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Franklin Invents the Armonica

From 1757 to 1762 Franklin lived in London, lobbying Parliament on behalf of the Pennsylvania colonial legislature. His experiments with electricity had already made him famous in the scientific community, and the candle/soap maker's son had reached the top of the political and social scene as well.

Franklin was keenly interested in music and had an extensive knowledge of it. He loved to sing, to write new words for old songs, played several instruments, including the harp and the viol da gamba as a capable amateur1, and surrounded himself with music wherever he lived. His tastes were for 'simple music', Scottish airs in particular, and one of his letters is a rather scathing attack on Handel arias.2 He also wrote a treatise on music theory3, and apparently composed a string quartet.4 On the other hand, Franklin apparently had little use for professional musicians (an attitude shared by the colonists in general): to illustrate social parasitism, he could think of no better symbol than a "fiddling man," whose activity results in no tangible product-bricks, for example—so that either the poverty or the labor of the rest of mankind is increased.5 During his first trip to France in 1767, he was more interested in the means the French used to ventilate their theaters than in the performances.6 Franklin also printed sheet music in his print shop.7

Franklin attended concerts frequently. One was a charity performance of Handel's Messiah at which Handel himself had been scheduled to perform (May 3, 1759), but Handel inconveniently died on April 14. The concert was conducted instead by Handel's protégé John Smith, and still raised over £400.8 In France in 1781 Franklin attended a concert in which he narrowly escaped death when the opera house caught fire and burned.9

Another less hazardous concert was by Edward Delaval on the musical glasses, probably in 1761, and Franklin decided to invent a more convenient arrangement of the glasses. 10

It's no surprise that he devised an elegant design that simultaneously eliminated the water tuning (and the problem of constant evaporation), increased the playability and reduced the size of the instrument. He eliminated the water tuning by having each glass made with the correct size and thickness to give the desired pitch without being filled with any water, and made the set of glasses more compact and playable by nesting them inside each other, mounted on a spindle which was turned by a foot treadle.11

Franklin contacted Hughes and Company, at the Cockpit Glasshouse, and received the services of Charles James, who made the glasses for the first instrument.

Franklin's new invention was announced in the Bristol Journal for January 12th, 1762:

The celebrated glassy-chord, invented by Mr. Franklin of Philadelphia: who has greatly improved the musical glasses, and formed them into a compleat instrument to accompany the voice; capable of a thorough bass, and never out of tune. Miss Davies from London, was to perform in the month of January, several favourite airs, English, Scotch and Italian, on the Glassychord (being the only one of the Kind that has yet been produced) accompanied occasionally with the voice and the German Flute.12

Thus Franklin's initial name for his invention was the 'glassy-chord', a good, stout, practical English name. Its first public performance was by Marianne Davies, whom we shall consider shortly.

Franklin made plans to visit Italy—in part to visit his good friend Beccaria. But the visit wasn't to be. On 13 July 1762, a month before sailing from England to terminate five years of service as colonial agent for the Province of Pennsylvania, Franklin took quill in hand to bid farewell to friends whom he could not see in person. Among them Father Beccaria13:

London,
July 13, 1762

Reverend Sir,

I once promised myself the pleasure of seeing you at Turin, but as that is not now likely to happen, being just about returning to my native country, America, I sit down to take leave of you (among others of my European friends that I cannot see) by writing.

Franklin thanks Beccaria again for his work on electricity. He then turns his attention to the main topic of the letter: the glass armonica:

Perhaps, however, it may be agreeable to you, as you live in a musical country, to have an account of the new instrument lately added here to the great number that charming science was before possessed of: As it is an instrument that seems peculiarly adapted to Italian music, especially that of the soft and plaintive kind, I will endeavour to give you such a description of it, and of the manner of constructing it, that you, or any one of your friends may be enabled to imitate it, if you incline so to do, without being at the expence and trouble of the many experiments I have made in endeavouring to bring it to its present perfection.

