Benjamin Franklin heard a performance on a set of musical glasses in Cambridge by Edmund Delaval—probably in 1761—and decided to invent a more ‘convenient arrangement’. He initially named his invention the ‘glassy-chord’, but changed it in early 1762 to the ‘armonica’, named after the Italian word for ‘harmony’. (w/video)

Franklin built one and it had its debut performance by Marianne Davies in early 1762. Franklin’s invention was a hit. Marianne Davies went on to tour throughout Europe with it. A particularly brilliant virtuoso on the instrument—Marianne Kirchgaessner in Germany—inspired Mozart to compose music for it in 1791. Beethoven and a long list of other composers of the day also composed for it.

Two particularly ‘creative’ uses of the must be mentioned: Franz Mesmer used his to ‘mesmerize’ his patients, and E.T. Robertson used the around 1800 to accompany his Phantasmagoria shows— ghost-shows using ‘Magic Lanterns’ (early slide-projectors) to project spooky images on hidden screens and even smoke!

Although the was enthusiastically received throughout Europe, it found its true home in Germany—for some reason it excited the Germanic imagination to a degree that was unequaled anywhere else in Europe. Of course one can understand how enthusiasm for it might wane in England after the American Revolution—the was invented by that ‘arch-traitor Benjamin Franklin’! And France was a little busy with the French Revolution.

But even in Germany interest in the instrument began to wane around 1820 or so. There were rumors about ‘nerve damage’ and such. But more common were complaints about simply not being able to hear it. Music was moving out of the relatively small aristocratic halls of Mozart’s day into the big public concert halls of the 19th century, and without amplification the simply wasn’t loud enough for their concert halls. The harpsichord disappeared at about the same time—perhaps for the same reason.


Video on the History Channel

Video by William Zeitler

Video 2 by William Zeitler