Published July 11, 2006
An invention largely forgotten, overshadowed by the sundry enterprises of America’s first citizen of the world, is Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica, a superb example of the workings of Franklin’s agile intellect.
While an agent for Pennsylvania in England from 1757 to 1762, Franklin attended a concert performed on wine glasses. Franklin the musician enjoyed the concert, but Franklin the inventor was dissatisfied. “Being charmed by the sweetness of its tones and the music he produced from it, I wished 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 reach of hand to a person sitting before the instrument,” he later wrote to an acquaintance. The armonica, wrote Franklin, was based on the common practice of bored dinner guests, and some musicians, of producing a resonant tone by moving a wet finger around the rim of a glass. It was founded on a copy made by Edmund Delaval, of England’s Royal Society, of a contrivance designed by Richard Puckeridge in 1743, in which glasses of different sizes were fixed on a table and tuned by placing them in water. Franklin turned his mechanical mind to the problem and in 1761 invented the armonica.
The armonica comprised 37 glasses blown in the shape of hemispheres with holes in the middle. The largest glass was 9 inches in diameter and the smallest 3, tuned by grinding as needed, checking against a harpsichord. The glasses were mounted on an iron spindle, each glass but the largest within the next larger, mounted in a long wooden case similar to that of a harpsichord on a horizontal spindle turned by a flywheel powered by a foot pedal. The player wet his fingers in a bowl of water and rubbed them on the glasses to produce sound. The glasses comprised three octaves, including the sharps and flats.
“The advantages of this instrument are that the tones are incomparably sweet beyond those of any other; that they may be swelled and softened at pleasure by stronger or weaker pressures of the fingers, and continued at any length; and that the instrument, being once well tuned, never again wants tuning,” wrote Franklin in a letter to Giovanni Beccaria of Turin, Italy.
The glass armonica enjoyed a sudden vogue and was quite the rage for some decades. Copies were made in London to Franklin’s specifications, giving rise to virtuoso performers, mechanical improvements, adaptations and imitations. One Marianne Davies gave public performances in England in 1762, in Italy, and at the imperial court in Vienna, where composer Christoph Gluck was chapel-master. Marie Antoinette became a pupil of Davies, Mozart and Beethoven wrote pieces, and the armonica was popular at weddings.
The American public first heard the armonica in Philadelphia in December 1764 at the Assembly Room in Lodge Alley, but the instrument never enjoyed the popularity it saw in Europe, especially in Germany and Austria. Franklin was as famous among German musicians for the armonica as with German electricians for the lightning rod.
“The vogue as suddenly ceased, about 1800, with no reason given, except that the vibration of the glasses harrowed the nerves of the performers,” wrote biographer Carl Van Doren. It was said the armonica tended to produce melancholia, perhaps from lead poisoning.
The glass armonica was revived in 1984 by glass blower Gerhard Finkenbeiner of Boston, using pure quartz glass. It can be heard at Colonial Williamsburg, played by Dean Shostak, one of only eight players in the world. At a concert I attended in 1999, Dean said excessive playing wears away his fingerprints. He has made several recordings of armonica music and features the armonica in a humorous skit on his children’s CD, “Colonial Fair,” in which a narcissistic musician says his armonica concert will be the greatest thing since Mona Lisa said she was feeling a little peculiar.