Lost and Found, Britannic's Organ

The ocean liner Britannic was the latest Olympic class passenger ship built by the White Star Line and the sister ship of the Titanic. Being unfinished at the start of the Great War, the ship was drafted into service as a hospital ship and sunk in the Mediterranean Sea in 1916. An Organ was obviously not needed on a hospital ship and it disappeared from history in 1914 to surface in Switzerland in 2006.

The HMHS Britannic (His Majesty’s Hospital Ship) was the sister ship of the Olympic and the Titanic, but had been redesigned upon the sinking of the Titanic to alter the short-comings of the latter that had been uncovered by the disaster of 1912. It was designed to be even more unsinkable, and managed to go down even faster than the Titanic when it hit a German sea mine. But that was due to human fallacy, not technical misconceptions.

The Britannic was commissioned as a hospital ship after the disastrous campaign at Gallipoli. It made five successful runs between England and the Dardanelles before being hit by a German mine placed by submarine UB73. The mine hit during watch changeover. What should have been a sustainable leak allowing the ship to limp to a friendly harbor became a major disaster. Naval rules and regulations stated that the flooding doors between the ships sections had to be closed at all times. Out of laziness, the sailors used them during the change of watch leaving them wide open. When the ship was hit, the door frames were warped and the doors could not be closed against the water rushing in.

The ship began to list, and water started to pour in through the portholes which were kept open in a further breach of naval rules and regulations. Against express orders from the captain, two safety boats were launched. They subsequently got caught in the running ship propeller and 30 lives were lost. Did the organ go down with the ship, too?

With the requisitioning of the Britannic as a hospital ship, one of the amenities of the ocean liner had become quite superfluous: the organ. Built in Germany and delivered to Belfast, it had been only just fitted (a single photograph exists of the organ on the ship) when the ship was requisitioned by the Admiralty. The organ was subsequently taken out again and disappeared from history.

But in fact, White Star Lines as the owners of the ship had returned the organ to Welte, the organ building company in Germany. Welte in turn sold the organ in 1920 to Dr. August Nagel in Stuttgart, Germany. Nagel was a successful producer of cameras and had the organ installed in his private home. When selling the house, he returned the organ to Welte. They in turn sold the instrument again in 1937, this time to Dr. Eugen Kersting, owner of the electronics company Radium Lampenwerke. He had it installed in the assembly rooms for his workers.

Welte employee Werner Bosch was the organ builder installing the instrument at Radium. Welte made him responsible for all concerns of this organ. In 1969, the Swiss Museum for Music Automatons, then a private collection and now a museum near Basel, bought the organ from Radium. Werner Bosch was asked to do the transfer from Germany to the museum's exhibition rooms in Switzerland. The Welte Philharmonic Organs were unique in their use of rolls to play them automatically as well as allowing organists to play life concerts. Werner Bosch was so happy about the installation at the Swiss museum that he made it a gift of over 1,200 playing rolls that can be used on the organ. The organ was officially inaugurated in 1970.

In 1998, the museum underwent a complete overhaul. The organ had to be dismantled and moved to a new location within the museum. The museum's curator decided at that tie that this was the ideal time for a complete restoration of the organ and all its parts, and work started in 2006. In the restoration process, inscriptions of Britanik where found on all major parts of the organ, which finally revealed it to be the lost organ of the Britannic.

A similar organ to the one in the Swiss Museum of Music Automatons and working on the same double principle of automaton and life instrument can be found in the Solomon Centre in Tunbridge Wells, England, United Kingdom.