The Orchestrion Builders

A Story of the Leopold King Family

All information for the story of the King family (originally written in German) was provided courtesy of Siegfried Wendel. The German text was translated into English by my Danish friend Anders Christopherson, and then edited, commented, and re-phrased by me, Terry Hathaway.

Leopold and His Revolver-Mechanik

Philipps 6-station Revolver-Mechanik as illustrated in 1911/12 catalogue.Ever since my first glimpse of a Wurlitzer PianOrchestra in the early 1940s -- a large Philipps Pianella Model 30 (Monopol-Xylophon) orchestrion branded with the Wurlitzer logo -- I have been fascinated by large orchestrions, and the people who designed and made them. One of the features I admired most in the big Philipps instruments was the roll changer. Its elegantly simple design made it an exceptionally rugged and durable device, capable of operating almost flawlessly over many years of continuous commercial use. It was, in my opinion, the most reliable and trouble free of all the various roll changers designs I have seen and worked with. Modified forms of the basic plan accommodated variations capable of holding three, six, ten, or twelve music rolls, providing a wide selection of music without repeats. When properly regulated, with all external latching devices properly adjusted, it was nearly foolproof and friendly to even the most timeworn of music rolls.

Having enjoyed the trouble free roll changer in the many large Philipps machines I have owned, this one component occupies a special place in my memories. At the time of my total immersion into automatic music, however, I never imagined that I would someday get to know, if only a little bit, something about the man responsible for inventing it. Thus, when I received the King family story from Siegfried Wendel I was delighted to learn about the man whose inventions I had admired so much.

There were other roll changers on the market, too, including a beautifully designed, but less rugged, inverted, or upright style also made by Philipps. I have no idea who designed this "other" later vintage model, which was used in the keyboard style instruments where interior space was at a premium. Although it was mechanically similar in functionality to its older brother, it sat upright on top of the main chest, whereas the old model hung from a special back-frame that could only be used in the big, much more spacious cabinet orchestrions.

Probably the most intricately complex of all roll changers commercially available were those made by Hupfeld. They were used primarily in Hupfeld's top-of-the-line Pan orchestrions, as well as, for instance, in a some special Phonoliszt-Violina models. The Hupfeld changers were beautifully crafted pieces of machinery, but somewhat delicate, requiring careful regulation. Some were even fitted with electrical contacts and controls that allowed patrons to select a specific roll from remote wall boxes. Although the Hupfeld roll changers were admirably constructed, they were often troublesome, especially when it came to playing old, tired music rolls.

In America, the National Automatic Music Company / National Piano Mfg. Company of Grand Rapids, Michigan devised a roll changer that held eight music rolls, each roll having its own take-up spool, and that were rewound automatically after playing by means of a special spring mechanism. Like Hupfeld’s two-roll Kipp mechanism, the individual rolls never disengaged their individual take-up spools, thereby eliminating the problem of threading a new roll onto a common take-up spool, as was the case with all other commercial roll changers. Wurlitzer, on the other hand, appears to have more or less copied the upright Philipps roll changer design, making its own six-roll automatic changer, which was patented on September 8, 1914. This changer was installed in most of Wurlitzer's American made keyboard style pianos. Although the Wurlitzer changer was functionally and mechanically similar to the upright Philipps model, it was comparatively crude, its power drives more complicated and the whole arrangement of the earlier models somewhat prone to misthreading of music rolls, making it seem like a distant stepchild to its precision made and highly polished German counterpart.

The King Family ...

What follows now is a story of mechanical music instruments in Germany as the family of Leopold King experienced it. Regrettably, there is little known about Herkunft Leopold King’s early years, other than he was born in Niederschach in Schwarzwald on November 17, 1863, and that he became an orphan when he was six years old. A guardian was appointed, a carpenter by trade, who saw that Herkunft was schooled as a carpenter in the small hamlet of Waldkirch.

At the end of his schooling as a carpenter, Leopold, as he came to be called, was given a sack of second quality lumber for his final test. He was instructed that when he finished building an acceptable night-closet out of the supplied wood he would pass the test, and then be a bona-fide carpenter. It is important to keep in mind that Leopold had to build the closet after his regular working hours. Then, upon its completion, a master painter and master carpenter would inspect his work. Leopold King passed the test with a good grade.

Fortunately for Leopold, Waldkirch was the site of a blooming mechanical music industry at the time, a fortuitous happenstance for talented carpenters. Thus, Leopold, the newly qualified carpenter was able to get a job right away at the Wilhelm Bruder factory. He began his new job building twelve small street-organs, all of the same kind. He built everything himself, right from the mainhause (case), airmechanism (pneumatic mechanisms) and windbarns (feeders and reservoirs) to the pipes. Then, having successfully completed this initial job assignment he went on to build larger and larger organs thereafter.

It was not long before Leopold had mastered the construction and regulation of organ pipes, whereupon he moved on, going to work for the Gebruder Bruder company as a pipe master. Here he met his future wife to be, Katharina Muller. But more work changes were soon to be for the young Leopold. When the big Karusselorgan factory Ruth, also in Waldkirch, became united with the Gebruder Weber firm, Leopold went to work there, in order to gain more knowledge in building orchestrions, and also because the Gebruder Weber factory paid higher wages. Noteworthy, it was during his time with Gebruder Weber that the first orchestrion was built using note-rolls made out of thin paper.

It was in 1889 that Leopold King finally married Katharina Muller. Then, in 1890, she gave birth to a daughter, Berta. Five years later, on the 18th of November, 1895, the twins Leopold and Ernst were born.

The Daniel Philipps Orchestrion-Fabrik

Orchestrion Fabrik - J.D. Philipps (circa 1890s)Johann Daniel Philipps, who owned a small carpenter-factory in Frankfurt, was searching for a highly skilled orchestrion builder, so that he could build up the production and quality of his line of paper roll operated instruments. It was in 1897 when Daniel offered Leopold King the position of "master of production." The King family moved from Waldkirch to Frankfurt, occupying a house right next door to the factory, with the King children playing and growing up in the Philipps orchestrion factory.

In what was probably considered to be an unusual business decision for the time, Daniel Philips had a restaurant built. In the restaurant he had prominently featured a large dance orchestrion. On Sundays Leopold worked as the dance master, controlling the orchestrion and selling dance cards. Whenever the restaurant patrons wanted to hear music or dance it was the men’s obligation to buy a dance card. Then, Leopold would cause a tune to be performed on the mighty orchestrion.

Although Daniel Philipps was a carpenter-factory owner, he enjoyed good connections in the restaurant trade, something that enabled him to place his orchestrions in many eating establishments throughout the Frankfurt area, using coin-slides in the instruments to collect money. Many people started to take notice and buy Philipps orchestrions as soon as they realized the profit they made. Soon the Philipps factory had to be expanded. Leopold King would work all day at his workbench constructing pneumatic windloader and release mechanisms for large instruments, then working into the evening and nighttime sitting behind his drawing board he would devise new designs. Now and then, when he would come up with something new or make a major improvement, he would get a raise in his salary. Additionally, both of Daniel Philipps’ sons, August and Oswald, who would later take over the business, were being trained by Leopold King in the fine art of orchestrion building.

April 18, 1906 patent for the Philipps Revolver-Mechanik.Always interested in making technical improvements, Leopold early on in his career with Philipps began working with an abstract problem. He wanted to construct a note-roll changer (music roll changer) that would make it possible for note-rolls to be played continuously, one after the other, without having to use an additional music roll player. Daniel Philipps was very interested in the idea and its commercial application, but when the revolver-mechanik was completed, he would not pay anything extra for the idea. The reason being that Philipps owned the pattern rights for everything that was developed in the factory, and therefore the company owned the rights to Leopold King’s wonderful invention. Thus, it was Daniel Philipps who announced the noteroll-changer to the pattern office in 1905.

Disappointed, Master King did not give up. He was soon at work constructing a better and more advanced roll changing device, one that worked so that when one music roll had finished playing the next roll was able to play immediately, eliminating the awkward rewind break that would otherwise interrupt the flow of music. But before his designs on the new mechanism were complete, King left Philipps and went to work in a small orchestrion factory nearby in Frankfurt-AM-Main. This is where he completed the work on his improved note-roll invention. His new boss liked his pattern drawings so much so that he took them and removed Leopold King’s name, selling the idea as his own. Leopold King, the genius inventor was once again deceived, losing control of his invention. In desperation he took his new employer to court and won a small settlement, while other people got the profit from his ideas.

Hupfeld's Helios Department

A beaten man, King left Frankfurt in 1909 and moved his household to Leipzig, where there was a flourishing and steadily growing metropolis devoted to the manufacture of mechanical music-instruments. King went to work for Hupfeld, who paid him 18 marks more per month than Philipps had done on his last paycheck, after all the raises Leopold had earned. Hupfeld was on its way to becoming the largest factory for mechanical music instruments in Europe, and in the World, for that matter, and the company was about to commence building its immense new Bohlitz-Ehrenberg factory. Thus, Hupfeld was searching for talented masters in the field of pneumatics. Master King started work for Hupfeld in the Helios orchestrion department. Erich Teichert was department manager. Teichert, originally from Breslau, had had his own organ factory before he moved to Leipzig and began working for Hupfeld.

