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Mailbag: “Pipes by the Foot”

March 15, 2007

Dear Michael,

Here’s a question you have undoubtedly dealt with before: What is the history of characterizing organ ranks’ tonal ranges and pipes in terms of “feet”? This seems strange to me, given that such a small portion of the world, historically or even at present, measures the length of anything in those units.

Seems like the metric system and its forebears must have had some say in this realm!

Bob Bacon
Darien, IL


I confess to not being particularly clear on this point myself, so forwarded it to my organbuilder friend Charles Hendrickson, who offered this insight:

The word foot or feet as applied to pipes is very ancient. I find “Four Feet” being used in the 13th century, but here is a list from the contract for the organ at Wells Cathedral in 1662 as follows:

“Two open diapasons of metall, the longest pipe of each twelve foot and a halfe.” Two principalls of metall, six foot longe the longest pipe. One principall of mettall six foot long.”


Mr. Bernard Smythis Bargaine and sale of ye Organ in ye Temple Church to both ye societys of ye Temples (1688) 1. Prestand of mettle 61 pipes 12 foote tone 2. Holflute or wood and mettle 61 pipes 12 foote tone 3. Principall of mettle 61 pipes of 06 foote tone

(There are a total of 23 stops in this organ all listed by material and foot length)

I have a facsimile edition of the original Praetorius from 1619, and it is loaded with 32′, 16′, 8′, 4′ etc. pitches - even in a German text. (8 fus etc.). There must be older German tests and stoplists using “Fus” for resonator lengths.

In fact I cannot find the use of metric lengths anywhere in the history of organs. Feet or foot is ancient, typical and ubiquitous.

Metic is an invention of the post-French Revolution, and could not have been applied earlier than about 1800 anyway. Even modern French organs use feet measurements - not meters.

-Charles Hendrickson, Saint Peter, MN


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