Cat Organ

I’m not writing about the internal organs of the domestic cat. I’m referring to what is described as a musical instrument but which I would describe as an instrument of torture; the torture of domestic cats. It is a very bizarre device invented (or simply described), we are told, by Athanasius Kircher in the middle of the 17th century. It was a time when cruelty to cats was an accepted way to entertain yourself. The cat organ is one of several inventions which were cruel to cats. This particular device, as you can perhaps see from the illustrations, consisted of an instrument designed to make music from frightened captive cats.

Cat organ
Cat organ. Illustration in the public domain due to lapse of time.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

They became a popular spectacle and improvements were made. Wikipedia says that there is no evidence or record of a cat organ actually being made. The authors suggest that it is a conceptual, bizarre device. However, my research indicates that it was indeed manufactured. Cords were attached to the tails of the cats and then to the keyboard. When the keyboard keys were depressed the tails were pulled and the cats cried out. So-called improvements were made such that spikes were fixed at the end of the keys which prodded the poor animals making them scream in distress. The cats were arranged based on the tone and sound frequency of their cries.

Cat organ
Depiction in 1858 Die Gartenlaube short, “Katzen-Orgel”

My general research together with Wikipedia tells me that the cat organ was paraded through the streets of Brussels in a procession which took place in 1549 in honour of Philip II. The event was described by the French writer Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin in his book Musiciana, extraits d’ouvrages rares ou bizarres (Musiciana, descriptions of rare or bizarre inventions). Entertainment involving the device included a live bear, 20 cats and some monkeys. The bear played the organ. I don’t know how but that is the description. The cats’ tails protruded from the top, their tails attached with cords to the keyboard as described. Five monkeys danced to the music. Philip II, normally a very serious man, could not stop laughing at the bizarre spectacle.

The vogue for cat torture such as this continued for about 100 years and eventually faded out, apparently being replaced by strange “feline musical performances”. A 17th-century poster depicts a French cat-showman with his performing cats. Some were reading music while others played musical instruments. It is suggested that he used some sort of pain to provoke the cats to make sounds. The hiding of the cause of pain was an advancement from the transparent approach used hundred years earlier.

I suppose that this was an advancement in animal welfare. The instrument was described by German physician Johann Christian Reil (1759–1813). He believed that if his patients were forced to see and listen to the instrument it would capture their attention and cure them of an inability to focus their minds.

Athanasius Kircher described the instrument in his 1650 Work Musurgia Universalis, in Latin. The relevant section is reproduced below. I’ve also included a translation using Google translate.

Feles vero iuxta differentem magnitudinem tonatim ita disposuit; ut singulae palmulae singulis responderent felium caudis, instrumentumque ad relaxationem Principis praeparatum oportuno loco condidit, quod deinde pulsatum eam harmoniam redditit, qualem Felium voces reddere possunt…


Cats however according to the different size of tonatim so arranged; that the individual dates for each to respond to cats tails, instrumentumque to the relaxation of the Ruler prepared convenient place founded, which then beaten in her harmony redditit, what kind of Cats voices to pay can…

Lousy translation? Yes, awful. Perhaps the Latin is too old for Google to comprehend. At least you get the drift of the meaning but not much more.

Athanasius Kircher was a German Jesuit scholar and polymath who published around 40 major works.

Athanasius Kircher
Athanasius Kircher. Picture: Wikipedia.

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