Color Organs

3 From Color Organs to Light Kinetics in the Early Twentieth Century

The number of color organs sharply rose in the first third of the twentieth century for several reasons:

1. Electricity offered new technological possibilities — both for connecting the keys of the organ to the lamps and for the use of the lamps themselves. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, it was no longer as technically complicated to build a color organ as it had been in the eighteenth century; Krüger (1743) still had to integrate a stovepipe into his instrument in order to lead off the smoke produced by the candles.

2. In the last third of the nineteenth century, there was a heightened concentration on synesthesia in sensory physiology, which encouraged the development of color organs in two respects:

a) On the one hand, synesthesia was seen as further proof of the inherent union of colors and tones within the human mind, which supported existing physical-mathematical analogies.

b) On the other hand, synesthesia was symptomatic for overcoming the differentiation of the sciences, it united the humanities and natural science, and stood for a new synthesis of the mind.[4] Between 1927 and 1936, the psychologist Georg Anschütz organized four color-sound congresses in Hamburg, during which color organs and abstract films were presented.[5]

3. Both the revival of the Pythagorean idea of the harmony of the spheres at the turn of the century as well as the blossoming of theosophical views — in particular those held by Helena Blavatsky — were popular among the developers of color organs. The hidden secrets of nature were to be explored with the help of numeric proportions that served as cosmic norms. Blavatsky incorporated the known color-note scale C = red to B = violet, which was first used by Krüger in 1743, into her principal work, The Secret Doctrine (1888).

4. Alexander László, a contemporary witness who himself constructed a color-light organ, saw a further reason: Whereas the intruding catastrophe of the world war prevented any productive artistic work especially in Europe, it cannot be denied that the changed political situation was like a fresh breeze blowing through the country; new hopes were awakened, greater freedom of creative artistic work insured the bold advance of the avant-garde.[6]

With Rimington’s and Schooling’s ideas, a process began that led from the color organs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which relied on music, to autonomous light kinetics in the twentieth century. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the term color organ often named a control desk for the presentation of color-light art. Beau and Bertrand-Taillet (1898), for instance, no longer referred to the device as a color organ, but as a piano-like device for switching on and off electric light fixtures.