Maelzel, The Metronome Guy – Great Inventor Or Great Con Artist!

Johann Nepomuk Mälzel (August 15, 1772 – July 21, 1838) was a bit of a charlatan!  The Mälzel Metronome, a mechanical or electrical instrument that makes repeated clicking sounds at an adjustable pace, used for marking rhythm, especially in practicing music by pianists and musicians everywhere, was patented in 1815. However, Mälzel actually stole the construction ideas from Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel (1780-1826), the actual creator of the very first metronome in 1813!  

Winkel was born in Amsterdam and created the metronome while experimenting with pendulums. He discovered that a pendulum weighted on both sides of a pivot could beat steady time, even for the slowest tempos which were used most often in the European classical music of the time. Winkel, failed to protect his idea and two years later, Mälzel stole his idea, past it off as his own and had them patented!   This wasn’t Mälzel’s only fraudulent act! In 1813, Mälzel became friends with Ludwig van Beethoven when he constructed several ear trumpets for the great composer to help him with his hearing. Mälzel asked Beethoven to compose a piece designed for his invention, the panharmonicon (an automaton able to play the musical instruments of a military band, powered by bellows and directed by revolving cylinders storing the notes.) When the compositon was revealed, Mälzel claimed ownership of the piece and thus a bitter feud began resulting in Beethoven suing Mälzel over the incident! Imagine! Stealing a composition by Beethoven! Mälzel really had no scruples!  

Wolfgang von Kempelen had constructed a chess machine in1769. It consisted of a chess table and a mechanical life-size puppet dressed as a Turk (which gave the machine its name) sitting behind the table. The puppet mechanically moved the chess pieces. Under the table an elaborate mechanism was shown to the public; behind that mechanism a small chess player was hidden. Kempelen had toured with this machine fascinating folks all around Europe for many years. After Kempelen died in 1804, Mälzel purchased the “machine” from Kempelen’s son.  Mälzel continued to tour with this amazing “invention” putting on exhibitions in Europe and the United States.   

Many writers in both Europe and the United States, including Edgar Allen Poe, suspected a hidden human player, while others philosophized about the great implications of this mechanization of intelligence. The chess playing machine was discovered to be a fake while on tour in Baltimore, when two youths discovered a man stepping out from a hidden compartment under the chessboard table! Here was the real intelligence behind the Turk! The “chess machine” had toured for quite a while and Mälzel pocketed quite a bit of money before he was exposed.   While Mälzel may have been quite the deceitful character, his patented metronomes, which to this day bear his name, are unsurpassed in quality and accuracy. They are an invaluable tool for piano teachers and players alike!  Mäelzel Metronomes (yes, somewhere along the line the spelling got changed) are known world-wide and so even to this very day, Mäelzel often receives credit for what was rightly Winkel’s creation! And the beat goes on.

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