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componium

aerophone

The componium is an orchestrion built by Diederich Nicolaus Winkel in Amsterdam in 1821 and here at the mim it sits pontifically enthroned in the middle of the Musicus Mechanicus floor. An orchestrion is a mechanical instrument which has designs on replacing a human orchestra. The componium does that with nine organ-stops (3 flute, piccolo, violin, salicional, gamba, quintadena and trumpets), a tambourine and a triangle. An orchestrion's music can be stored on cylinders (the oldest way), paper rolls or cardboard books. The componium works with cylinders, i.e. a row of mechanical 'fingers' reads the presence of pins and hooks on a revolving, wooden cylinder. One pin means 1, no pin means 0. So the data on the cylinder operate the music machine, rather like hardware and software. There are other similarities, too, between the componium and a modern computer.

The componium is no ordinary orchestrion. This one boasts a unique aleatory mechanism which enables it to produce a stream of endlessly diverse music, just so long as someone cranks the handle. To achieve this Winkel used two cylinders which take it in turns to play two measures of music. An ingenious system - Winkel also invented the metronome! - determines quite unpredictably whether or not the cylinders move, the traditional way to change tune. This creates a sort of musical collage which is almost never repeated. The chance that the system repeats the same series is smaller than the chance of your winning EuroMillions tomorrow - if you play, that is. This machine does nothing more than randomly combine the available musical elements. 'Combinium' might perhaps have been a more suitable name than 'componium', but as a step in the direction of what would (much) later be called artificial intelligence, it played its part.

This fascinating design can be seen as one of an almost endless stream of nineteenth-century inventions and technical (r)evolutions with which inventors and firms constantly tried to outdo one another. The battle was fought in the arenas of the World Fairs, the weapons were technically very detailed patents which were often registered in a race against time and even more often challenged in a court of law. The orchestrion invented by this Dutchman of German origin was a slap in the face of the competition, for besides playing pre-programmed music, it 'composed' its own.

Yet the componium was not a commercial success. The unique option of the re-combining system - the componium also has ordinary cylinders with well-known tunes - did not prove a convincing enough sales argument, and interest soon turned to the next novelty to come along. However impressive Winkel's achievement on a technical and conceptual level, the demand for muzak was clearly not yet born. The componium was the only one of its kind and by the time Auguste Tolbecque became its umpteenth owner in 1876, it was in need of major restoration. The componium became part of the mim collection shortly afterwards, under the first curator Victor-Charles Mahillon. It no longer had its original cabinetry so the componium has always been exhibited 'naked'.

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Images: 
engraving of the componium with its original cabinetry
componium as it looks today
pins and hooks on a cylinder
close-up view of the aleatoric system