Saturday, December 1, 2012


Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel (1777-1826) was born in Lippstadt and settled in Amsterdam. In 1814, while fooling around with pendulums, he discovered that a pendulum that was weighted on both sides of the pivot would keep a steady time: the first metronome!

Unfortunately, he never patented his idea, and in 1816, Johann N. Malzel  “borrowed” Winkel’s concept, added a sliding scale to it (which made it possible to change the tempo), and patented it as the Malzel Metronome, which is still in use today.

This old metronome belonged to my grandfather (the same pediatrician grandfather who carved the Bactrian camel), who was a violinist. My mother (violin) and my aunt (piano) both used it during their practice sessions in the 1920s and 1930s; my aunt went on to teach piano, first at the Department of Music at Colby Junior College (New London, NH), and then privately.

I started piano lessons when I was about ten years old, and this same metronome marked time for me, too. I did my practicing on an old upright piano that tucked in underneath the stairway to the second floor in our house in Maine.  It had a great bench with a lid, and inside I stored my old John Thompson lesson books (remember those?);  they had red covers and blocky white reverse type. I remember an early piece called “Swans on the Lake,” which my father painstakingly learned finger-by-finger to encourage me to practice (he had no musical ability, so it was quite a challenge for him).

My grandfather purchased this John Church Company metronome. John Church Co. was a 19th century publishing company that specialized in sheet music, then branched into other musical supplies – stands, batons, metronomes, etc. There were offices in Cincinnati, New York and Chicago, and I suspect there was a Boston supplier as well, but I cannot be certain.

I found this advertising copy in an old Music Magazine (1897): “The metronome tells you the rate of movement at which you ought to play or sing a piece...tells you whether you are playing your Virgil exercises at the proper speed...the metronome is your rhythmic guide, philosopher and friend, without which at hand for consultation you will be all at sea...”

More than you ever wanted to know, right?

(And, what is a Virgil exercise?)

I’ve seen the metronomes they manufacture today. I prowled around in one of our local music stores and tried a few: they’re pretty disappointing, really. Most of them are battery-operated, plastic gizmos. Some are wireless, pulsating metronomes while others are digital, quartz, with brand names like QuikTime, Dr. Beat, Body Tone...and they all have a mechanical, harsh sound – an unfriendly tone.

If I have to mark time, I’ll do it with my John Church; a rich, warm measure. It soothes me – like the ticking of a clock – and in that sound, I hear my mother, my aunt and my grandfather before me.

They are still here with me, and we are all still marking time.


  1. Hi Deb! What a neat story about something that I have never used or thought about, really. Not a musician here. I enjoyed the history and the memories, and the explanation on how it works.

    Hope things are going well!

    Kathy M.

    1. Thanks, Kathy....and I'm surprised you don't play an instrument. You've got it in you; I've found "music" in your photography, and that's good enough for me!

  2. I like how you make the simplest things come alive. I wouldn't have the patience to do your research so I'll continue to read your blog. thanks

    1. Sometimes it's the simplest things that fill me with the most wonder! Thanks for your support, Helen!

  3. A well written post, I can spot you are a good writer. And about the Virgil exercise, I think it is a reference to Almon Kincaid Virgil, inventor of the Practice Keyboard; a practice piano without strings. Virgil Excercises

    1. I can't imagine playing on a practice keyboard (without strings). Does it make noise? But you're probably right about the exercises referring to Almon Virgil. Thanks for the added information, Rob!