions Exhibition was demonstrated in March 1885 at the premises of Archibald Ramsden in New Bond Street, London. Ramsden entered it as catalogue no.3,686 and won a bronze medal for Baillie Hamilton's Vocalion. See under Hill below.

H.T. Wedlake (1859-1902)

Henry Wedlake (see Chapters 23 and 30) was also involved in the success of the Vocalion. In Feb'1903 he wrote to Musical Opinion as follows: May I state that I was the first to bring [the Vocalion] to perfection in this country? It came about thus: Mr. Whyte took up the manufacture in conjunction with Mr. Baillie Hamilton. On seeing the first model, I advised that the profession be not invited as the model was not fit. Mr. Whyte and Mr. Baillie Hamilton then agreed to my terms for taking the matter in hand, which were that my plans were not to be interfered with. Mr. C.W. Pearce was I think the first to play on the completed instrument, and he pronounced it to be a great success. I constructed a harmonium [vocalion?] for Mr. Pichler (a Hungarian). It had a pedal, posessed numerous tone devices and mechanical actions, and cost seven thousand pounds. Its owners highly complemented me, and I must say that the construction of the instrument required very careful attention from yours, etc. The price noted is certainly not realistic for the late 19th Century and must be an exaggeration.

Whyte (unknown)

Mr. Whyte was mentioned in the article by Henry Wedlake. Ord-Hume notes that he was possibly the partner in the organ building firm of Whyte and Thynne.

William Hill and Son (c.1875-1886)


William Hill and Son of London were pipe organ builders of great repute, see Chapter 30. William Hill was born in 1789 at Spilsby in Lincolnshire and died in 1870. He went to work for the organ builder Elliot in 1815 - then married his daughter Mary and became his partner in 1825. Elliot died in 1832, but unfortunately Mary had died even earlier. Hill subsequently re-married and set up as an independent organ builder. The firm of Wm. Hill and Son, as it was to become known, had premises on York Road, Camden Town, London up to at least 1918. Earlier, they had possibly been in Euston Road [123]. The premises were thus in close proximity to many of the reed organ makers and may explain how they became involved.

[Photo: William Hill]

William Hill died in 1870, but the business long outlived him, changing its name several times over the period of its existence. From 1856 or 1857, when Thomas Hill was taken into partnership by his father, the firm was known as ``Hill & Son.'' The organs exported to Australia and New Zealand would therefore all bear either the name ``Hill & Son'' on a brass plate (up to about 1895) or ``W. Hill & Son'' on an ivory plate (increasingly after that date). When Thomas Hill died in 1893, the firm continued under his son, Arthur Hill until the amalgamation with Norman & Beard during the First World War.

The firm was taken over by son Thomas (b.1822-d.1893), who was responsible for the vocalion production. It is thought that John Hill designed the distinctive casework. At this time William Hill Jnr. (b.1823) was also working for the firm.

Photo: Thomas Hill

[photo of Thomas Hill b.1822-d.1893]

Photo ©BOA, University of Birmingham

[photo Arthur George Hill b.1857-d.1923]

For the purposes of this site we concentrate on the Vocalion, invented by James Baillie Hamilton (see above) and built in very small numbers by Thomas Hill. It is thought that less than a dozen instruments were hand built between c.1875 and 1886. They are high quality alternatives to pipe organs where space is limited. Voicing of the qualifying chambers (like a Helmholtz resonator) around each reed was individually done. This was the precursor of the tone ranks for the Aeolian Orchestelle produced by the Vocalion Organ Co. of 18 West Twenty third Street, New York c.1899.

We note that BOA, the British Organ Archive, contains records from Hill and Son in the form of estimate books from 1838-93, shop books from 1872-1915 and drawings from 1880-1916 which cover the period of interest. These need to be further examined to uncover the full story.

[photo Hill and Son factory, Islington c.1910]

3MP/11 International Inventions Exhibition in London, 1885

A 3MP/11 Baillie Hamilton Vocalion was shown at the 1885 International Inventions Exhibition in London. It was described as being 6' square and standing on a somewhat larger pedestal which contained the bellows and windchest. It had Great, Swell and Choir manuals and Pedal, each manual with three stops and two in the Pedal department. The manuals also had three ``complementary'' lighter stops. This information is from [235]. This instrument was actually built by Thomas Hill who made about a dozen vocalions at this time. It was described by Sir Arthur Sullivan: you have achieved an instrument which shall possess all the power and dignity of an organ, without the cumbersome and expensive aid of pipes. And in doing this, you have obtained a totally different tone from that of Harmoniums and other reed organs. I was particularly struck with the nobility and purity of the sound, and also with the great variety in the timbre which the instrument displayed.

3 manuals

Swell:                           Great:
6 stops                          6 stops

Choir:                           Pedal:
6 stops                          2 stops


playing aids - unknown

A similar very large Vocalion by Mason and Risch which is now in Italy is described in Chapter 26.

Saltaire Museum - ROS database entry 380 2MP/6

ROS database entry number 380 is a 2MP Vocalion which has 2x 58 key manuals C''-a''. Stops are arranged on the key jambs at each end of the manuals. It was said dated c.1886. Most, if not all, Hill Vocalions appear to have the same specification. The Flukes acquired it for their museum in 1984 from a private chapel on a large estate near Ross-on-Wye.

ROS-0380.jpg dracott_hill.jpg

The second picture © Cambridge Reed Organs, shows Bruce Dracott working on what is probably the same instrument. Unfortunately it is incorrectly labelled on his original Web site.

