The Katzenklavier: An Organ Made of Cats

Alamy
Alamy

Long before the wonders of keyboard cat, felines and music had a tense relationship. The two were tied by an infernal instrument—the katzenklavier, or cat organ.

Imagine a row of eight cats tightly packed in individual cages, wedged along a keyboard. Their tails are pinned down and pulled taut. With the touch of a key, a mechanism slams a nail down into the cat’s tail. So when a keyboardist plays a tune, the cats—which are arranged according to the pitches of their meows—yowl together in pain, crying out in musical harmony.

IMPURRFECT ORIGINS

Historians aren’t sure when the cruel kitty keyboard was invented. Many credit Athanasius Kircher with the original design. A German Jesuit scholar, Kircher wrote about the instrument in 1650, saying it was made for a mopey monarch:

"In order to raise the spirits of an Italian prince burdened by the cares of his position, a musician created for him a cat piano. The musician selected cats whose natural voices were at different pitches and arranged them in cages side by side, so that when a key on the piano was depressed, a mechanism drove a sharp spike in the appropriate cat’s tail. The result was a melody of meows that became more vigorous as the cats became more desperate. Who could help but laugh at such music? Thus the prince was raised from his melancholy."

If true, this wasn’t Kircher’s only fling with animal-made music. He was good friends with Gaspar Schott, a Jesuit who allegedly once tried assembling a chorus of donkeys.

Kircher was a scientific superstar, too. He invented the Aeolian harp and the magnetic clock—and was one of the first people to propose that germs caused the bubonic plague. But contrary to common lore, he probably didn’t invent the cat organ. Accounts of the instrument existed before Kircher was born. In the 16th century, historian Juan Calvete de Estrella described seeing one when King Phillip II processed into Brussels. The parade was rowdy, and it included a cat organ played by a chariot-riding bear.

Yes. A bear.

French writer Jean-Baptiste Weckerline described the scene:

"The most curious was on a chariot that carried the most singular music that can be imagined. It held a bear that played the organ; instead of pipes, there were sixteen cat heads each with its body confined; the tails were sticking out and were held to be played as the strings on a piano ... the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow"

FOR SCIENCE!

In 1803, German psychiatrist Johann Christian Reil (who coined the word “psychiatry”) trumpeted the katzenklavier’s medical potential.  Reil suggested the cat organ could help chronic daydreamers snap back to reality. He said that a “fugue played on this instrument—when the ill person is so placed that he cannot miss the expression on their faces and the play of these animals—must bring Lot’s wife herself from her fixed state into conscious awareness.”

Basically, Reil believed the katzenklavier was the only thing crazy enough to grab the attention of crazy people.

Despite all these historical records, scholars are unsure whether anyone ever built a katzenklavier for real. It was likely just a hypothetical instrument. (It would have made terrible music anyway. Cats don’t meow on a fixed pitch.)

We are sure, however, of the existence of the katzenklavier’s cousin: the pig organ. In the 15th century, King Louis XI of France ordered Abbot de Beigne to create a “concert of swine’s voices.” Obliging, the abbot built a crude keyboard made of live pigs, which jabbed spikes into the rumps of squealing swine. A similar instrument—the porko-forte—was designed in Cincinnati 400 years later.

As for the cat organ, if you want to hear a humane model, listen to Henry Dagg’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” In 2010, the sound sculptor crafted a modern katzenklavier from 16 kitty squeaky toys.

This piece originally ran in 2013.

5 Fast Facts about Madam C.J. Walker

 Madam C.J. Walker items at The Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam C.J. Walker items at The Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During a time when Jim Crow laws were actively being passed by state legislatures and segregation was total, one self-made businesswoman managed to stand out and serve as an inspiration for female entrepreneurs and people of color in America. Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867—the sixth child in her family but the first not born into slavery—the future Madam C.J. Walker developed a line of hair products and cosmetics and became likely the first female millionaire in the country. Here are a few quick facts about her historic success story.

1. Madam C.J. Walker first worked as a laundress.

In 1888, the woman who would become Madam C.J. Walker was Sarah McWilliams, a 20-year-old widow with a toddler. After her husband's death, she moved from Mississippi to St. Louis, Missouri, where her elder brothers were working as barbers. To support herself and her daughter, Lelia, she took a job as a washerwoman. She earned roughly $1.50 a day, but managed to save up in order to provide for her daughter's education.

