Maelzel, Johannes Nepomuk

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Maelzel, Johannes Nepomuk

Maelzel, Johannes Nepomuk, German inventor; b. Regensburg, Aug. 15, 1772; d. on board the brig Otis in the harbor of La Guiara, Venezuela, en route to Philadelphia, July 21, 1838. He studied music with his father, an organ manufacturer. In 1792 he went to Vienna, where he began constructing mechanical instruments, which attracted great attention there and subsequently in other European cities; of these, the Panhar-monicon, exhibited in Vienna in 1804, was particularly effective. He then purchased the “automatic chess player,” which he claimed was his invention; in fact it was designed and built by Wolfgang von Kempelen. He was able to impress the public by his “scientific” miracle, but it was soon exposed by skeptical observers, among them Edgar Allan Poe, as an ingenious mechanical contrivance concealing a diminutive chess master behind its gears. He subsequently invented the automatic trumpeter, displaying it and a new version of the Panharmonicon in his Kunstabinet in 1812. In 1816 he constructed the metronome, the idea for which he obtained from Winkel of Amsterdam, who had exhibited similar instruments, but without the scale divisions indicating the number of beats per minute. Maelzel put the metronome on the market, despite a lawsuit brought by Winkel, and the initial of his last name was thenceforth added to the indication of tempo in musical compositions (M.M., Maelzel’s metronome). Beethoven wrote a piece for the Panharmonicon, which he subsequently orchestrated and publ. as Wellington’s Victory. After Maelzel declared that the composition was his property, Beethoven sued him in the Viennese courts, but nothing ever came from his legal action.


C. Carroll, The Great Chess Automaton (N.Y., 1975).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire