10 Oddest Imaginary Musical Instruments From the Past You Have No Idea Existed

February 24, 2016 Updated: February 26, 2016

The strangest of all musical instruments, fictophones are those that actually don’t really exist. Or, they exist, but only in the world of the imagination. 

People in the past searched for the limits of the impossible, as well as the most fascinating, and came up with curious objects that never got realized.


1. Cat Piano

The illustration of the cat piano from La Nature, 1883. (Public Domain)

This is one of the craziest. Tha cat’s tails were used instead of strings. After pressing a key, a sharp object would hit one of the tails of the cats, which were arranged according to the pitch of their voices. According to a 19th-century physician Athanasius Kircher, cat piano was invented to heal the prince from melancholy. Can be thought of as an early ancestor of music therapy?

The earliest image of this odd “organ” dates back to 1600. It was made over a hundred years before the real piano. Fortunately, this instrument has never become real. Here, the cat piano, or “Katzenklavier,” appears in Caspar Schott’s “Magia universalis naturae et artis.”

The cat piano, or
(Public Domain)


2. Fantastical Underground Organ

Another fantastical instrument, powered by water faucet and imaginary creatures. The author, Athanasius Kircher, wrote in the same book Musurgia Universalis from 1650 also about the cat piano. (Public Domain)
(Public Domain)

Another fantastical instrument, powered by a water faucet and imaginary creatures. The author, Athanasius Kircher, wrote in the same book “Musurgia Universalis,” from 1650, in which the cat piano appeared.


3. Instrumentum Nostrum Magnum or, humbly, ‘Our Great Instrument’

(Public Domain)

This harp-like device was activated by lowering the string attached vertically. The arrangement of quills determined which note would sound. Author Robert Fludd suggested this would be the perfect instrument for music at feasts, preferably hidden from a sight. Invented in 1618.


4. The Tubo Cochleato

Image from Filippo Bonanni’s “Gabinetto armonico,” 1723. (Public Domain)

Another one by Athanasius Kircher from 1673, this instrument was inspired by a tube shape in nature to amplify a human voice. Although possible to construct today, it failed at its time due to the lack of technical skills to construct such a perfect shape.


5. The Panharmonicon

Pierre Vidal, from The Human Comedy: Philosophic and Analytic Studies, Volume IV (Philadelphia: George Barrie & Son, 1899, Public Domain)
(Image by Pierre Vidal, from “The Human Comedy: Philosophic and Analytic Studies,” Volume IV, Philadelphia: George Barrie & Son, 1899, Public Domain)

In 1805 scientist Johann Nepomuk Maelzel invented a mechanical instrument to mimic the variety of sounds by a real orchestra. A few years later, Honore de Balzac adopted this idea in his short story “Gambara.” This super instrument contained all elements of a complete orchestra. But unlike the real invention, Gambara’s version in the Balzac story produced music by musician’s hands, as though playing a piano.  


6. Pipe postal balloon 

Twenty-fifth-century postal balloon illustrated by Balthasar Anton Dunker, ca 1784. (Public Domain)
(Public Domain)

A 25th century postal balloon illustrated by Balthasar Anton Dunker, circa 1784. During the balloon boom of the 18th century, this balloon was supposed to deliver mail, with a pipe organ built into its bows.


7. The Steam Organ

Steam organ
(Public Domain)

This is one of the few imaginary instruments that was actually brought to life. During the Industrial Revolution, in 1795 William Mason  read a book by a 12th century monk, who described a “magical organ” he saw at a church circa A.D. 1000. Mason, crazy about steam at that time, interpreted what was likely water driving air through pipes as steam running through the pipes.


8. Sound Houses

(Sound Houses as a 1970 drawing by the artist Lowell Hess, via )
(Sound Houses as envisioned in a 1970 drawing by the artist Lowell Hess, in “Graphic Design for the Computer Age,” via soeyamato.wordpress.com)

In the 1626 utopian novel “New Atlantis,” Francis Bacon portrays a world in which technology will work for the good of humanity. Sound houses were constructed as the state’s research program to discover how nature works, imitating all its sounds with different sets of imaginary instruments. As Bacon wrote, Sound houses were “…to enlarge their mind to the amplitude of the world and not to reduce the world to the narrowness of their minds.” If you still can’t get your head around this, have a look at one of today’s adaptations here.


9. The Temple of Music

Robert Fludd's Temple of Music. One of the great seventeenth-century occultist's contributions to the domain of speculative technology. From his Utriusque cosmi (1617) (Public Domain)
(Detailed illustration by Matthäus Merian from the first edition, Public Domain)

Another instrument of  the mind by Robert Fludd, The Temple of Music. As a physician, Fludd introduced in his encyclopedia Utriusque Cosmi (1617) the theory and practice of music as a huge temple.

Fludd's Temple of music
(Public Domain)

Here, a detail of the Temple of music. The illustration portrays divisions of the Pythagorean scale. One of the Temple of Music instruments was a mechanical psaltery hidden behind the curtain or wall to entertain dinner guests.


10. The Steam Band

(Public Domain)
(Public Domain)

In 1844 during a steam “revolution” when machines were slowly taking over manual labor and professions, a French caricaturist J.J. Grandville thought of a steam band–the ultimate intelligent steam machine–reflecting the increasingly powerful role of technology.


The idea for the article via Public Domain Review, more of the fantastical instruments can be found at Museum of Imaginary Musucal Instruments.