Jim Tyler, also known as the Reed Organ Man, has just put the finishing touches on an Aeolian style 1500 player reed organ. Jim has been restoring antique reed organs for a lifetime and has lived on South Van Ness since the 1970s. He is truly one of the Mission’s unique treasures.
The Aeolian 1500 is actually two instruments in one. What I find amazing is that the Aeolian 1500 is all acoustic and uses no electricity.
On top is a player reed organ that is activated by a roll of paper with little holes. As a hole passes over a tiny slot, the vacuum is broken, allowing air to enter a tiny pneumatic, which opens a primary valve, which opens another valve, which allows air to be drawn out of a tiny bellows, or pneumatic. The pneumatics are the things you see moving in the video. The collapsed pneumatic pushes a metal rod, which in turn opens yet another valve. The opening of this final valve allows air to be drawn over a brass reed, sounding a note. Complex? Yes it is! No wonder this instrument was a technological marvel at the turn of the last century.
A vacuum-driven pneumatic motor supplies all of the mechanical power for the rolls. The vacuum is created by pushing the treadles. The same vacuum activates the remainders of the mechanisms and plays the notes. When both sections of the instrument are in full swing, the musician needs to be pedaling like a person possessed.
To prevent the musician from having feelings of inadequacy, complete control of another three and a half sets of reeds is afforded by a conventional five-octave keyboard. If the player was up for the challenge they could pull some of the four stops on the lower instrument and play the keyboard to accompany the roll. The musician’s knees managed the volume.
A month of Tyler’s careful work has restored all of the deteriorated leather and felt. He tuned the 163 reeds individually. The result is a revitalized and truly extraordinary instrument. As Tyler would say, “It is good for another 100 years.”