Johann Mälzel

Fortune always favors the brave and never helps a man who does not help himself.
P. T. Barnum

Johann Nepomuk Mälzel (Maelzel) (1772–1838) was a German inventor, engineer, and showman, best known for manufacturing a metronome and several music-playing automata and displaying fraudulent chess machine, the famous Turk of Wolfgang von Kempelen.

The Panharmonicon, a photo taken in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1935
The Panharmonicon, a photo taken in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1935

Mäelzel was born in Regensburg, a town in eastern Bavaria. The son of an organ builder, he received a comprehensive musical education and in 1790 decided to try his luck in Vienna by working in the maintenance of musical instruments of all kinds. And, among organs and harpsichords, the imaginative Johann thought that he could invent new instruments with which to build the music of the future. After several years of study and experiment, he produced an orchestrion instrument, which was publicly exhibited, and afterward sold for 3000 florins.

In 1800, Mälzel built a musical automaton (called Harmonika) that was set in the domed starry ceiling of the famous temple of the night at the Schönau estate in Vienna. Visitors were enthralled by the sight of the Goddess of the night riding in a carriage drawn by horses, accompanied by the sound of heavenly music composed by Salieri, floating down from Mälzel’s Orgelwerk. In the early 1800s, Mälzel sold several musical automata to noble clients, for example, Duke Albert of Saxony. In July 1806, the Preßburger Zeitung reported that the famous machinist and musician “Melczel” had built a music box for Napoleon that played sonatas and symphonies by Haydn and Cherubini.

Panharmonicon of Mälzel, prepared for a presentation
Panharmonicon of Mälzel, prepared for a presentation

In the same 1806 Mälzel created a large musical automaton (called Panharmonicon), able to play the musical instruments of a military band, powered by bellows and directed by revolving cylinders (pinned barrels) storing the notes. This machine was 10 feet high, 5 feet wide, and 3 feet deep, and replaced the virtuoso efforts of 26 orchestral musicians. Among the pieces it played, in addition to the earlier-mentioned “Military Symphony” by Haydn and Medea overture by Cherubini, was Mozart’s Fantasy in C Minor. Even Haydn himself assured that he had never before heard his symphony performed with such precision. Mälzel transported this large mechanical orchestra to Paris and then spent several months displaying it there in the spring of 1807. Many newspaper accounts describe at great length the effect this showpiece had in drawing huge crowds for twice-daily concerts, in spite of the high entry price of 6 francs. In the summer of 1807, Mälzel sold his Panharmonicon, which made him a European celebrity, for a huge sum to the Empress of France and returned to Vienna.

In Vienna, Mälzel completed a new invention, the mechanical trumpeter, and then returned to Paris in the fall of 1808 with this human-like figure, as well as a musical desk with many secret drawers which was purchased by the French empress. Dressed as a soldier, this android automaton played military fanfares and marches on a real trumpet, used either as a solo instrument or accompanied by an orchestra (or a piano). The mechanism was contained in the wooden figure’s chest and could blow the trumpet, even using double tonguing.

After the trumpeter, Mälzel was planning next to build an automatic singer: a machine that would reproduce the human voice. He will be preoccupied many years later with the idea of recreating human speech but without considerable success.

After Austria’s war with France in 1809, there were many casualties, in particular soldiers with missing limbs, so Mälzel created artificial legs, which were apparently a great success, as many newspaper accounts attest. In late 1809, he had completed a new Panharmonicon for the Viceroy of Italy, Eugène de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s stepson. In October 1809, Mälzel had been ordered by the French Emperor himself, who was then residing at Schönbrunn palace, to bring his inventions there; Napoleon was obviously impressed by these new devices, awarding Mälzel with 150 gold coins. Then the inventor, on orders from Napoleon, constructed a collapsible wagon that could fetch wounded soldiers from the battlegrounds and transport them to the hospital. Napoleon wanted to play (he lost this game) against “the Mechanical Turk”–the chess-playing machine that Mälzel had purchased in 1805 from the estate of its inventor, Wolfgang von Kempelen.

Biography of Johann Mälzel

Johann Nepomuk Mälzel was born on 15 August 1772 in an ancient house that still stands today at Unter den Schwibbögen 7, Regensburg, Bavaria. He was the second son of Johann Nepomuk Melzl (1741–1797), a mechanic and organ-builder, and his wife Katherina (1744-1824). Johann Melzl, the son of the glassmaker Franz Petrus Melzl from Stadtamhof (a medieval village on a tiny island in Regensburg) had married Katherina Förstlin (Verschlin), daughter of the brewer Leonhard Förstl from Strahlfeld, on 10 February 1768, and they had at least nine children: Johann Nepomuk Bernhard (1768-1800), Maria Anna (1770-), Johann Nepomuk (1772–1838), Maria Walburga (1774-), Catherina (stillborn in Jan. 1776), Joseph (1777-1848), Maria Josepha (1779-), Johann Georg (1781-1783), and Leonhard Rupert (1783-1855). Bernhard and Joseph became organ-builders in Regensburg, like their father. The youngest son, Leonhard Rupert, moved to Vienna when he was just 17 years old and he pursued a career there as a musician who, like his famous brother, also constructed automata.

