The first mention of a mysterious, and totally weird, musical instrument called a cat organ dates to the mid-16th century, mentioned in the written works of german scholar Athanasius Kircher. Whether or not he made it up remains a mystery. Kircher described an instrument that consisted of a standard piano keyboard in front of a line of cats restrained in a box. The cats were all lined up according to the tone of their meows. Younger and thinner cats, having the highest voices, were at the top, whereas big, tubbier tabbies with lower voices were at the bottom. Each poor kitty’s tail was either connected or placed under an individual key. Then, when the player hit each key, the adjacent feline cried out in pain.
The crazy, and completely cruel cat organ sounds like something Dr. Seuss might have dreamed up on a bad day. Nevertheless, has anyone ever actually built one? Music historians can’t seem to agree on this.
Around the same time as Kircher’s account, French author Jean-Baptiste Weckerlin mentioned a cat organ in his book Musiciana, Descriptions of Rare or Bizarre Inventions. By all accounts though, it’s full of totally fictional contraptions. Weckerlin’s description of the cat organ appears in a strange fable about two European monarchs hanging out together and watching a bear play one. The cat organ popped up again in the writings of 18th century German physician Johann Christian Reil. He claimed that one could help patients struggling with cognitive problems like short-attention spans. The doctor argued that a cat organ would instantaneously captivate them and cure them of their ills. However, there’s no proof that he ever actually got his hands on one.
Since then, the cat organ has become something of a legend. While there’s no proof that anyone in history has successfully constructed a working model, a fake version was made for a 2010 eco-festival in the United Kingdom. In front of audience of British celebrities and Prince Charles, musician Henry Dagg rolled out a cat organ consisting of a row of squeaky toys placed inside toy kitties. He then played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which was reportedly especially enjoyed by the prince and his wife, Camilla.