Benjamin Franklin: Founding Father & musical instrument inventor

http://learn.fi.edu/learn/sci-tech/armonica/armonica.php

Benjamin Franklin invented the Glass Armonica in 1761. This photo is one of Franklin’s original Glass Armonicas, housed at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

On July 4, we were thinking of the country’s founders as the creators of the U.S. Constitution – providing guiding principles and legal guidelines for the new country.

Benjamin Franklin, one of those Founding Fathers, also was a music enthusiast and invented the Glass Armonica in 1761.

I knew about Franklin’s musical invention because I’d attended a performance of Dean Shostak playing the Glass Armonica a few years ago.

I wonder if my father was a budding musician. He used to make music on my mother’s Sunday-best crystal goblets until she would catch him at it and become concerned the tunes would ruin the glass.

Recently I heard a story on Science Friday about Franklin’s invention. Ira Flatow interviewed Professor Dennis James, Instructor of Glass Music at Rutgers University, who has researched Franklin’s invention and is a leading performer on the Glass Armonica.

When Franklin was living in England as he lobbied Parliament on behalf of the colonies, he attended a concert performance with musical glasses. The musician played a series of wine glasses that were filled with different levels of water, rubbing his wetted fingers on the rims of the glasses.

Franklin created a new musical invention – with various sizes of glass bowls fitted onto a cylinder. The musician would sit in front of the cylinder of glass bowls, using a foot pedal to spin the bowls. This was an improvement from the musician having to fill the glasses before the performance and then having to move around a table of glasses to play. One of Franklin’s Glass Armonica’s is located at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

You can hear Dennis James playing the Glass Armonica as part of the Science Friday story.

2 comments

  1. Dennis James · · Reply

    The contemporary glass music instrument you heard Dean Shostak playing in Williamsburg was not a Franklon designed glass Armonica. Instead, it is a modern-day byproduct of marketing intents for rubbed, sound-producing quartz glass devices directed towards the religious, New Age and so-called healing activity sales prospects. The device is known as a QUARTZ GLASS HARMONICA (U. S. Patent 4,589,322 issued Gerhard Finkenbeiner, b. 1930- d. 1999), Finkenbeiner was a clever German-trained professional glass technician and amateur music enthusiast who incorporated fused-silica (aka quartz) as the primary basis of his claim of patentable improvements within his multiple glass sound producing device designs and products. This manufactured type of technical glass, distributed by General Electric in the form of tubing, was developed for scientific glass work in the early 20th c. The use manipulated into cupped form using non-historical glass working procedures when creating 18th c. music devices was cited by Finkenbeiner as one of the so-called core improvement components within the patent coverage granted and issued as for advancement of mechanized glass instrument design. Sadly, the patent as issued bears nary a single mention of Benjamin Franklin, nor addresses Franklin’s unique, 1761 armonica, the originating cupped glass bowl mechanized music instrument as precedent work. This may be seen as confirming the essentially manipulative representation as the actuality of his work, for in the initial G. Finkenbeiner Inc. extensive 1980s publicity and original sales materials that were quite celebrated in media coverage at the time claimed the company to be successfully producing authentic, historically accurate reproductions of Benjamin Franklin’s 1761 armonica. Finkenbeiner also personally admitted at the outset he was primarily seeking a cost-effective and highly profitable way to manipulate and resell the leftovers from his scientific glass commissions and defense department weapons’ gyroscope production contracts that were usually discarded after production. These unused remnants of laboratory fused-silica glass tubing were already paid-for and accounted, so Finkenbeiner and his associates carried out this gleaned-income generation under the guise of replicating historical music instrument design while minimizing addressing the associated professional musical use properties required sound production and historical revival performance use. Later, having recognized a wide market expansion for these efforts, he carefully acquired the alternately-purposed patent protection. Gerhard Finkenbeiner personally favored what he termed the “quick and easy” non-tuned Quartz glass bowl sound device productions for metaphysical and other alternative developments, attributed by him because of the thereby eliminated requirements of precise and stable music tuning, symmetrical and reliably positioned cup spacings and consistent, wide-ranged and balanced tone production properties required for general professional music-making. With Finkenbeiner’s mysterious death (he disappeared when apparently last known to be flying his personal aircraft) the historical music instrument reproduction and Franklin-associated claims ceased appearing in the subsequent company-originated sales efforts under the new owners, although Finkenbeiner’s patented quartz sound producing devices seen in this photo posted on Facebbok continue in production. I, together with each of my Rutgers University glass music studies participant students (2011-2015), found the donated Finkenbeiner Quartz device at the Mason Gross School of the Arts consistently difficult, and repeatedly impossible, for utilization within the university’s graduate-level music degree requirements. That Rutgers intended as music-studies instrument was frequently assessed as excessively unstable in tuning, flawed in cup-mounting design, shrill in the treble range while brash in the bass, and at various critical times deemed by the students as unusable within their recital preparations that became unavoidably coupled to the minimal factory support maintenance availability (e.g. only one factory adjustment session was actually accomplished by the G. Finkenbeiner Co. within the initial five year formal studies program). Gerhard Finkenbeiner’s most important personal contribution to the glass music world was in spurring others to actually create useful and effective genuine realizations of historically-sourced, Franklin designed, glass music instrument reproductions and directly related associated elements that have come to be both highly valued and consistently utilized by serious, prominent glass music performers and teachers today.

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    1. Thank you for your clarification, Dennis. As only we scholars can do, you have clarified details that are not generally known. And it can be confusing when even the program that is distributed for an event mis-labels instruments that are unusual or not widely known.

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