As a boy growing up in rural Yorkshire, one of the regular attractions at local fairs was a massive steam organ: a baroque monstrosity of pipes, horns and whistles that sang classical tunes to the delight of onlookers. I don’t know if steam organs are still around, but if they’ve been retired, then I have the perfect replacement: the Floppotron, a gigantic “PC hardware orchestra” that plays music using only electric motors. As a fairground organ, the Floppotron is unwieldy, huge, musically unsubtle, and a complete joy to behold. It is the work of Polish engineer Paweł Zadrożniak, who has been building various iterations of the instrument since 2011. The first Floppotron consisted of just a couple of floppy disks playing The Imperial March from Star Wars, but its most recent incarnation, Floppotron 3.0, contains an orchestra complete set of PC peripherals: 512 floppy drives, 16 hard drives and four flatbed scanners. is huge. Every sound is produced by electric motors. The concept behind the Floppotron is simply that electric motors make noise. Tune in exactly how fast and hard you run the motor (its frequency) and you’ll be able to produce specific notes. Combine enough of those notes and voila, you have music.
The Floppotron 3.0 schematic Image: Paweł Zadrożniak As Zadrożniak explains in a detailed blog post on Floppotron 3.0, the system has now become incredibly complex. The wall of the floppy drive is arranged in columns, each handling a single note at a time, and the number of units activated varies the envelope of the sound (how loud or soft it is, how much vibrato it has, etc. ). These floppy drives handle the low tones, while the scanner section uses the scanners larger motors to provide the higher tones. A cluster of hard drives rounds things out like the percussion section, with bumps and clicks enunciated by the drive heads moving across the platters. The Floppotron is a work of art, indeed, and I can only hope that Zadrożniak will continue his work and perhaps inspire some imitators as well. Who knows, in 50 years, perhaps one of the Floppotron heirs will be entertaining little children at a fair in the same way that steam organs fascinated me.