The subject of theatre organ builders is enormously wide. Organ building is traditionally a craft activity, but with such a tremendous number of repetitive parts and with what amounts to a modular construction, the industry went in for the early adoption of production techniques for mechanical and, later, electrical components.
Although not himself a producer of many theatre organs, Robert Hope-Jones was one of the foremost innovators and his developments and inventions rightly earned him respect as the ‘father of the theatre organ’.
Both Hill, Norman and Beard in their Norwich factory and Wurlitzers in their North Tonawanda factory employed large numbers of semi-skilled people to produce standardised components for organ construction. Virtually all these parts (or their present-day equivalents) are still available, giving lie to the romantic notions of aged craftsmen of yore single-handedly creating one-off masterpieces which can never be repeated.
One area which does demand the highest skill is pipe-making and voicing. Even in this area, the main theatre organ producers aimed for standardisation, with considerable success. They realised that the commercial world of entertainment measured the quality of a product not only by its performance but by its consistency, and cinema chains wanted a predictable product to a price and to a delivery schedule. On the way, sometimes the finer points of regulating an instrument to match its surroundings were lost, and surprising results can be obtained today by the diligent tonal finishing of an instrument assembled from standard components and which probably had little more than a quick tuning at the time of its installation.
Each builder had their own techniques, traditions and design philosophy. These differences are fascinating to study and analyse – no one builder had all the solutions, right or wrong, and (for example) a generation of applied engineering skills separates the Wurlitzer and Compton products.