Employees in Hupfeld's Helios Orchestrion Department.Teichert and King already knew each other from earlier business associations and looked upon each other as competitors. Although Teichert was department manager, and responsible for the production and development of Helios orchestrions, King was able to contribute some of his own ideas to improve the Helios line, too. For example, King introduced the idea that made it easy to clean the air-hole (bleed) mechanism, which would from time to time get dirty and thereby impair the operation of the machine. By simply attaching the air-hole assembly with small wing bolts it could be easily removed and cleaned. The idea of being able to easily and quickly clean the bleed holes was something King had used to good advantage on Philipps instruments, combining the bleed holes into an easily removable front section of an ingeniously designed wooden tracker bar.

When Hupfeld’s new Bohlitz-Ehrenberg factory was ready in 1911, King’s paycheck was reduced by eight marks. At first, King thought is was just a clerical error, but he soon discovered it was a pay reduction and not a calculation error at all. Upon making this unsettling discovery he immediately went to his boss, Ludwig Hupfeld, who told him that he would get his money, but only when he was able to bring the Phonola department production up to a level equal to that of the Helios department. King would be required to put in a lot of extra and hard work in order to get the same salary as before, reclaiming the money he thought Hupfeld rightfully owed him. But Leopold King refused to sink so deep, quitting Hupfeld instead, going out on his own as an orchestrion repairman. Putting an ad in the magazine for instrument builders, he was hired by the Symphonion Factory (in Leipzig).

The Twins Come of Age

The twins Leopold and Ernst King began their schooling in 1910. The young Leopold wanted to be an orchestrion builder like his father, and began learning the woodworking trade by working as a carpenter in the furniture industry, which, at that time, was the best place to start for anyone wanting to become an orchestrion builder. Ernst also wanted to work with musical instruments, so he began as a trainee at the harmonica factory Manborg.

In the course of the King family’s daily life there was a lot of technical language relating to orchestrions spoken regularly at home. The family was never far away from talking about or dealing with orchestrions in some way. Occasionally, when they were playing cards father Leopold would turn the score sheet over and start drawing outlines of pneumatic devices. Moreover, when the father King went out to fix orchestrions one of his sons would often go along.

These varied business excursions provided a good training ground for the youngsters. It was common that the owner of an orchestrion, who oftentimes was a restaurant owner, did not treat King or his sons very well. One time young Leopold had to drive all the way back from Efurt to Leipzig in order to get a part for an orchestrion. In the meantime, his father tuned and polished the orchestrion. Together they put in the replacement part. Then the restaurant owner did not want to pay the six marks asked; saying that four marks was enough. The son Leopold calmly said, "Oh well, dad, then we have to remove the part again." The Restaurant owner was furious, but finally said, "Oh well, here is your money."

The Advent of World War I

Shortly before World War I the Symphonion Factory, where father King was working, had started to produce metal-plate musical boxes, gramophone disks, electric pianos and orchestrions. The pneumatic instruments were mostly made for the South American and Spanish market. They had a very strong tone, did not have a tuning mechanism and could only be played at two settings: quiet or loud. A Leipziger note-roll factory made the note-rolls for the Symphonion Factory.

In 1914, about the time when both of King’s sons had finished their schooling, World War I broke out. Musical instruments were suddenly considered to be unimportant. Consequently, both the sons got jobs in a meat factory helping with supplies for the troops. However, it was not long before they had to go to the front themselves, with both of them ending up in French prison camps. Leopold came home from the war in 1919, and Ernst followed two years later.

Father King had in the meantime lost his job, because in 1918 Symphonion had gone bankrupt. The word was that they had miscalculated the cost of the Shrankgrammophone and suffered great losses because of it. Even though the order book for the pneumatic pianos was full for the next couple of years, there was no work for the elder Leopold. Thus, father King became self-employed, opening a little shop just big enough to fit in a single piano. He would go to the former places where he had once done repair work and put up small signs offering his repair services for pneumatic instruments. His two sons worked alongside him upon their return home from war.