2. Madam C.J. Walker's hair products were made especially for black women.

At the turn of the century, many African Americans suffered from issues of hair loss and dandruff, possibly due to the harsh irritants in the lye soap used by launderers and some combination of poor hygiene conditions, low-protein diets, and damaging hair treatments. Walker herself had a chronic hair-loss problem. According to the biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by Walker's great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles, "if Sarah used the widely distributed patent medicines that were heavily laced with alcohol and other harsh chemicals, [she would only make] the malady worse by stripping her hair of its natural oils."

In 1904, Sarah joined African-American businesswoman Annie Turbo Malone's team of agents after using Malone's "Great Wonderful Hair Grower" product to treat her own ailments. She began investing in creating her own product, and in 1906 she married her third husband, a Mr. Charles Joseph Walker. Walker launched her own "Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower" line of ointments and other products and began selling them door-to-door.

3. Madam C.J. Walker created a beauty culture empire.

Once Walker's business was nation-wide and incorporated, she expanded internationally to the Caribbean and Central America in 1913. Within the next few years, she acquired over 25,000 sales agents; she had a beauty school called the Lelia College of Beauty Culture in Pittsburg that trained her "hair culturists." By the time she died on May 25, 1919 at age 51, her business profits had skyrocketed to over $500,000 in sales annually. In fact, products inspired by Walker's can still be purchased today.

4. Madam C.J. Walker's Irvington, New York mansion will soon host more female entrepreneurs.

By the end of her life, Walker had amassed sizable wealth—she's widely considered to be the first self-made female millionaire, though specific numbers are vague. (Her New York Times obituary noted that "Estimates of Mrs. Walker's fortune had run up to $1,000,000 … She spent $10,000 every year for the education of young negro men and women in Southern colleges and sent six youths to Tuskegee Institute every year.") She also had ventures in real estate, and in 1918 her 20,000-square-foot mansion, called Villa Lewaro, was completed in Irvington, New York, about 20 miles north of her famed Walker townhouse in Harlem. In 2018, the estate was purchased by the New Voices Foundation, a group that has invested $100 million into a fund focused on providing support and leadership initiatives to women of color seeking their own entrepreneurial endeavors. Even 100 years after her death, Walker's legacy remains strong.

5. Octavia Spencer is set to play Madam C.J. Walker in an upcoming TV series.

As first reported by Deadline in 2018, Netflix has ordered an eight-episode series about Walker's life and legacy. Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer is set to star in and produce the series, and LeBron James will serve as an executive producer. While there isn't a firm release date set, the series is certain to be an eye-opening one for those unfamiliar with Walker's incredible story. The show will be based on the 2001 biography by Bundles.

Hundreds of 17th-Century Case Notes of Bizarre Medical Remedies Have Been Published Online

Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Illustrated portrait of Simon Forman.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As medical texts, the writings of Simon Forman and Richard Napier aren't very useful. The so-called "doctors," regarded as celebrities in 16th- and 17th-century England, prescribed such treatments as nursing puppies and wearing dead pigeons as shoes. But as bizarre pieces of history, the 80,000 case notes the two quacks left behind are fascinating. The BBC reports that 500 of them have now been digitized and published online.

Forman and Napier were active in the English medical scene from the 1590s to the 1630s. They treated countless patients with remedies that straddled the line between medicine and mysticism, and their body of work is considered one of the largest known historical medical collections available for study today. After transcribing the hard-to-read notes and translating them into accessible English, a team of researchers at Cambridge University has succeeded in digitizing a fraction of the records.

By visiting the project's website, you can browse Forman and Napier's "cures" for venereal disease ("a plate of lead," "Venice turpentine," and blood-letting), pox (a mixture of roses, violets, boiled crabs, and deer dung), and breastfeeding problems (using suckling puppies to get the milk flowing). Conditions that aren't covered in today's medical classes, such as witchcraft, spiritual possession, and "chastity diseases," are also addressed in the notes.

All 500 digitized case notes are now available to view for free. And in case you thought horrible medical diagnoses were left in the 17th century, here some more terrifying remedies from relatively recent history.

[h/t BBC]

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