Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Maelzl, John Nepomuk

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MAELZL, John Nepomuk, inventor, b. in Regensburg, Germany, 15 Aug., 1772; d. at sea, 21 July, 1838. Of his early life little has been recorded. In 1792 Maelzl settled in Vienna, where he taught music and devoted his attention to musical mechanism. After several years of study and experiment he produced an orchestrion instrument, which was publicly exhibited, and afterward sold for 3,000 florins. In 1804 he made known an improved musical instrument, which he called the “panharmonicon,” and which was worked by weights that acted on cylinders. This attracted universal attention; the inventor became noted throughout Europe, was appointed imperial court-mechanician, and drew the admiration of Beethoven and other noted composers. This instrument was sold to a Parisian admirer for 120,000 francs. In 1805 Maelzl purchased von Kempelen's half-forgotten “automaton chess-player,” took it to Paris, and sold it to Eugene Beauharnais at a large profit. Returning to Vienna, he gave his attention to the construction of an “automaton trumpeter,” which, with life-like movements and sudden changes of attire, performed French and Austrian field-signals and military airs. In 1808 he invented an improved ear-trumpet, and a musical chronometer. In 1813 Maelzl and Beethoven were on familiar terms. Maelzl conceived and musically sketched “The Battle of Vittoria,” for which Beethoven composed the music; they also gave several concerts, at which Beethoven's symphonies were interspersed with the performances of Maelzl's automatons. In 1816 he became established in Paris as manufacturer of his newly invented “metronome,” an instrument of enduring value. In 1817 he left Paris for Munich, and again took up his abode in Vienna. At this time he found means to repurchase von Kempelen's chess-player, and, after spending several preparatory years in constructing and improving a number of interesting and effective mechanical inventions, he formed the enterprise of exhibiting his cabinet of mechanical wonders in the New World. He arrived in New York city with his chess-player, trumpeter, panharmonicon, rope-dancers, miniature song-birds (that sprang from the lids of snuff-boxes), speaking-dolls, and the “Conflagration of Moscow.” The history of the chess-player needs not to be repeated here. At the time, Poe, among others, conclusively proved that the movements of the so-called automaton must have been directly controlled by human intelligence. The moving panorama of Moscow was wonderfully realistic and effective, with its music and cannonry. The smaller objects were genuine automatons, and marvels of beauty and ingenuity. Abortive imitations of the “Conflagration” in after-years became adjuncts to most of the museums and shows in the large cities of the Union, and may still occasionally be met with in remote localities. Not seldom, when Maelzl's exhibition opened with the performance of the chess-player, would he call on the audience in vain for an opposite player, so little at that time was the game in practice. For many years Maelzl journeyed in this country from place to place, repeating his exhibitions with unvarying success, and he also twice visited the West Indies. His display of mechanical figures has probably never been equalled. It is said he had the faculty of seizing on the crude inspirations of others and perfecting them to his own advantage. [1]