The son, Leopold, married in 1921, Ernst in 1922. Leopold was not able to find any work he liked in Leipzig; therefore, he traveled to Frankfurt looking for employment. The little, once unprofitable, Daniel Phillips factory had become Phillips (A/S), a joint stock company. The sons August and Oswald Phillips had taken over the business and expanded with new factories. When August Phillips heard that his old teacher’s two sons were looking for work he immediately offered them jobs. Leopold and his wife moved to Frankfurt, but Ernst’s wife did not want to leave Leipzig, so they stayed behind. However, Philipps also had a factory in Leipzig, so Ernst went there to work.

There was a great resurgence in the mechanical musical instrument industry after the War. The music from gramophones was not loud enough -- there were no electronic amplifiers yet. The jazz that came from America required new, more sophisticated machines, plus there was a great hunger for amusement after Germany’s defeat in World War I. The note-roll factories delivered new tunes from lively "one-steps" to the "Charleston." Every bar had an orchestrion, Smart Lola had a Pianola in the Salon and the little bakery had an electric piano playing softly in the background.

Ernst King was busy demonstrating and installing Philipps musical instruments in the Leipzig area. He would arrange exhibitions where he would demonstrate the machines to customers. It was not always easy work. Oftentimes the exhibition places had terrible acoustics, and exhibition tents did not even have floors, so Ernst would have to build a stand for the orchestrion. Once a demonstration was held in the middle of a field. Another time the acoustics in the room were so bad that Ernst had to make a plywood sound barrier, before the people in the room could hear the Paganini-Orchestrion N. 14.

A butcher and restaurant-keeper once threatened to kill Ernst, because of the orchestrion he was installing. Ernst had unpacked and assembled the orchestrion all by himself, but then every time he would drop a coin in the coin slot a fuse would blow. Before long there were no more good fuses left in the house. To say the least the shopkeeper was annoyed, but Ernst persisted. He opened the orchestrion and turned two wires, whereupon the orchestrion began playing, and the delighted butcher began dancing to the happy Melodie Violin.

Leopold King, on the other hand, worked in the factory in Frankfurt doing final regulation and testing of the orchestrions. He would check them out from head to toe, and try them out before they were shipped to the customer. The people who were actually building individual components and assembling the orchestrions did not understand the whole pneumatic process. Ever since Leopold was a child, his father had talked about orchestrions, explaining the mechanism in great detail. It was therefore quite natural for him to take on the responsibility of testing the completed orchestrions.

The Boom Ends

The flourishing mechanical music industry stopped suddenly. World-crisis, inflation, and unemployment upset the prosperous business of automatic music, and to make it all worse the radio and motion picture was breaking into and taking over the market. Nobody was buying pneumatic instruments anymore. The Kino-organs in the light-play houses were all of a sudden obsolete, too. The small orchestrion factories went out of business quickly, while the big ones did the best they could to survive. The Phillips branch in Leipzig, with its enormous workshop and railway connection was given up in 1933.

Ernst king was now unemployed and the Harmonium factory did not have any work for him either. Leopold King was also unemployed for a short time. But then World War II started and the factories for musical instruments were suitable for important wartime products. Nearly all the old musical instrument factories were converted to produce parts for airplanes. The factory in Freiburg was bombed and burned to the ground. Phillips moved their part of the factory to Aschaffenburg and Leopold King came along with his family. After the war there was a need for furniture, much more so than the need for musical instruments, so Philipps started building beds in Aschaffenburg.

Nobody wanted note-rolls anymore, so three good wagons full of Phillips note-rolls were burned. What the war had not destroyed was destroyed out of the conviction that the era of mechanical musical instruments was over. The Russians dismantled the Hupfeld factory in Leipzig. Note-roll machines were lying around for years and were finally shipped to Russia as junk. Ernst King worked with pianos and harmoniums up until his pension, and he is still working as a harmonium tuner today.

Herkunft Leopold King testing a pneumatic.Father Leopold King died in 1949 at the age of 86 years. His grandson, Horst, was in training at Philipps A/S at the time. In 1952 (the son) Leopold and his son, Horst, quit Philipps, as the production of musical instruments had completely stopped. At the end of the 1950s the Philipps company split up and was gone.

There was a light shining in Leopold King’s eyes when I (Siegfried Wendel) first met him back in 1965, and told him that I was interested in musical instruments. He was immediately ready, together with his son, Horst, to repair an orchestrion for me. Horst is still working with orchestrions. His father Leopold died in January of 1978. Ernst lives with his son on the island Forh. He has this to say about his brother: "Leopold has always been a step ahead of me, he was first born, first married and died first…"


Information provided by Siegfried Wendel, Germany. Translated from German by Anders Christopherson, and edited, commented, and re-phrased by Terry Hathaway.


Philipps 1911/12 Catalogue; and Siegfried Wendel