I first encountered a Bontempi Air Organ when I went to visit some relatives at Christmas. It would have been the late seventies or very early eighties, I forget exactly how old I was. My cousin had been given one as a present and we spent part of the afternoon fiddling about with it.
It was a big orange plastic affair, with a decent sized main keyboard and a bank of big chunky buttons on the left hand side. Pressing the keys on the keyboard made a strange humming sound at the desired pitch, whilst pressing the chunky buttons produced a chord, although at the time I thought a chord was a piece of thick string so what relevance these buttons had was completely lost on me.
The keys on the keyboard were all labelled, though with numbers rather than letters as you might have expected. The organ came with a song book that used these numbers to tell you how to play a tune. Whilst perhaps a simpler way of learning to play, ultimately the numbers were probably a bad idea as you’d only need to relearn the proper musical notation when you progressed on to a “proper” instrument.
It wasn’t long before we got bored with playing unrecognisable tunes so we starting messing about, and soon discovered that if you held several keys down at once, the poor organ started to struggle to make any sound at all. This has puzzled me for years, but it was only when I came to write this post that I found out why this was.
The Bontempi Air Organ, as the name suggests (although at the time I just knew it as an organ) uses air to produce its sound. A fan blows air through a pipe, and pressing the keys opens and closes little holes in that pipe. Pressing too many keys caused to many holes to open and the air generated by the fan inside was just not strong enough to produce a noise.
Bontempi themselves are an Italian company, and whilst they no longer make air organs, they are still in the children’s toy instrument market, with a range of electronic keyboards, guitars, xylophones and the like.