By Phyllis Kennemer
Quickly, name all of Benjamin Franklin’s inventions. Did you remember the lightning rod, bifocal eyeglasses and the Franklin stove? Yes, of course, but what about swim fins, the odometer, the flexible urinary catheter and the long arm reaching device. Well, maybe.
Do you know which invention Franklin is quoted as saying gave him the most satisfaction of all? No? It was the glass armonica.
Benjamin Franklin was, indeed, a genius. He is well known as a statesman, writer and inventor, but few people know that he was also an accomplished musician. He played several instruments and was a composer as well. During one of his diplomatic tours in England, he attended a concert by Edward Delaval, a professional wine glass player. Franklin loved the ethereal sounds made as Delaval’s wet fingers rubbed the edges of wine glasses filled with varying amounts of water, but he disliked the lengthy set up required and the wrist pain caused by the awkward position of the hands in playing.
Franklin was determined to reproduce the music in a simpler way and he spent more than two years perfecting the glass armonica. He named the instrument after the Italian word for harmony, armonia. It was known as the glasharmonika in Germany where it was especially popular. Some sixty years later, as the armonica was fading from the musical scene, Friedrich Buschmann of Berlin invented a mouth organ and named it the harmonica. It is not clear why he chose this name because the two instruments do not resemble each other in any significant way, and the similarity in labeling does sometimes cause confusion.
Franklin’s armonica was made of 37 hemispheres of glass. Each piece was a different size and thickness to produce different pitches. He ran an iron rod through a hole in the top of each hemisphere so that they could nest together from largest to smallest. All of this was linked to an apparatus like a spinning wheel, with a foot treadle that turned the rod, in turn rotating the glass hemispheres. He moistened his fingers and held them against the rims of the glasses as they turned, producing a sound similar to the musical wine glasses. The hemispheres were color coded with paint to identify the notes.
Franklin wrote clear instructions for the construction of the instrument, specifying the size of the bowls and their precise placement. All glass armonicas made since that time are based on his design. Gerhard Finkenbeiner of Waltham, Massachusetts, used Franklin’s prototype as he modernized the instrument. After years of experimentation, he created an armonica with glass hemispheres of pure quartz. Then he added gold bands on some to serve as the equivalent of the black keys on a piano. He placed the instrument in a wooden frame and attached a motor to turn the rod, thus replacing Franklin’s treadle. At the present time, G. Finkenbeiner, Inc. Scientific Glassblowers (www.finkenbeiner.com) is the only maker of glass armonicas in the world.
Franklin was still in Europe as he worked on the armonica. His new invention premiered in 1762 in London. It was played by Marianne Davies, a well known English musician. Davies made quite a hit as she toured Europe with the instrument. The armonica was especially popular in Germany. Mozart and Beethoven were among the musicians who composed pieces for it. Franz Mesmer was so impressed that he purchased his own armonica. He played it in public performances, used it in treatment of clients, and found it helpful in the process of developing hypnosis. People were mesmerized by the music.
Many people feel that the armonica speaks to the soul in heavenly language. One recorded incident cites the first time Franklin played the instrument in his home. His wife was asleep in an adjoining room. As she stirred, only partially awake, the music came into her consciousness; she thought she had died and gone to heaven. She felt like she heard angels singing.
The armonica became popular on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Thousands were built and sold. Many of the performers were women, which was somewhat unusual for the period. But musical fashions changed. Music was moving out of the relatively small aristocratic halls into large public concert halls of the 19th century and without amplification, the armonica could not be heard. Other musical instruments, such as the piano, were redesigned to make them louder, but there was no way to make the armonica louder.
Now, some 200 years later, it appears that the glass armonica is having a modest revival. Audio CDs featuring armonica music can be purchased and individual performances can be accessed at www.youtube.com. People are once again experiencing the magic of the music.