2x 58-note manuals
30-note straight concave pedal board

Swell: (2 ranks)              Great: (3  ranks)
Cremona 8'                    Wood Wind 8' 
Dulciana 8'                   Claribel 8'
Octave                        Diapason 8'
Sub Octave
Vox Humana (fan)              Pedal: (1 rank)
Swell to Great                Violone 16'
                              Great to Pedal
                              Bourdon 16' (derived)

latch down crescendo pedal

The dimensions are 64''w x94-1/2''h x72-3/4''d. It is blown by hand and uses high pressure wind.

The Vocalion has a heavy hinged box at the top of the case enclosing the pedal reeds: closed gives the Bourdon and open gives the Violone. This is most effective in the lower octave. Below these are the three ranks for the Great, and below those the two for the Swell, each rank has its own windchest. This is described in further detail in Phil and Pam Fluke's article [74].

This instrument was restored by Bruce Dracott in 2011. A photo of the interior showing the reeds appeared in the article by Richards [154]. The photo is by John Leaver, courtesy of Phil Fluke.


This instrument is listed on Paul Carey's Web site which says it is from 1886. There is a lot more information about it and photos of the interior on Bruce's new Web site here

It is now known from Bruce's work that there is an internal signature Prested Dec'1894 and also the number 107. This could indicate the true date of manufacture which is later than previously believed.

Liestal Museum

A Vocalion by Thomas Hill, said to be c.1880, is now in the Harmonium Museum in Liestal, Basel, Switzerland. This one is painted blue, nice!

This is entry number 2961 in Gellerman's photo database. It is listed in Paul Carey's Web site, but given as a 2MP/9 from 1888 which is probably not correct.

rfg-2961.jpg rfg-2961-A.jpg

This instrument was restored c.1985 by Jaap Patijn in Wapenveld, Netherlands who was an organ builder and restorer. It was sold to Dieter Stalder who owns the Liestal museum in around 1990.

All Saints' Hamerton

A Hill reed organ was noted by Haycraft [100] at this location in Huntingdonshire (NPOR entry TL1379 and N03107). There was also a survey in Feb'1956 published in Musical Opinion. Henry Coleman published a note in The Organ 1962 [35]. He found the organ by Wm. Hill and Sons to have no pipes and on making an enquiry with Herbert Norman of Wm. Hill and Son, Norman and Beard Ltd. he was told this is probably a Baillie Hamilton reed organ in which Hills had some hand in toning and designing as a challenge to the best French model, the Alexandre. Unfortunately we have no records from which we can give you further information. Typically it has the CC-a'' manual compass and in 1962 was still hand blown. The specification is identical to the one in the Saltaire Museum. It is noted that this instrument may previously have been in a private house.

Holy Trinity Chilfrome

NPOR entry SY5898 includes a note from the survey by Haycraft [100] which claims there was an 1887 Hill 1M Vocalion in the Holy Trinity Church, Chilfrome, Dorset. This is confirmed from the Hill, Norman and Beard's order book of 1918 which on p305 mentions job number 0775 as a small repair to a Vocalion. This is more unusual and worth investigating further if possible.

Ham House

An enigmatic note in confirms the entry above concerning a Vocalion belonging to the Earl of Dysart of Ham House. It states that the instrument was on loan and installed in the chancel of St. Andrew's Church, Ham in 1900 while they were awaiting a new pipe organ. The Earl paid one third of the cost of the (Brindley and Foster?) pipe organ and it is assumed that the Vocalion was then returned to his home in 1905. Ham House is now in the care of the National Trust

Hill Vocalion in Australia

The Feb'1985 issue of the Newsletter (number 16) from the Reed Organ Preservation Society of Australia contained information about a Hill Vocalion. This was again featured in the March 2006 issue of ROS Quarterly [170].

A photo of this organ when it was in St. James, Mile End, Adelaide appears in Gellerman's book The American Reed Organ [82] Figure 332. This instrument is in a varnished dark wood rather than the characteristic painted case. It is number 0754 in Robert Gellerman's photo database and is numbered 2909 in the ROS DB.


The Vocalion had been presented to the church in 1897 by Lady Victoria Buxton, the wife of Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, then Governor of South Australia. John Semmens notes that the instrument had probably been purchased and owned by the Buxtons in England before Sir Thomas took up the position of Governor, having been bought new by them in the 1880s.

The instrument slowly fell into dis-repair and the church was unable to keep it playable. It ceased to be used around 1980 and was sold in 1989. It came up for sale again in 1995 in an auction of artefacts from a former private museum in Warranambool, Victoria. The bidder however didn't collect it and it was eventually bought by John Semmens in 1997 and transported, dismantled, to Ballarat. I am pleased that this instrument has been rescued and is now to be restored to its former glory.

Register of known Vocalion organs by Hill.

It should be noted that because of the historical importance of Hill's Vocalion instruments I am listing all known to have been produced whether or not they still exist. If any were destroyed, this will be noted.

Size Date Serial Number Comments
?? c.1875   Westminster Abbey King Henry VII Chapel [who built this one?], certainly no longer exists
3MP/11 1885   Inventions Exhibition, London, certainly no longer exists
2MP/6 1886 or 1894?   ROS-380 Saltaire Museum; 2011 Bruce Dracott
2MP/6     All Saints' Hamerton, Huntingdonshire, last noted 1962
2MP/6     ROS-2909, RFG-0754 Adelaide, Australia
2MP/6 1888?   Netherlands; RFG-2961 Liestal Museum, Switzerland
1MP 1887   Holy Trinity Chilfrome, probably no longer exists
  c.1900   Ham House, on loan from Earl of Dysart
      private residence ?
      church ?

Rob Allan