The Legend of the Titanic Organ

In 2019 I returned to Bruchsal along with some of the same people from nine years earlier. Again, we were on an excursion from a VirtualTourist meeting in Karlsruhe, even though the website VirtualTourist had ceased to exist in 2017.

All you loyal readers of my previous post Look ma, no electrons! might recall that back in 2010 we took a tour of the German Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments in Bruchsal Palace. This museum has some five hundred historical musical devices on display, most of them in good working order.

When we returned in 2019, I particularly wanted to find out more about the “Titanic Organ”, a large self-playing organ which was allegedly commissioned by the White Star Line for use in the first-class dining room of their luxurious new steamship the RMS Titanic. The story went that there had been some delay in construction of the organ at the Welte factory in Freiburg, so it was not finished in time for the maiden voyage of the Titanic on April 10, 1912. This delay was said to be the reason that the “Titanic Organ” is now on display in the museum in Bruchsal at 114 meters above sea level, instead of lying 3803 meters under the sea with the rest of the Titanic, where the ship has been since it (or rather she) sank on April 14, 1912, after colliding with an iceberg.

Paper roll in the “Titanic Organ”

One of the curators obligingly turned the organ on so we could hear how it sounds. And she showed us the roll of strong paper where the data is stored in the form of holes in the paper, up to 72 holes per line. As the paper is pulled through the machine, air blowing through the holes controls the sounds made by the organ, including the pitch, the volume, the tempi, the phrasing, just as the piece was played at the Welte factory over a hundred years ago by one of the leading organists of the early 20th century.

Museum booklet on the “Titanic Organ”

On my way out I bought a 48-page museum booklet entitled “The ‘Titanic Organ’ — a legend in the spotlight” by Brigitte Heck. This booklet was published in 2012 to coincide with the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, so I couldn’t have bought it on my first museum visit in 2010.

To prepare for the centenary, the “Titanic Organ” was thoroughly cleaned, restored and studied in 2011. Also, the relevant archives were searched for documents pertaining to the “Titanic Organ”. The result was, “despite all the energy that was invested in this research,” that no proof could be found of any connection between this organ and the Titanic.

There was some circumstantial evidence, but it was inconclusive. On the one hand, the organ was equipped with a direct-current electric motor, such as was used on ships, rather than an alternating-current motor, which was the norm for use in residential and public buildings. Also the organ was too big to fit in an ordinary house, so the wealthy industrialist who finally bought it had to make changes both to the organ and to his house to make it fit.

On the other hand, the organ was not really seaworthy, in that the organ pipes were not protected against rust, as was usually the case for instruments intended for shipboard use. If the organ had really been used on a ship, the pipes would have quickly oxidized in the salty ocean climate. So the museum now prefers to call it the “Bruchsal Organ” rather than the “Titanic Organ”.

Bruchsal Palace, home of the German Museum of Mechanical Musical Instruments

It turns out that the Welte company really did construct a similar self-playing organ for the first-class lounge of the Titanic’s sister ship, the Britannic, but it was never installed there because the Britannic was transformed into a hospital ship at the beginning of the First World War. This “Britannic Organ” is now on display in a museum in Seewen, Switzerland, where restorers found that the main parts of the organ were marked on the inside with the word “Britanik”. There are no such markings inside the Bruchsal Organ, though the restorers in 2011 looked carefully, hoping to find some.

The Britannic was built to be safer than the Titanic, but that didn’t prevent it from sinking when it struck a German mine in the Mediterranean Sea in 1916. Thirty people were killed when the Britannic sank, but over a thousand survived.

My photos in this post are from 2019. I wrote the text in 2020.

See also: Look ma, no electrons! and The Titanic in Cherbourg.

8 thoughts on “The Legend of the Titanic Organ”

  1. Fascinating to learn more about this organ subsequent to our visit! I didn’t buy that booklet (not sure my German would be up to it!) so I hadn’t been aware that there were doubts about whether this really ever was intended as the Titanic organ. A bit of me would rather not have known (!) but it’s really interesting to hear how they conducted this research and the clues they looked for.

  2. The whole Titanic story is so fascinating. i have been to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax twice and even the fact that it is so fascinating is fascinating! i wrote a post a while back about the world’s obsessive fascination with all things Titanic, and it actually does make sense. Didn’t know anything about this ‘Titanic organ’-thanks for the new info. Ciao, Cristina

  3. Lucky piano indeed, the Titanic was found at least the bow but too expensive to bring up and experts claim will decompose by 2050 at the latest. At least we have the movie ! and the Piano !!

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