Sunday, August 22, 2004

When Battersea Was At Wembley

Battersea power station was not orginally designed as a power station. It was, in fact, built as the world's biggest pipe organ, built for impressing visitors to the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924. Its four mighty pipes where capable of blowing notes of 11,000 decibels, and had to be operated by a team of 300 stevedores labouring unceaselessly in the heat and clamour of the keyboard room (in this picture, two operators take a break before a particularly difficult change in octave). Operating in full flight, the Empire Wembley Organ could smash windows as far away as Swiss Cottage and is know to have driven three people insane.

The military spotted its potential immediately, and diverting funds away from the nascent tank-build programme to develop mighty portable War Organs to deafen and terrify enemy armies. Lord Kitchener foresaw ringing britain with a chain of mighty organs to destroy approaching fleets, but sadly the onset of the Great Depression meant this was never to be. However, the military continued to work on the psychological might and power of the organ and enhance the technology, which is why every British squaddie now carries a Kazoo at all times.

After the fair, though, the Empire Wembley Organ fell out of use, and the land it occupied was needed for other purposes. A debate, echoing the one today, raged over how it should be dealt with. The last straw came in 1934, when a boiler explosion during a performance of the Flight of the Bumble Bee killed seven workers and unnerved five others. The organ was schedule for demolition; it was only when its potential for generating electricity was pointed out that it was instead moved to its current location and wired to the grid.


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