Today, the invention of the pipe organ. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Alexander the Great stirred
together the peoples of Greece, Africa, and the
Middle East before his death in 323 BC. Out of that
cultural mixing, a new free-wheeling, cosmopolitan
world replaced the conservative, isolationist Greek
city-states. That world was centered on Alexandria,
Egypt. Alexandria remained the center of
intellectual ferment for most of the next seven
In the very first years after Alexander, people
like Euclid and Archimedes worked in Alexandria.
So, too, did one of the greatest engineers who ever
lived -- a man named Ktesibios.
Ktesibios was fascinated by fluid flow -- the
movement of water and air. He revolutionized the
measurement of time when he invented a new water
clock. The flow of water into it was held steady by
the first feedback-controlled water supply valve.
He invented a piston-powered water pump and used it
to force water into a closed reservoir where it
trapped air. That compressed air could then expel
water through, say, a fire-fighting nozzle.
Ktesibios was also interested in music. Writer
Thomas Levenson tells how Ktesibios solved the
problem of supplying air to a set of pipes. He used
his water-powered air-reservoir to fill a box that
fed the pipes. He created a keyboard that let
performers open individual pipes to the air box. In
one stroke he'd given us the pipe organ, close to
its modern form, over 2200 years ago.
The organ quickly took root. The Romans were quite
taken with it. They called it the
hydraulis. If Nero played anything
while Rome burned, it wasn't the fiddle. Nero was
But after Rome adopted Christianity, the organ died
out. St. Augustine was troubled by music. It could,
no doubt, provide us with a wink of Heaven, but it
was too seductive -- more likely to break our
concentration on God than enhance it. And organs
produced the most powerful musical sound available.
In the end, the early Church of Rome came down
Only when the Church found a new home in medieval
Europe did theologians once again take the view
that the arts, including music, were acceptable
aids to worship. The organ entered that world in AD
757 when the Byzantine court presented a Ktesibios
type of water organ to Charlemagne's father. From
then on, organs became an integral part of Northern
Augustine, I suppose, would be no less concerned
today. The teeth-rattling rumble of a 32-foot pipe,
the blast of trumpets of state, feathery flute
sounds barely floating above the mass -- they all
affect our thoughts and our meditations.
Today, we expect that. And it came about because
the brilliant Ktesibios saw air and water as
material motive forces. In that, he was the
spiritual father of the steam engine and the Saturn
rocket -- as well as the pipe organ.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds