Story of the Welte Company

The Welte factory in Freiburg im Breisgau
The Welte factory in Freiburg im Breisgau

Michael Welte (1807-1880) first established his Welte Company in 1832 at Vöhrenbach in Germany's Black Forest. In 1872 he moved to Freiburg im Breisgau and registered his company there as M. Welte & Söhne. During the remainder of the 19th century the firm expanded considerably and became world renowned for its orchestrions. Edwin Welte (1876-1958, the founder's grandson) and his brother-in-law Karl Bockisch (1874-1952) spent 1904 developing the Welte-Mignon system, which the pair launched in 1905. It quickly proved a great success worldwide. This piano technology was adapted to the Welte-Philharmonie organ (known as the Philharmonic in the USA) in the ensuing years, and a recording organ was built in Freiburg.

The Welte-Philharmonie was first displayed before a public audience in November 1911 at the World Exhibition in Turin, Italy. The company successfully went on to market player-organs and cinema organs and, when that market contracted during the 1930s, church organs. Between 1912 and 1930 the company issued paper-based punched music roll recordings of performances by the great organists of the day and sold them with considerable commercial success.

In 1865 Emil Welte (1841-1923, the founder's son) established a subsidiary in New York under the name M. Welte & Sons; the venture lasted until 1917. As a German enterprise, it was ordered to cease trading during the First World War.

The company's Freiburg head office premises were obliterated during Allied bombing raids in 1944, as a consequence of which the devices used to capture performances for the Welte Mignon and Welte Philharmonie systems were lost, as was documentation detailing the highly secret recording process.

As luck would have it, a Welte Philharmonie organ recording device surfaced in the USA around 1990: probably that used in the company's recording studios in New York, it now forms an integral part of the collection of the Seewen Museum of Music Automatons.