M. Welte & Söhne
Vöhrenbach — Freiburg

An Overview and Dating Guide

A Brief Glimpse at the History of Welte

The first large Welte Automaic Pipe-Organ, and the first automatic musical instrument to be later described as an orchestrion, circa 1845 - 1848. From the beginning, Welte orchestrions were the premiere automatic musical instrument of choice for Royalty and the very wealthy, a trend that began circa 1849, when Michael Welte exhibited his immense automatic pipe organ (pictured at left), receiving generous critical acclaim and numerous awards for the device. At the time, his invention was an astounding advancement in technology, and reportedly, the fame of the huge automatic musical instrument drew crowds from near and far. The public nicknamed the instrument "orchestrion," because it successfully imitated a many-voiced orchestra. Since that time the term orchestrion has become synonymous with virtually any automatic musical instrument attempting to imitate a small to large orchestral ensemble. Thus it is that Michael Welte's early pioneering accomplishments in building spectacular, mammoth self-playing orchestras paved the way for his company's rapid climb to fame and fortune, with his handsome orchestrions being renowned on a worldwide basis.

Michael Welte began very modestly, after five years of apprenticeship with the master craftsman Joseph Blessing, by opening a small factory in Vöhrenbach, Germany, the town that was his birthplace in 1807. The little factory began business in 1832, with Michael Welte constructing musical clocks and other small musical cabinets on his own. The Welte firm prospered by word of mouth, quickly becoming well known and respected for not only the architectural beauty of its products, but for the quality of workmanship, too. In 1865, Michael Welte's oldest son, Emil Welte, established a Welte showroom in New York City, where he exhibited a number of large orchestrions, along with flute playing clocks, which the company still manufactured in small numbers. Immediately successful, or so it was stated by Welte advertising literature, the addition of the new American showroom, coupled with other already established markets for Welte products, soon compelled the company, in 1872, to move to nearby Freiburg. Here a new and larger factory was erected alongside railroad transportation. This allowed immediate access to rail transportation, enabling the company to better accommodate the wildly growing demand for Welte instruments, and, in addition, Freiburg had a much larger workforce to draw from than did tiny and relatively remote Vöhrenbach.

By 1905 the line of products grew to include the soon to be acclaimed Welte Mignon Reproducing Piano, as well as retaining may of the older style products, such as the extensive line of Cottage and Concert Orchestrions. During the next few years Brass Band Orchestrions, Philharmonic Orchestrions, "Brisgovia" Piano Orchestrions, residential pipe organs, theatre organs, home player pianos, and other related items would be added to the Welte roster. All in all, as most historians and enthusiasts of automatic musical instruments will concur, instruments built by Michael Welte & Söhne were among the most eye-appealing, magnificently ornate, and stunningly beautiful of all the large orchestrions ever manufactured. Thus, it is no wonder that they were so appreciated and treasured by the Royalty, wealthy industrialists and fine commercial establishments that sought the privilege of owning a fine Welte instrument.

Revolutionizing the Industry
Paper Music Rolls versus Heavy Pinned Music Cylinders

In the year 1887 the firm of M. Welte and Söhne began using inexpensive, easy to mass produce and handle paper music rolls, the first orchestrion manufacturer to do so. The new music roll system soon replaced the use of the very expensive, cumbersome, and easily damaged heavy wooden pinned music barrels or cylinders. Another advantage, by switching over to the easily mass produced, lightweight, and interchangeable paper rolls, a huge repertoire of inexpensive music became available, extending the functionality and enjoyment of the large orchestrions many fold, something that had been impossible to accomplish with the heavy, individually manufactured and pinned music cylinders.

Still, even with its technologically innovative music roll system, the Welte orchestrions remained largely the same, relying upon techniques and methods that had been developed during the earlier pinned music-barrel era. The heavy music cylinders and clumsy mechanical tracker linkages were completely replaced with new, fast acting pneumatic actions, all operated from the music roll, which was beautifully displayed in an ornate cast-iron music roll mechanism. Nearly all else, however such as the massive pipe chest, a foundational component of the orchestrion, remained essentially identical. The revolutionary pneumatic valve-chest system was constructed so as to easily be connected by thin wires to the old tracker style lever and pallet-valve pipe chest. To accommodate the vacuum requirements of the new pneumatic stack system, another set of feeder bellows, which created a partial vacuum, was added to the older, already established pressure system, both remaining separate, but interconnected by modifying the mechanical linkages that once powered only the pressure bellows.

