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Classical Notes: July 1, 2006 Archive

Maelzel's magic automata

Posted at 2:18 AM on July 1, 2006 by John Zech
Filed under: The blog

Since we've been on the subject of robots and music recently, I'd like to call your attention to the master robot maker of Beethoven's time, Johann Maelzel, the man most often credited with inventing the metronome.

Maelzel got the idea for the metronome from a Dutchman named Winkel, secured a patent, and was soon manufacturing and promoting his invention throughout Europe. In Vienna, he convinced Beethoven that metronome markings were indispensable for preserving the exact tempo of his Symphonies. Maelzel even convinced Beethoven to write a big battle piece, "Wellington’s Victory," for another of his inventions, the Panharmonicon, a sort of music box on steroids. The collaborators fell out when Maelzel claimed "Wellington’s Victory" was his personal property. The friendship soured when Beethoven filed suit and Maelzel lost…But before all that, in happier days, Beethoven teased his friend with a song called "Am Maelzel," and he made a subtler musical tribute in the tick-tock scherzo of his Eighth Symphony.

Maelzel's greatest invention was an automaton chess player known at "The Turk," who defeated many of the best players in Europe. The story of the Turk is of particular interest to students of the history of magic. The Amazing Randi has a detailed account of Maelzel and his Turk in the archives of his website. The first part of the story begins here. If you want to read more, here is the rest of the story.