Ben Franklins’ Glass Armonica

Glass Harmonica (glass harmonica; musical instrument)
Glass Harmonica (glass harmonica; musical instrument) by E Pohl is licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0
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Benjamin Franklin was a man of many inventions. He invented the bifocal glasses, his famous wood-burning stove, is credited with the creation of the modern library and fire department, and many others. Most of his inventions were useful and welcomed by the public. All but one.

The Glass Armonica

The Glass Armonica is a unique instrument. A number of glass bowls are mounted horizontally on an iron rod, separated by cork plugs. The musician plays the instrument by wetting his fingers, then using foot pedals to make the bowls rotate on the rod. They would then lightly touch the rims of the bowls to produce the notes.

Have you ever run your fingers over the rim of a glass of water? If so, you’ve heard the pleasing hum that it can make. The level of water in the glass will change the note produced. The Glass Armonica works the same way. In the picture below, you can see that the bowls are all different sizes- this allows them to produce different notes. When Ben Franklin first invented the Glass Armonica in 1761 it was wildly successful. By the mid-1800’s, it had almost completely vanished. So what happened?

Vince Flango, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Birth of the Glass Armonica

Ben Franklin didn’t come up with his new instrument in a vacuum. The “signing glass” artist Edward Delaval in Cambridge delighted and inspired him into creating the instrument.

Robert Pockrich, an Irish musician, invented the original “music glasses” in 1741. Pockrish would run his fingers over glasses filled with varying levels of water, covering popular songs at the time. He toured Ireland and England. The “angelic organ”, as he called it, was a popular act. Other musicians adopted the glasses and they spread across Europe.

Ben Franklin was often in Europe in the 1700s, acting as a delegate for the newly formed United States. In 1761, twenty years after the singing glasses made their debut, Franklin attended a performance by Edward Delaval in Cambridge. He fell in love with the tones of the glasses, believing them to be sweeter than any other instrument.

In London, Franklin worked with a glassblower to design the instrument. By 1762, they had completed it. There were 37 individual bowls, each marked with a color that corresponded with a note. It didn’t need to be tuned and was relatively easy to play. Ten notes could be played at once, allowing for amazing creativity with chords. This made it popular, and although it was considered a feminine instrument, composers such as Mozart and Beethoven wrote pieces using the Glass Armonica.

Producers of the instrument made about 5,000 of them before rumors, scandal, and controversy halted production.

ReservoirHill or Hugh Pickens, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Scandals

Despite the Glass Armonica’s explosive popularity, scandal quickly began to taint its reputation. Firstly, the instrument has an otherworldly tone to it. Beautiful though it is, it can create an unsettled feeling in those listening to it. In the 19th century people were highly superstitous, and these unsettled feeling would not have been ignored. Rumor had it that the instrument could be used to summon the spirits of the dead and damned. Magic could be performed through it, and players could cause their listeners to later commit suicide.

Secondly, reports started to circulate that the players of the Glass Armonica were falling ill. They would shake, faint, have panic attacks, depression, and muscle cramps. Lead was the main material used to color the bowls, and it was suspected that this may have caused the illnesses. Muscians who played the Glass Armonica may have been prone to lead poisoning, especially since lead was so prevalent in the 19th century. In 1808, Marianne Kirchgessner, a noted player of the Glass Armonica died. Rumor and gossip named the instrument as the cause of her death. Its unearthly tones and lead paint killed her, went the whispers. Understandably, people began to shy away from learning to play it.

Finally, tragedy struck during a concert. A young boy died during a concert where the Glass Armonica was played. Several of the surrounding towns immediately banned the Glass Armonica from being played. With the death of the child, the popularity of the Glass Armonica died as well. Compsitions written for the instrument were rewritten for the flute or piccolo. Few people were brave enough to learn how to play the instrument, and fewer still were brave enough to listen to it.

The Comeback

Ben Franklin never believed any of the unsubstantiated rumors about his instrument. He played until his death. Like with many of his inventions, Franklin made no money from the instrument. He filed no patent, and allowed anyone to produce a Glass Armonica if they wished.

From the 1820’s until the 1980’s, Franklin’s Glass Armonica was mostly forgotten. It was used in Star Trek as a part of Spock’s Theme, as well as in the movies The Minus Man and The Faculty. Some bands, such as the Korn, also used the Glass Armonica in some of their songs.

While it will likely never reach the height of popularity, the Glass Armonica is slowly beginning to be used again. If you are brave enough, listen to composer William Zeitler explain and play it in the video below:

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By Jackie Standaert

I'm an office worker by day, a historian by night. At some point, I'll have enough money saved to get my Ph.D. in History, but for now, my B.A. will have to do.

3 comments

  1. The Chronicles of History – My name is Samantha James and I am the author of The Chronicles of History. I love reading, writing, and history fiercely. It is a never ending journey and passion!
    The Chronicles of History says:

    Oh that is one invention I didn’t know about. The glass armonica looks lovely. This was a very interesting article. I gave your site a follow!

    1. Jackie Standaert – I'm an office worker by day, a historian by night. At some point, I'll have enough money saved to get my Ph.D. in History, but for now, my B.A. will have to do.
      Jackie Standaert says:

      Thank you! I was lucky enough to hear one played, and was amazed that it wasn’t more popular!

      1. The Chronicles of History – My name is Samantha James and I am the author of The Chronicles of History. I love reading, writing, and history fiercely. It is a never ending journey and passion!
        The Chronicles of History says:

        Yeah I am surprised too!

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