A “Cat Organ” is a fictive musical instrument consisting in a line of cats whose tails are stretched underneath a keyboard, so that each cat cries in pain when a key is pressed.
There are no records of this bizarre concept being built, although many writers and thinkers (among which French writer Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin, Athanasius Kircher, and German physician Johann Christian Reil) describe it.
Here’s an excerpt of Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin‘s “Musiciana, extraits d’ouvrages rare ou bizarre (Musiciana, descriptions of rare or bizarre inventions)”:
“When the King of Spain Felipe II was in Brussels in 1549 visiting his father the Emperor Charles V, each saw the other rejoicing at the sight of a completely singular procession. At the head marched an enormous bull whose horns were burning, between which there was also a small devil. Behind the bull a young boy sewn into a bear skin ride on a horse whose ears and tail were cut off. Then came the archangel Saint Michael in bright clothing, and carrying a balance in his hand.
The most curious was on a chariot that carried the most singular music that can be imagined. It held a bear that played the organ; instead of pipes, there were sixteen cat heads each with its body confined; the tails were sticking out and were held to be played as the strings on a piano, if a key was pressed on the keyboard, the corresponding tail would be pulled hard, and it would produce each time a lamentable meow. The historian Juan Christoval Calvete, noted the cats were arranged properly to produce a succession of notes from the octave… (chromatically, I think).
This abominable orchestra arranged itself inside a theatre where monkeys, wolves, deer and other animals danced to the sounds of this infernal music.”
“In order to raise the spirits of an Italian prince burdened by the cares of his position, a musician created for him a cat piano. The musician selected cats whose natural voices were at different pitches and arranged them in cages side by side, so that when a key on the piano was depressed, a mechanism drove a sharp spike into the appropriate cat’s tail. The result was a melody of meows that became more vigorous as the cats became more desperate. Who could not help but laugh at such music? Thus was the prince raised from his melancholy.”
Ah, and the Henry Dagg version.