Originally from the Middle East, the bass drum is probably the best known among orchestral percussion. It is a direct descendant of the davul, (Turkish drum): a large, cylindrical drum with a narrow shell and two thong-braced heads, played without snares.
It was only during the 19th century, in Spontini’s opera The Vestal Virgin (1807), that the bass drum got to be struck with felt-covered mallets, which gave it a lower and richer sound, but it deprived the instrument of its oriental tone.
Gradually, more and more complex playing techniques were introduced and gained popularity, until the bass drum finally established in orchestras percussion sections, in the late Romantic period.
During the second half of the 19th century, it underwent some technical changes, such as rope tensioning being gradually replaced by screw tensioning. Modern orchestral set-ups will see the bass drums usually suspended from a frame, and positioned at any angle, so it can swing more freely.
Here is a nice selection of orchestral percussion of all shapes and sizes!