At the age of six Johann’s father discovered his inclination and talent for music, and taught him to play the piano and the violin. By the age of fourteen he had gained a reputation as the best pianist in town. Later on, however, on account of his father’s deafness, the young boy was forced to abandon a promising career as a virtuoso pianist and turn his attention instead to building musical instruments. He moved to Vienna in 1790, where after earning his living by giving piano lessons and constructing musical clocks, he embarked on a study tour of Prague, Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin to examine the mechanical instruments in those cities.

Returning to Vienna in 1792, Mälzel devoted his time to constructing mechanical music machines. By 1798 he was granted his request to be awarded a factory concession for constructing mechanical music machines. His activities would have involved the setting of pins into revolving cylinders, placed into specially-constructed cases, in order to reproduce musical compositions by mechanical means. Mälzel then sold many of these devices–musical clocks, musical sofas, and the more complicated Orchestrion, which imitated the sound of a military band (using real instruments)–to noblemen and members of the imperial family.

In 1809 Mälzel was appointed Court Mechanician at Vienna and having a work to execute for the Empress, rooms were assigned him, in Schönbrunn Palace. In late 1815 Mälzel patented a metronome, which according to some historians, was an improved version of the invention of his compatriot Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel (1777–1826), who created such a device in the early 1810s (although there is evidence that Mälzel shows a metronome to his friend Ludwig van Beethoven in 1813). In turn, Winkel created in 1821 an automatic organ, which is believed to have copied some features of Mälzels Panharmonicon, but added the aleatoric composition feature.

Beethoven’s Ear Trumpets, made by Mälzel
Beethoven’s Ear Trumpets, made by Mälzel

Mälzel was (at least for some time) a friend of the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven. They probably knew each other from the 1790s but became closer in 1812 in Vienna. At this time Beethoven was already almost totally deaf and unable to converse unless he passed written notes back and forth to his colleagues, visitors, and friends. In 1812 Beethoven made frequent visits to Mälzel’s workshop, the two men became close friends, and the mechanic constructed an ear trumpet for the composer. It is known, that of the four instruments constructed, one was so far satisfactory as to be used occasionally for some eight or ten years. In the summer of 1813, Mälzel collaborated with Beethoven to produce Wellingtons Sieg, for which Beethoven composed the music to be played on Mälzel’s Panharmonicon. They also gave several concerts, at which Beethoven’s symphonies were interspersed with the performances of Mälzel’s automata. However, in 1814, Beethoven wrote a deposition claiming that Mälzel had defrauded him, claiming ownership of this music, and illegally staging performances of it from an inaccurate transcription. Beethoven described Mälzel in this deposition as “a rude, churlish man, entirely devoid of education or cultivation”. Luckily, by 1817, Beethoven and Mälzel appear to have reconciled, and the composer wrote glowingly of Mälzel’s metronome.

After 1813, Mälzel lived mainly in Paris and London. In 1818 in Paris Mälzel constructed an automaton slack-rope acrobat. From 1818 to 1821 Maelzel showed the Chess Player, second Panharmonicon, automaton trumpeter, and automaton acrobat in London and throughout Great Britain. He spent most of the period from 1821 to 1825 in Paris, dividing his time between the exhibition hall and the workshop. He occasionally forayed abroad with his inverse mime troupe, which made a great deal of noise mimicking human beings. Late in 1825, Maelzel sailed away from the Old World.

No sooner did he arrive in the New World than he sold his Panharmonicon for the stupendous sum of four hundred thousand dollars. Mälzel kept the other showpieces he had brought over with him, however, and these may have included, in addition to his own Trumpeter automaton and two acrobats and Kempelen’s Chess Player, a Jaquet-Droz Draftsman automaton. Over the next dozen years, the curious European automata saw New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Richmond, Charleston, Washington, Pittsburg, Cincinnati, Louisville, New Orleans, and doubtless many other American cities before embarking for Havana. They may also have traveled in Canada. In 1835 in Boston, the twenty-five-year-old P. T. Barnum “had frequent interviews and long conversations with Mr. Maelzel. I looked upon him as the great father of caterers for public amusement, and was pleased with his assurance that I would certainly make a successful showman.”

As a man, Mälzel seems to have been quarrelsome, extravagant, and unscrupulous. He never married, and the union of his parents was apparently unhappy (his father must have indulged in at least one extra-marital affair), which may account for his adamant antipathy to marriage. Strangely, no portrait of Mälzel has been found yet. We have two versions of his appearance: tall blond with blue eyes, a long straight nose, red cheeks (supposedly typical features of men from the Oberpfalz), which was suggested by Henrike Leonhardt in her book Der Taktmesser; and black hair, a nose like Cleopatra’s, and rather intellectual features from Count Ludwig von Bentheim-Steinfurt in his personal diary from 1807.

Johann Nepomuk Mälzel died on 21 July 1838 on a ship in the harbor of La Guaira, Venezuela, reportedly from alcohol poisoning (he was addicted).