A wry view of life for the world-weary

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Sixty Four

Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel (1777 – 1826)


For a musician time is important. You can dispense with melody or harmony but if rhythm goes out of the window then you are left with an unholy racket. That is why you see a conductor flailing their arms in front of a concert orchestra or a drummer preparing a solid foundation upon which the other players can build in a rock or jazz ensemble. When a musician is practising they will often deploy a metronome, a handy device which you can set to register so many beats per minute by way of audible clicks or ticks. Being mechanical it is unerring. Composers mark their scores with metronome settings to give the musos a clue as to the tempo at which to play the piece.

Of course, some bright spark must have come up with the idea of a musical metronome and this is where the latest inductee of our illustrious Hall of Fame, Lippstadt born Dietrich Winkel, comes in. He was not the first to develop a metronome – this honour goes to the Andalusian polymath, Abbas ibn Firnas (810 – 897 CE) who is said to have devised “some sort of metronome”. In 1696 Frenchman, Etienne Loulie, created the first mechanical metronome, using an adjustable pendulum. The problem with Loulie’s invention was that it did not make a sound and did not have a device – the technical term is an escapement – to keep the pendulum in motion. For a musician it was not much use.

Winkel who by 1812 had now settled in Amsterdam began experimenting with pendulums. His breakthrough came when he realised that by weighting a pendulum on both sides of a pivot it could beat a regular rhythm which was audible. It could be adapted to suit various tempi and was housed in the now familiar pyramid casing. Winkel donated his “musical chronometer” to the Hollansch Instituut van Wetenschappen on 27th November 1814. It was described and commended in the Journal of the Netherland Academy of Sciences the following year.

If Winkel thought by developing this machine he was on to a winner, he was gravely mistaken. He made the fatal mistake that earns him a place in our Hall of Fame of failing to patent his musical metronome. This opened the way for Johann Nepomuk Maetzel to initially try to buy the rights and title to Winkel’s metronome. When Winkel refused, Maelzel simply copied his machine, added a scale and applied, successfully, for a patent. He produced around 200 of his metronomes and sent them out to friends, composers and manufacturers of musical instruments for their comments and suggestions for modifications. One recipient was Ludwig van Beethoven who was much taken by the device and added metronome settings in his later scores.

Winkel sued Maetzel and won but by then the damage had been done. Although the courts acknowledged our hero as the true inventor of the metronome,, Maetzel had cornered the market. Even to this day the metronome is known as the Maetzel Metronome and the notation MM is used in score to denote the tempo at which a piece is to be played.

Winkel did achieve some fame of sorts by inventing the componium which was an automatic organ with two barrels which revolved automatically. The barrels took turns at playing a variation of a piece whilst the other randomly, by way of something resembling a roulette wheel, selected the next variation to play. The variations were almost limitless and it could play variations, “not only during years and ages, but during so immense a series of ages that though figures might be brought to express them, common language could not”. It wowed the crowds when it was displayed at an exposition in Paris in 1824.

Dietrich, for inventing the musical metronome and not getting the recognition you deserved, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.


If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link


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