You have doubtless heard the sweet tone that is drawn from a drinking-glass, by passing a wet finger round its brim. One Mr. Pockeridge, a gentleman from Ireland, was the first who thought of playing tunes, formed of these tones. He collected a number of glasses of different sizes, fixed near each other on a table, and tuned them by putting into them water, more or less as each note required. The tones were brought out by passing his finger round their brims. He was unfortunately burnt there, with his instrument, in a fire which consumed the house he lived in. Mr. E. Delaval, a most ingenious member of our Royal Society, made one in imitation of it, with a better choice and form of glasses, which was the first I saw or heard.

If Delaval was the 'first I saw or heard', Franklin must not have attended any of Ann Ford's notorious performances in London in 1760 and 1761. Franklin continues...

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, which I accomplished, after various intermediate trials, and less commodious forms, both of glasses and construction, in the following manner. …

Franklin concludes the letter:

The advantages of this instrument are, that its 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 finger, and continued to any length; and that the instrument, being once well tuned, never again wants tuning.

In honour of your musical language, I have borrowed from it the name of the instrument, calling it the Armonica.

With great esteem and respect, I am, Etc.

B. Franklin

Here Franklin called it the "armonica", after the Italian for "harmony" which is armonia.

It is curious that Franklin chose to unveil the new instrument as he did, communicating to an Italian and baptizing it with an Italian name, after it had become known about London as the "Glassy-Chord". Furthermore, the correspondence between Franklin and Beccaria before and after the armonica letter contain no other comparable departure from scientific and personal matters. Yet Franklin was nothing if not practical. He was convinced that the armonica was an important addition to the family of musical instruments, perhaps destined to supersede the harpsichord and piano.14 As previously with his stove and lightning rod, he must have been anxious to see humanity blessed with the new invention as soon as possible. "That intent could obviously be no better served than by having his instrument adopted and cultivated in the land that was the musical Mecca to which the western world still turned for diversion and instruction. What then more logical than for him to dedicate his new instrument to a prominent Italian in order to take advantage of Italy's musical hegemony? An Italian name for the invention, along with a national compliment or two for good measure, was probably calculated to contribute further to put the Italians in a receptive mood."15

The earliest known appearance of the name "armonica" is in an advertisement in Jackson's Oxford Journal, May 29, 1762:

The Armonica. Being the musical glasses without water, formed into a compleat instrument capable of a thorough bass and never out of tune, made by Charles James, of Purpool Lane, near Gray's Inn, London. N.B.—The maker is the person who has been employed in the management of the Glass Machines from the beginning, by the ingenious and well-known inventor, which are on the same principles and guided by the same hand as that played on by Miss Davies at Spring Gardens, London, at Bath and Bristol. 16

Further, in the biography prefixed to Sparks's Works of Benjamin Franklin (London, 1882, vol.1, p.264) we read that the instruments were manufactured in London at the price of forty guineas.1718

Apparently having James make his first instrument hadn't gone smoothly, because when Franklin went back to the Cockpit Glasshouse to build another instrument, he asked for another glassblower. A Mr. Barnes was selected to try his hand, and he provided Franklin an "improved version" of the glasses, which were worthless for Franklin's purposes. Meanwhile, in June 1762, James went into business for himself. He took out an ad in the London Journal19, in which he called himself "the Maker who has been employed by the Gentleman who is the real inventor, in the first ever made in England, and continues to be honored with his approbation".20

Franklin was unhappy with the situation, but was consumed with his impending departure for the Colonies (Sept. 1762) and had no time to correct it. Writing to Polly Stevenson from Philadelphia, March 25, 1763, he expressed his regret that James, already flagging in production, was "dilatory," and then commented:

I was unlucky in both the workman that I permitted to undertake making those instruments. The first was fanciful, and could never work to the purpose, because he was ever conceiving some new Improvement that answer'd no end: the other is absolutely idle. I have recommended a number to him from hence, but must stop my hand.21

Complaints continued: in a letter to Francis Hopkinson, Aug. 15, 1765, Franklin writes:

"... It vexes me to hear that Miss Kennedy's Armonica is so badly made ... James is broke, as indeed his Head, if not his Neck, ought to have been, for serving her so basely, and abusing my Recommendation."22

When back in England in 1770, a friend asked Franklin about James' claim that he was the official builder. Franklin confirmed the claim to the extent that "James is the only workman here acquainted with such matters, and, a very negligent, dilatory man." James was "now unable to supply one of my friends because, awaiting the pleasure of Mr. James, at length, he [the friend] died suddenly." Franklin settled on sending instructions to persons interested in buying one.

