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The Great Stalacpipe Organ: The world’s largest musical instrument located deep in the caverns of Luray, Virginia

David Goran

Located in Luray Caverns, the largest caverns in the eastern USA, the Great Stalacpipe Organ is an electrically actuated lithophone made from solenoid fired strikers that tap stalactites of various sizes to produce tones similar to those of xylophones, tuning forks, or bells.

This postcard from 1906 illustrates the method of early lithophone performances in Luray Caverns. Wikipedia/Public Domain

This postcard from 1906 illustrates the method of early lithophone performances in Luray Caverns. 

This one-of-a-kind instrument was invented and built in 1954 by Leland W.Sprinkle, a mathematician and electronic scientist at the Pentagon, who also honed the first generation of computers in the ’50s.

It took him over three years to complete it. He began his monumental project by searching the vast chambers of the caverns and selecting stalactites to precisely match a musical scale.

It was immediately turned into a tourist attraction. The organ console was constructed by Klann Organ Supply of Waynesboro, Virginia.

Custom console of the Stalacpipe Organ (an electrically actuated lithophone). By Jon Callas/CC BY 2.0

A custom console of the Stalacpipe Organ (an electrically actuated lithophone). By Jon Callas/CC BY 2.0

Stalacpipe Organ Striker at Luray Caverns. By Jon Callas/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Stalacpipe Organ Striker at Luray Caverns. By Jon Callas/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Instead of using pipes, the organ is wired to soft rubber mallets poised to gently strike stalactites of varying lengths and thicknesses. When the keyboard is played, the stalactites produce tones of symphonic quality, and the entire subterranean landscape becomes a musical instrument.

To achieve a precise musical scale, the chosen stalactites of the organ range over 3.5 acres, but due to the enclosed nature of the space, the full sound can be heard anywhere within the cavern.

A pipeless organ that strikes 37 stalactites with solenoid-actuated rubber mallets in order to produce 37 tones. By Stan Mouser/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

A pipeless organ that strikes 37 stalactites with solenoid-actuated rubber mallets to produce 37 tones. By Stan Mouser/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

 

The organ manuals control solenoids which strike the stalactites with rubber mallets. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Great Stalacpipe Organ solenoid closeup. Wikipedia/PublicDomain

"When

When a key is depressed, a tone occurs as the rubber-tipped plunger strikes the stalactite tuned to concert pitch. 1- By Kaitlin/Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0 2- By LadyDragonflyCC – >;</Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Mr. Sprinkle went through all these stalactites that have stood for thousands of years and slowly tuned them, listening to them until they were perfectly in harmony.

The high humidity of Luray Caverns requires constant upkeep of the instrument as its components succumb to corrosion. By InSapphoWeTrust/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The high humidity of Luray Caverns requires a constant upkeep of the instrument as its components succumb to corrosion. By InSapphoWeTrust/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

 

A plague dedicated to Leland W.Sprinkle. By brownpau/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

A plague dedicated to Leland W.Sprinkle. By brownpau/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

He couldn’t be there in the cave playing the organ for all the tourists, so he built a mechanical sequencer to play the organ automatically.

Another interesting story from us: Dates back to the 460s AD and is one of the best-preserved churches of this period in the region

In 2011, the Finnish/Swedish music collective Pepe Deluxé became the first artists to write and record an original composition on The Great Stalacpipe Organ.