The young Keely.

One of the things that had puzzled me for a very long time was the question what would possess a young boy to conceive and build a conch shell motor (acoustic turbine) in the first place. The inspiration had to come from somewhere.

I believe I can even re-construct that.

Keely got his inspiration in church. Not from reading the bible or something equally esoteric, no, the inspiration was far more mundane.

To illustrate why I am thinking what I am thinking I must tell you a little of my own early years, so please bear with me.

I was born in 1939 in a small country town in Germany (about 6000 inhabitants at the time, not much more today). The town evolved around an old Roman outpost and observation tower that, though in ruins, still stands. It sports a post-medieval castle and two magnificent churches.

The town has been for centuries an important administration centre for the surrounding villages and an equally important market town. The older one of the two churches was usurped by the protestant rulers of the time, forcing the catholic community to build another one.

There was much wealth in that town and even today there still is.

Some extremely wealthy patron, perhaps to secure a place in heaven, donated the organ for the new church.

The organ is a superb example of late 17th century craftsmanship, a time when organ building was probably at its peak. It is certainly far beyond anything that one would expect in a place of that size. It was carefully designed with the acoustics of the building in mind (the church holds about 500 people). To listen to the instrument when played by a virtuoso organist it is a moving and overwhelming experience.

Having an intense interest in music and being confined to experimentation with a mouth organ, a recorder and the occasional tinkering on the school piano between classes I longed to learn how to play a real instrument.

There was one instrument that was accessible to me, albeit at a price.

The church and the organ had survived the war virtually unscathed. The air to the organ was supplied by foot operated bellows. Hanging on to a handrail one had to stand on pedals and push them down with one's bodyweight. It was an unpopular job, but someone had to it or the thing could not be played. It was hard work and physically demanding.

To encourage us kids to operate the bellows the organist promised to teach us how to play if we pumped the bellows for him on a regular basis. There were a number of takers, me included, who spent countless hours pumping the bellows in exchange for a lesson here and there.

The most telling experience though did not come from playing the instrument but from pumping it.

Since few people today would have had that experience I need to go here into a little bit more detail.

In a pipe organ there is a reservoir of compressed air called the wind chest which has to be replenished by pumping the bellows. Each key has a series of pipes connected to it and when the key is depressed air flows through those pipes generating sound. Organ pipes either go at full blast or they are silent there is no way to alter the volume in a single pipe. The number of pipes in a given note to be engaged is controlled by a stop, a wooden slider that stops air flowing to some of the pipes varying the sound quality and volume. When the stop is pulled all pipes of that pitch are engaged requiring a lot more air than if only one or two of them are engaged.

Whoever is pumping the bellows should be familiar with the music that is being played in order to provide the right quantity of air to enable the organist to play the piece properly. When all the stops are pulled and the very large pipes engaged whoever is pumping is working very hard to keep the airflow up, a bit like riding a bicycle at speed.

It was during one of those times when it hit me.

I was pumping like crazy, all the stops were out, the diapasons and the large foot pedal operated bass pipes were in full bloom, the whole building and everything inside it vibrated and I realised I alone was doing that. Not the organist, he was only pressing the keys, I was the motive power. My then still scrawny legs had caused a building to shake.

If I could unleash that kind of power on my bicycle I could surely fly!

These days Rock Bands use tons and tons of speakers, amplifiers, mixers etc to get the same effect, even in comparatively small auditoriums.

After that I kept an eye on the phenomenon and realised that only certain chords would cause that. I left it at that and went onto other things. I did not investigate it any further. Keely did!

It was not until recently, while studying Keely that the significance of these events struck me.

What else is a church with an organ playing inside than a gigantic Helmholtz resonator with an inbuilt sound generator? The prototype of Keely's liberators!

But, did Keely have a similar experience that inspired his conch shell motor and is there evidence that he might have?

I am convinced of it.

Keely's grandfather had to be an outstanding musician. To be the leader of an orchestra in Baden-Baden in the 18th century was one of the most prestigious positions a musician could hold anywhere in the world.

Baden-Baden at that time was a famous playground for the rich and super-rich They went for the therapeutic waters that gave the town its name and existence since Roman times. Baden in German means "to bathe". The waters were said to have curative powers especially against diseases caused by easy living and too rich a diet, such as gout. These people demanded the best, they paid for it and, by God, they got it.

So we know something about the calibre of the man.

It is my guess that old Ernst came to prominence through one of the traditional routes, starting his musical career as an a church organist somewhere in a small town and from then on progressed in his career. It is a familiar story for many of his famous contemporaries. Any good and dedicated musician has an intense interest in all facets of his most favoured instrument including its construction. Each organist I have ever met, and I have met a few, had a very thorough knowledge of organ building and tuning.

Why am I telling you this? Sounds like a bit of small talk included to liven up an otherwise dry subject. It is not.

There was no profession at the time in the world that had a more intimate knowledge of acoustics than the old organ builders. They knew about harmonies, eddy currents, vortex formations etc in intimate detail. They had over the centuries built a database that documented every phenomenon they encountered and had published it from time to time. They also had developed a technical language that was very difficult to understand for anyone outside the craft.

Old Ernst, talking about acoustics would have spoken like that. He would have had reference books that spoke in that language and young Keely would have thought it normal to talk about these matters in that way.

It was something that irritated Keely's contemporaries no end. Comments like "these tiresome phrases", "incomprehensible gibberish", "wearisome terminology" etc turn up over and over again in the contemporary press.

It did not make him any friends.

The world had moved on and Keely still spoke the way his grandfather had done in his day.

I think that Keely's grandfather played the organ in some church and that young Keely had to tread the bellows for him, there being no other to make it work at that time. I further think that young Keely noticed much the same thing about acoustics as I did, but where I only dreamed about flying on my bicycle he went out and built a motor.

That Keely knew much about organ pipes of that there is no doubt. His writings are full of references. The above scenario also explains much about the man and his religious convictions.

I believe that Keely was a deeply religious person, though not perhaps in the accepted sense of the term. Today we would probably call him an intensely spiritual person.

He hade made his initial discovery in a church, the bellows in the service of the Lord, being overwhelmed by the power he had unleashed by allowing the creator's might to flow through him. What more did he need to arrive at the attitude he displayed throughout his life.

Alright, I buy the organ bit and the religious stuff, but how do you know he was treading bellows, I hear some of you say.

O.K. fair comment. however, when you play an organ you are very, very busy. One hand on the upper manual, one on the lower, your feet on the pedals, pulling and pushing stops when required, reading music and having your fingers and feet in the correct place at the correct time and listening to what you are playing is quite a feat and requires intense concentration. It doesn't leave much for observation.

On the bellows, though you must still follow the music to do it properly. You are engaged in a repetitive physical act that requires little concentration. At the same time you are involved. You are far more at liberty to feel and observe while yet still being an intimate part of the whole. You can feel much more intensely the power of the music flowing through you than if you were playing it.

Needless to say, much depends on the organist, a good one is a joy, a bad one torture.

The first one you want to stay with (assimilation), the other one you want to run away from (repulsion), the music being the dominant, to put it in Keely's terms.

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Hans von Lieven, copyright 2007