This instrument appears in Robert Fludd’s vast compendium of early modern knowledge, Utriusque Cosmi, Maioris scilicet et Minoris, metaphysica, physica, atque technica Historia (Metaphysical, Physical and Technical History of Both the Greater and the Lesser Cosmos), published from 1617 to 1621. An English physician and occult philosopher, Fludd devoted a chapter of the encyclopedic tome to “some recently invented instruments.” Here, Fludd described his own design for what he called, grandiosely, “Our Great Instrument” (Instrumentum nostrum Magnum). The contraption consisted of a harp-like device oriented horizontally, activated by lowering through it a frame equipped with quills and dampers. The arrangement of quills (like pins in a music box) determined which strings would sound when. Fludd suggested the instrument would be good for music at feasts (requiring only the periodic resetting of the frame to its starting position), and would be particularly effective if hidden from sight. That the instrument was built is improbable if not impossible. Like Fludd’s speculative theories about the musical organization of the universe, his Great Instrument has been received as the fantastical creation of an imagination unfettered by empirical realities.
Image: Utriusque Cosmi, Maioris scilicet et Minoris, metaphysica, physica, atque technica Historia, vol. 1, tract ii [De Templo Musicae] (1618)