Growing up in rural Yorkshire as a child, one of the regular attractions at local fairs was a huge steam powered organ: a baroque monstrosity of pipes, horns and whistles that would make classical tunes sound to the delight of the spectators. I don’t know if steam organs are still a thing, but once they’re retired I’ll have the perfect replacement: the Floppotron – a giant ‘PC hardware orchestra’ that plays music using only electric motors.
Like a fairground organ, the Floppotron is unwieldy, massive, musically not subtle and a feast for the eyes. It is the work of Polish engineer Paweł Zadrożniak, who has been building several iterations of the instrument since 2011. The first Floppotron consisted of just a few floppy drives Play The Imperial March from Star Wars, but its most recent incarnation — Floppotron 3.0 — includes a full orchestra of PC peripherals: 512 floppy drives, 16 hard drives, and four flatbed scanners. It is huge†
The concept behind the Floppotron is simply that electric motors make noise. Fine-tune how fast and hard you spin the motor (the frequency) and you can produce specific notes. Combine enough of those notes and voila, you have music.
As Zadrożniak explains in a detailed blog post on the Floppotron 3.0, the system has now become incredibly complex. The diskette drive’s wall is arranged in columns, each of which can handle a single note at a time, with the number of drives engaged varying the sound envelope (how loud or soft it is, how much vibrato it has, and so on). These floppy disk drives handle the bass, while the scanner section uses the scanners’ larger motors to deliver the higher tones. A group of hard drives rounds out the percussion section, with pops and clicks uttered by disc heads moving across disc plates.
The Floppotron is truly a work of art, and I can only hope that Zadrożniak will continue his work and perhaps inspire some imitators as well. Who knows, maybe in 50 years one of Floppotron’s heirs will entertain small children at a funfair the way steam organs fascinated me.