Meanwhile, when Jefferson (in Paris) inquired in 1787 of John Trumbull (in London) about an armonica 23, Trumbull replied:

I am told the Harmonica is never made to exceed three octaves. For one of that kind Longman & Brodsip ask me thirty guineas. I will enquire further on this subject.24

Which would seem to suggest that Longman & Brodsip were stepping into the gap left by Charles James.

Nevertheless, nothing Franklin wrote between 1757 and 1762, no experiment he undertook and carried out, absorbed him more happily than his musical invention.25 And apparently his daughter Sally learned to play as well, as a portrait of her playing the armonica was painted. Unfortunately, the painting has never been found.26


1 Cohn (1992), 293

2 Papers of Benjamin Franklin 9:539ff: before 1765 to his brother Peter Franklin

3 Papers of Benjamin Franklin 12:162ff: June 2, 1765 to Lord Kames

4 Grenander (1972), 183. Franklin scholars disagree whether Franklin actually wrote the quartet in question. Having seen the score and heard the work, it is definitely the sort of piece a very intelligent person without formal musical composition training might write.

5 Pace (1958), 268: Smyth 9:246

6 Smyth 5:53

7 H.R.Marraro, Italian Music and Actors in America During the Eighteenth Century, Italica 23: 104, 1946

8 Papers of Benjamin Franklin 8:339, footnote

9 Cohn (1992), 292

10It is not entirely certain just when Franklin devised the armonica, had his first instrument made, and began to play it. The evidence is strong, however, that these events took place at least as early as 1761, and by early the following year a protegeé, Miss Marianne Davies, <pg.119> was giving public performances. On April 13, 1761, Thomas Penn wrote Governor Hamilton that BF was spending his time "in philosophical, and especially in electrical matters, ... and musical performances on glasses," but these words could refer to his preliminary efforts on water-tuned drinking glasses before he had fully worked out the idea. Penn Papers, Hist. Soc. Pa. Clearer evidence is found in a diary entry of Dr. William Stukeley, May 22, 1761: "Visited Dr. Franklyn, the electric genius. He has made a dulcimer of wooden sticks, very sweet; another of glass bells, that warble like the sound of an organ." The Family Memoirs of the Rev. William Stukeley, M.D. (Publications of the Surtees Society, LXXX), III 480. The term "glass bells" makes certain that BF was here using something quite different from drinking glasses, and "warble like the sound of an organ" shows that he was not striking them with sticks or small hammers. The instrument had certainly passed the experimental stage well before the end of the year. ( Papers of Benjamin Franklin 10:118–119)

11Except during thunder storms, when Franklin would hook a kite up to his armonica! <wink!>

12Quoted in Papers of Benjamin Franklin 10:119, fn. The editors of PBF have been unable to find any copy of the Bristol Journal for the appropriate period or to determine from which London newspaper the item might have been taken.

13the complete letter can be found in the appendix[???]

14 Pace (1958), 273: BF Memoirs, 422 (nothing there!?!)

15 Pace (1958) 273–4

16??? Quoted in King (1946) p.107–108. The London Chronicle, June 17–19, 1762, carried a similar advertisement by James in which he explained that the armonica "may be so constructed, as to be either a Portable Instrument, or Genteel Piece of Furniture." ( Papers of Benjamin Franklin 10:118)

17 King (1946), 107ff

18A guinea was L1-1s-0d (which is L1.05). It was considered a more gentlemanly amount than £1. You paid tradesmen, such as a carpenter, in pounds but gentlemen, such as an artist, in guineas. It was a tradition in the legal profession that a barrister was paid in guineas but kept only the pounds, giving his clerk the shillings. A guinea coin contained about .24 ounces of gold, making it worth approximately $US 125 (in 2006). Thus an armonica would have cost approximately $5000 in 2006 US dollars.

19London Chronicle, June 17–19, 1762

20 Becker (1998), 20

21???

22???

23Franklin had returned to Philadelphia in ???

24Letters TJ 1787, 10/30

25 Van Doren (1991), 299

26 Papers of Benjamin Franklin 13:523