When I was a kid growing up in rural Yorkshire, one of the regular attractions at local fairs was a huge steam-powered organ: a baroque monstrosity of pipes, horns, and whistles that would parp out classical tunes to the delight of onlookers. I don’t know if steam organs are still a thing, but if they’ve been retired then I have the perfect replacement: the Floppotron — a mammoth “PC hardware orchestra” that plays music using only electric motors.
Like a fairground organ, the Floppotron is unwieldy, massive, musically unsubtle, and a complete joy to behold. It’s the work of Polish engineer Paweł Zadrożniak, who’s been building various iterations of the instrument since 2011. The first Floppotron consisted of just a pair of floppy drives playing The Imperial March from Star Wars, but its most recent incarnation — Floppotron 3.0 — contains a full orchestra of PC peripherals: 512 floppy disk drives, 16 hard drives, and four flatbed scanners. It is immense.
The concept behind the Floppotron is simply that electric motors make noise. Tune exactly how fast and hard you run the motor (its 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 floppy disk drive wall is arranged into columns, each of which handles 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 low tones, while the scanner section uses the scanners’ larger motors to provide the higher pitches. A group of hard disk drives rounds things out as the percussion section, with bangs and clicks enunciated by drive heads moving across disk platters.
The Floppotron is a work of art, really, and I can only hope Zadrożniak continues with his work and maybe inspires some imitators, too. Who knows, in 50 years’ time, maybe one of Floppotron’s heirs will be entertaining small children at a fair the way steam organs fascinated me.