The "Refined" Sound of Welte

Generally, the music associated with Welte Cottage, Concert, and Philharmonic orchestrions -- the focus of this section of my web site -- is what a connoisseur might call "refined." This term, "refined," in this case, was meant to infer that the volume and style of the music was ideal for a home or concert situation, where the raucous or barroom style music of the "ordinary" commercial orchestrion would not have been considered appropriate or appreciated. Indeed, Welte music has a refined and enduring quality, and tends to be classical in styling.

While the Welte family, in one form or another, manufactured many, many styles and types of automatic musical instruments, circa 1832 to 1950, it is mainly the Welte Mignon Reproducing Piano, followed by the Cottage, Concert, and Philharmonic instruments, that have survived in the greatest numbers. Although considered rare today, that so many Welte instruments have survived, especially the very large examples that are difficult to move or store, is indeed a testament to the both the musical and visual qualities of these instruments. As you browse through the Welte pages, you will probably also concur that it is in part due to the extraordinary beauty of the large Welte machines that has contributed greatly to the survival of so many of these early pinned-barrel and paper roll operated mechanical devices. Compared to "ordinary" commercial orchestrions, the staying power of the early Welte instruments is remarkable, with at least one specimen (the Nidd Hall Welte - described elsewhere) remaining in its original location, and in some kind of playing condition, for nearly one-hundred years!

How Old is That Welte

Welte Dating Guide
Serial # Mfr. Date Welte Style
#57 1893 Welte Style 4
#134 1894 Welte Style 2
#157 1894 Welte Style 2
#198 1895 Welte Style 6
#202 1895 Welte Style 4
#262 1898* Welte Style 5
#273 1897 Welte Style 2
#340 1899 Welte Style 7
#342 1899 Welte Style 6
#454 1901 Welte Style 1
#530 1902 Welte Style 2
#695 1905 Welte Style 2
#705 1905 Welte Style 4
#1631 1908 Welte Style 3
#1897 1908 Welte Style 2
#2816 1910 Welte Brisgovia C
#3542 1912 Welte No. 2 Philharmonic
* Welte #262 has a penciled date inside of 1898, which does not conform to the date sequence of other items in the list. The reason is unknown, but sales contract or unanticipated manufacturing delays have been known to cause serial number assigned instruments to be completed and/or shipped out of order by as much as a year or more.

One of the first things that normally comes up for any mechanical music enthusiast is how old is a particular machine, when was it made, and especially in the case of a successful collector, how old are my various acquisitions. Accurately dating exactly when an instrument was manufactured can be a vexing issue, especially so for Welte orchestrion due to the scant literature and documentation that survives, and the dearth of surviving specimens, which at best only leave behind a sketchy trail of clues to follow. Oftentimes a date range can be guessed based upon a person's knowledge of the evolving, incremental mechanical innovations and improvements that took place for a particular category of instrument types over its beginning to end manufacturing cycle. For instance, all early Welte Cottage and Concert Orchestrions (Styles 0 through 10) demonstrate a definite mechanical relationship and easily observed similarity, all more or less following the basic, underlying design and layout, with any mechanical improvements throughout the manufacturing cycle being reflected across all of the styles.

In contrast, the Welte Philharmonic Organ styles, although there is a certain carryover from earlier design practices, have a very different mechanical character and layout, which makes them easy to distinguish from other Welte instrument lines. And, like the predecessor ornate Cottage and Concert Orchestrions, the newer Philharmonic Organs, introduced circa 1910, display their own distinct evolutionary patterns. And the same is true for the Welte piano based orchestrions, also introduced circa 1910, which are again similar but different from all other Welte types.

Being that Welte orchestrion styles are generally rare, and some of the larger and more elaborate styles now non-existent, only a relatively few dated signposts remain that can be used to extrapolate a possible manufacturing date. And so in the few instances where serial numbers and the corresponding manufacturing dates are both known a rough dating guide for Welte instruments can be ascertained. The simple table shown here is such a generalized guide, where the approximate date of instruments bearing other, but unlisted serial numbers can be roughly extrapolated.

But be forewarned, the apparent or penciled manufacturing and/or shipping date of an instrument does not necessarily sequentially coincide with other nearby serial numbered machines of the same style or type. There are myriad reasons why the building of a particular instrument initially assigned a serial number might be delayed. For instance, perhaps an order was received and a serial number was assigned, but no actual manufacturing commenced, or was completed, until sufficient payment was received. Or for a certain style of orchestrion perhaps a delay occurred due to cabinet manufacturing issues, or maybe production was held up while having to wait for the delivery of special pipework rank that was peculiar to that machine. Whatever the case might have been, do be aware that any extrapolated date using the Welte Dating Table could be off by a year or more, depending upon long ago but now lost circumstances that today cannot ever be known or anticipated.


Text by Terry Hathaway; Welte dating guide information courtesy of Durward Center.


Image from Welte catalogue.