History seems to show again and again inventions, born purely of good intent, can become victims of ignorance and superstition. Such is the case of Benjamin Franklin's armonica; otherwise known as the glass harmonica. Already famous as a scientist, in 1757, Franklin traveled to London with the design to lobby parliament for the Pennsylvania Colonial Legislature. Franklin was also an accomplished musician, able to play several instruments and compose as well. An avid concert goer, he was inspired one night after hearing a colleague from the Royal Society perform on the musical glasses. The basic principle of this instrument was to collect a set of fine glasses, tune them by adding or subtracting water and play them by applying one's fingers in a circular motion around the rims producing a soft resonant tone. Franklin set out to refine this idea. In a letter to Giambatista Beccania of Italy, Franklin explained, "I wish only to see the glasses disposed in a more convenient form, and brought together in a narrower compass, so as to admit of a greater number of tunes, and all within the reach of hand to a person sitting before the instrument."
Franklin enlisted the help of a London glass blower named Charles James. Glass was blown in a hemispherical shape in varying sizes from small to large. Thirty-seven bowls were made in total, enough to facilitate a three octave range. Each bowl had an open neck. This allowed them to be stacked, one partially inside the other, supported by an iron rod running through the center like a spindle. The spindle was then placed horizontally in a wooden case and one end attached to a disk, shank and floor pedal, to cause the bowls to turn like a spinning wheel. Franklin painted the inside rim of each bowl a different color to identify the notes: dark blue for A, purple for B, C was red, D orange, E yellow, F green and G blue. He then painted the bowls designated for sharps and flats white. The instrument was played by the performer placing his/her clean, slightly wet, finders across the rims of the revolving bowls, thus producing sound.
Initial reaction among his contemporaries was ecstatic. Comments were continually made about the armonica being a celestial, angelic, or heavenly sounding instrument. Franklin once remarked in a letter that it's tones were, "incomparably sweet beyond those of any other.” Franklin took his instrument around where ever he went and for the next two decades its popularity flourished, especially throughout Europe. Classical composers began publishing works written specifically for the armonica. Among the most famous were Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig Van Beethoven. Indeed Franklin's creation seemed destined to become the next great instrument of music history, once again boosting his already genius status as a statesman and scientist, but it was not to be.
Over the course of time strange events began to take shape surrounding armonica performances. Many known players and enthusiasts began complaining of unexplained maladies such as dizziness, nervousness, spasms, swelling of the joints, etc. Superstitions started to abound that listening to the armonica invoked spirits from the dead, drove people mad and possessed supernatural powers. It's interesting to note that Viennese psychiatrist Franz Mesmer, known for his theory of "Animal Magnetism" and now considered one of the pioneers of hypnotism, used the armonica as a key element in his hypno-magnetic séances. A Belgian physicist named Ftienne-Gaspard Robertson later incorporated the sounds of the armonica in a series of frightening demonstrations exhibiting a devise called the "Magic Lantern" from which modern slide and movie projectors where derived. There is at least one documented instance, in Germany, where a child died during an armonica concert. Franklin himself never experienced any adverse symptoms and generally ignored the controversies respecting his beloved instrument.
Franklin passed away in 1790. By the late 18th century the popularity of his invention was in serious decline. J.C. Muller, in an instructional manual written in 1788, commented, "If you have been upset by harmful novels, false friends, or perhaps a deceiving girl, then abstain from playing the armonica. It will only upset you even more. There are people of this kind of both sexes who must be advised not to study the instrument, in order that their state of mind should not be aggravated." In the Allgemeine Muzikalische Zeitung of 1798 Friedrich Rochlitz further maintained that the reason for the "scarcity" of armonica players was due to the opinion the instrument caused melancholy moods, nagging depression and slow self-annihilation. He further sited comments from physicians explaining that, "the sharp penetrating tone runs like a spark through the entire nervous system, forcibly shaking it up and causing nervous disorders." Due to the immense paranoia established around the amonica and including the fact that new instruments such as the celesta, piano forte' and modern piano were being developed, Franklin's instrument had become virtually extinct by the mid 1820's.
Toward the end of the 20th century, in 1982, a glass maker from Boston named Gerhard Finkenbeiner began the revival of this once loved and then feared instrument. He established, independently, his own research and experimentation, beginning production on the new, modernized, version of Franklin's glass armonica shortly thereafter. The instrument retained many of the original design characteristics. The most notable improvement might have been the electric motor that spun the bowls instead of a foot pedal. Finkenbeiner once proclaimed, "The glass armonica has always intrigued me. . .so eerie, floating, coming out of nowhere. And the look of it, the stories about its magic effects, have always interested me." Tragically however, In a strange episode, Mr. Finkenbeiner unexpectedly left work one cloudy afternoon in May 1999, boarded his cherished Piper Arrow airplane and took off never to be seen again. No evidence of a crash has ever been found. A current statement found on the G. Finkenbeiner Inc. website states, "G.F.I. has been producing Gerhard Finkenbeiner's patented quartz glass armonicas for nearly 30 years. In honor of Mr. Finkenbeiner's legacy, improvements continue to be added to the process in accordance with his dreams of breathing new life into Franklin's musical invention."
Claude-Ann Lopez, editor of Yale Universities Papers of Benjamin Franklin Project and an established expert on his life, claims the glass armonica was Franklin's favorite invention. "He was terribly proud of that. He delighted in it. . .It was something that gave him great joy.” Today, standing at the dawn of the 21st century, Frankin's glass armonica lives on. The instrument has received, thanks to Gerhard Finkenbeiner and a small consortium of enthusiasts, a resurrection; a feat that most musical instruments of antiquity never accomplish. It seems sadly ironic, nevertheless, that what was probably Franklin's most loved invention became, along side his many great accomplishments, the one least known, particularly among the descendants of his own countryman.
Professional musician / composer / audio engineer who also ventures into fine art photography, geometric design, lutherie, artisan bread baking, electrical engineering, blogging, charity drives, and other things that keep life crazy and amazing. . .