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Organ Pipes and the Native American Flute

How the Native American flute developed from the indigenous flutes that were in use in the early 19th century – rim-blown Hopi flutes, whistles, etc. – is somewhat of a mystery.

One theory is that there was a cross-pollination from the design of European organ pipes that were being produced at the time in North America. In addition to recorders and clay flutes, the pipes of acoustic church organs use a duct flute design.

Early Organ Pipes in North America

The design and construction of organ pipes was known in Mexico by the 16th century. Here is an excerpt from [Kassel 2006], page 349:

The first organs in Mexico (then part of New Spain) were manufactured at a music school for Indians founded by Franciscan friars in 1524 in Texcoco, outside modern Mexico City; these instruments were installed in churches in 1527.

Diagram in Boardman 1848 patent

Diagram in Boardman Patent Larger image

U. S. Patent 5,520

Here is an interesting innovation in organ pipe design and construction that could potentially be applied to the slow air chamber of the Native American flute. No flute crafters have yet experiemented with this innovation, as far as I am aware.

The innovation is described in David Boardman's 1848 U. S. Patent #5,520 ([Boardman 1848] Organ-Pipe). Here is an excerpt of the text of the patent that describes the innovation:

My improvement consists in placing a partition of coarse cotton cloth, or other proper substance punctured with holes, across the chamber B and just above the air induction entrance a. The said partition is shown at b. It is made to divide the chamber B into two parts C and d. When air is blown through the passage a, and into the pipe it will first pass into the space c, below the cloth partition. From thence it will rush through the meshes of cloth or between the threads of which it is composed, and find its way into the space d, from which it will pass out of the opening e. By means of the partition of cloth the air is divided into a great number of small streams before it rushes out of the eduction passage e. By such division or by some other cause not known the tone of the pipe is very highly improved.

A Dutton organ pipe

A Dutton organ pipe Larger image

This innovation was incorporated into the design of an organ crafted by David Dutton (1792–1882) of Mont Vernon, New Hampshire in about 1850 ([Owen-B 1979]).

The organ was restored to playing condition by Jeremy Adams of Danvers, Massachusetts and is now in the collection of the National Music Museum at The University of South Dakota ([NMM-USD 2011]).


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