Pyrophone [flame organ]
- Laurence Libin
An organ with pipes that produce tones from the internal combustion of gas jets operated by means of a keyboard. It was invented by the young physicist Georges Frédéric Eugène Kastner (b Strasbourg, 10 Aug 1852; d Bonn, 6 April 1882), son of the music theorist and composer J.-G. Kastner. Experiments with tones produced by ‘singing flames’ had previously been undertaken by William Tyndall and others, but Kastner seems to have developed his instrument independently. It was patented in England in 1873 (no. 1091) as a type of ‘chemical harmonica’ and reportedly made its public début at the 1873 Vienna Exhibition. Kastner’s patent claimed novelty for his system of keyboard control and the construction of burners with double oscillating branches. The Pyrophone was hailed internationally and attracted the attention of composers including Wendelin Weissheimer, who was photographed playing one with transparent glass pipes.
Since then, many different instruments called pyrophones have been constructed, some as academic projects, some as sound sculptures, and mostly ephemeral. They operate by various means using fuels such as hydrogen, propane, butane, and petrol. A simple model built by a student at the University of Limerick consisted of copper pipes of graduated length suspended from welding rods and played by applying a butane torch to the bottom ends of the pipes. A more sophisticated version, constructed at Union College, Schenectady, New York, as an experiment in thermoacoustics, produced a scale of 14 notes from a temperature differential imposed across a stack of tubes by heating one end with propane flames and chilling the other end with liquid nitrogen through a heat exchanger. A radically adventurous plosive pyrophone built in ...