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MMD > Archives > October 1996 > 1996.10.20 > 05Prev  Next

Early Automata: The Tipu Tiger
By Bill Burns

This report of an early automaton (although perhaps not musical in the sense we understand it here) came from Bruce Sterling's Dead Media mail list. The Dead Media project attempts to chronicle the history and use of any communications medium which is obsolete (although not necessarily in disuse) and includes most of the media we consider near and dear. For more information on the Dead Media project, check the web site:

Here's the Tipu Tiger write-up:

Source: David Toop, OCEAN OF SOUND: AETHER TALK, AMBIENT SOUND AND IMAGINARY WORLDS (London: Serpent's Tail, 1995): pages 72-73.

"Of all the noise instruments in history, one of the least equivocal in its intent is Tipu's Tiger. Captured in India by the British army after the defeat and death by bullet and bayonet of Tipu Sultan in 1799, this large and amazing object is now housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

"The most succinct and evocative description was written by an employee of the East India Company:

"'This piece of Mechanism represents a Royal Tyger in the act of devouring a prostrate European. There are some barrels in imitation of an Organ, within the body of the Tyger, and a row of Keys of natural Notes. The sounds produced by the Organ are intended to resemble the Cries of a person in distress intermixed with the roar of a Tyger. The machinery is so contrived that while the Organ is playing, the hand of the European is often lifted up, to express his helpless and deplorable condition.'

"John Keats saw Tipu's Tiger in the East India Company's offices and later referred to it in a satire he wrote on the Prince Regent: 'that little buzzing noise, Whate'er your palmistry may make of it, Comes from a play- thing of the Emperor's choice, From a Man-Tiger-Organ, prettiest of his toys.'

"And when the tiger was first exhibited in the newly-opened Victoria and Albert Museum, the public cranked the handle to make it roar with such sadistic, joyful frequency that students in the adjacent library were driven half-mad by the distraction.

"In a technical analysis of the instrument, Henry Willis speculated that 'the intended method of use for the keyboard organ was to run the knuckles up and down the scale to produce the effects of a screaming man being killed by a tiger.' Because the design and materials suggest a European rather than an Indian maker, Willis suggested that the tiger and its victim were constructed by either a malicious Frenchman or a renegade Englishman.

"But whoever made this wonderfully macabre sculpture, Tipu certainly enjoyed it. He was obsessed with tigers, for one thing; for another, as a Muslim whose wealth and land had been plundered by the colonialists, he hated the British. Reportedly, he used to circumcise them when he took prisoners. His walls were decorated with scenes depicting soldiers being dismembered, crushed by elephants, eaten by tigers and other fates too obscene for the British major who saw them to form a verbal description.

"'Better to die like a soldier than to live a miserable dependent on the infidels on the list of their pensioned rajas and nabobs,' Tipu said at his last military conference. Delicious irony: through the preservation of imperial spoils, albeit mute and frozen in the act of mauling within a glass case, the objectification of Tipu's hatred endures."

(end of quoted material)

As far as I know, the tiger is still in London's V & A museum, although I suspect visitors are no longer allowed to make it perform.

Bill Burns
Long Island NY USA

(Message sent Mon 21 Oct 1996, 01:29:08 GMT, from time zone GMT-0400.)

Key Words in Subject:  Automata, Early, Tiger, Tipu

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