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The Armonica and (Supposed) Lead Poisoning

One of the popular stories about the glass armonica is that players got lead poisoning and died; the instrument thus acquired a dire reputation, and that's why people stopped playing it. At a performance an audience member once asked me: "Isn't this Franklin's 'Death Machine'?"

It is an undeniable fact that everyone that ever played the glass armonica eventually died, as you can see from this list of armonica players from around 1800:

Name Age at Death Cause
Banjamin Franklin (1706–1790) 84 Old age
Franz Mesmer (1734–1815) 81 Old age
Marianne Davies (1743–1816?) 73? Old age
Phillip Frick (1742–1798) 56 Unknown
Joseph Schmittbaur (1718–1809) 91 Old age
Marianne Kirchgaessner (1769–1808) 39 Pneumonia
Johann G. Naumann (1741–1801) 60 Unknown
Karl L. Roellig (1750(?)–1804) 54 Unknown

Considering the typical life-span of people around 1800, one could argue that playing the armonica may have actually lengthened their lives!

What We Now Know About Lead Poisoning

OSHA itself asserts that you get lead poisoning by eating it or inhaling it, not by touching it:

Lead can be absorbed into your body by inhalation (breathing) and ingestion (eating). Lead (except for certain organic lead compounds not covered by the standard, such as tetraethyl lead) is not absorbed through your skin.[Emphasis mine] When lead is scattered in the air as a dust, fume or mist it can be inhaled and absorbed through you lungs and upper respiratory tract. Inhalation of airborne lead is generally the most important source of occupational lead absorption. You can also absorb lead through your digestive system if lead gets into your mouth and is swallowed. If you handle food, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, or make-up which have lead on them or handle them with hands contaminated with lead, this will contribute to ingestion. (Full article is here.)

Placing lead on the skin is vastly less effective. In an article by Christopher P Holstege, MD with J Stephen Huff, MD (specialists in toxicology) we read:

The cutaneous [through the skin] absorption of lead is limited (typically far less than 1%). The amount absorbed through the skin depends on the physical characteristics of the lead (ie, organic vs inorganic) and the integrity of the skin. Although inorganic lead [in chemistry lingo 'organic' means there is carbon and hydrogen involved. Thus water is 'inorganic'.] is not absorbed through intact [uninjured/healthy] skin, organic lead compounds (ie, tetraethyl lead [in leaded-gasoline]) are absorbed. (Full article is here)

Thus lead is far more easily absorbed by inhalation or ingestion than by cutaneous contact (through the skin). Consequently you just have to work at it harder. A LOT harder.

For example, women during the reign of George II ((1683–1760) were apparently poisoning themselves using lead-based makeup. An example would be Maria Gunning, who died at age 27, at least partially due to her lead-based makeup:
"She continued to utilize heavy makeup, simply because it was stylish. Had she paid heed to her husband's actions against her wearing lead-based makeup in Paris for the rest of her days, her death eight years later (at the age of 27) may not have been so untimely. However, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, it was fashionable for ladies to have pale white skins and red rouged cheeks and use lead as a basis for their makeup. It was the noxious effects of the lead which caused skin eruptions (which also encouraged ladies to powder their skins more vigorously to mask their blemishes) and eventually blood-poisoning which killed Maria on September 30, 1760. Originally known simply as a beautiful but vain woman, she eventually became known in society circles as a "victim of cosmetics.""

In those days only the wealthy bathed even once a month; nor was washing your hands considered a good idea. Thus: keep lead on your skin for 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, year after year, along with the lead powder that would constantly be falliing off of your face to be inhaled and ingested, and you have a sure-fire recipe for lead poisoning.

Lead-based makeup is still a problem in 3rd world countries—see: y.fcgi?cmd=Retrieve&db=PubMed&list_uids=12584949&dopt=Abstract erender.fcgi?artid=1567936

Manwhile, perhaps someone should warn WalMart about the fishing weights they sell made of raw lead. They aren't sealed, and there is no health warning. (Although perhaps there really should be: to wash your hands after handling them.)

In fact, glass is a serious candidate for entombing nuclear waste for tens of thousands of years because it is so inert, in a process called vitrification.

Lead Poisoning in Franklin's Day

Not content with just makeup, folks around 1800 were determined to lead-poison themselves by a long list of other means:

  • Stills for distilled spirits (like rum and madeira) commonly used lead tubing and fittings.
  • They cooked in tin/lead pots.
  • Lead-oxide was used as a sweetener.
  • Physicians actually prescribed lead for various ailments.
  • Acidic beverages—such as already lead-laden alcoholic beverages—were commonly served in lead-pewter cups.
  • Occupational sources of lead poisoning for various professions (like printing).
  • Household water was stored in lead cisterns, and brought into the house with lead pipes.1

Amazingly (or perhaps not so amazingly) Franklin himself was one of the first to identify it as a problem, and lent his enormous energy and public stature to warning of its dangers. Entire towns were being be incapacitated by particularly lead-laden batches of rum, which would give them 'the dry-gripes' —the intestines would temporarily and excruciatingly shut down due to lead poisoning. And to 'cure' the dry-gripes doctors would actually prescribe swallowing lead shot on the theory that this heavy object would push the supposed 'obstruction' through the intestines.2

We also know that Franklin was frustrated that he was not able to find lead-free cooking pots during his stay in Paris, and worked on having his plated with tin.3

And the author himself has seen baby bottles with lead fittings from about 1800.4

There are many fine articles on lead poisoning in Franklin's day, and Franklin's leadership on that issue, but one in particular stands out as the most comprehensive: "The Perils of Lead" in Dr. Franklin's Medicine, by Dr. Stanley Finger.

Were armonica players of yesteryear getting lead poisoning? Absolutely—just like everyone else! Lead-poisoning from armonicas—if any—would have been the proverbial 'flatulence in a hurricane'.

Lead Poisoning from Glass Armonicas

Modern writers determined to kill off armonica players from yesteryear with lead poisoning have been amazingly diabolical:

"Didn't They Paint the Glasses with Lead Paint?"

Some armonicas, but by no means all, were painted, presumably with lead paint (but that needs to be established). If painted at all, they were always painted on theinside of the glass—wet fingers rubbing paint doesn't work—the finger has to rub bare glass. Painting them on the inside has the further practical benefit that the paint wouldn't wear off from playing.

Franklin painted his glasses, and specified that they be painted on the inside. I've had the opportunity to inspect Franklin's own instrument up close and personal, inches away from the glasses, and they were indeed painted on the inside. After all, they wanted the instrument to play, and they didn't want the paint to wear off.

"Didn't Players Lick Their Fingers to Play, and Ingest Lead That Way?"

When you play the armonica, you are playing more on the sides of the glasses, not really the rim as on a single wine glass. Thus much more moisture is required than on wine glasses. On my instrument with several dozen glasses (and that is very typical) my largest glass has a circumference of 24 inches, my smallest a circumference of 9 inches. Times three dozen glasses. (Imagine licking your fingers and getting the sides of three dozen brandy snifters moist—fast enough that the first one isn't dry by the time you get to the last.) That's a lot of surface area to moisten all at once at the beginning, and to keep moist throughout the performance. Frankly, a human being just can't generate enough saliva fast enough.

I've tried it! I couldn't come anywhere close to being able to moisten the glasses fast enough to play. And keep that pitcher of water handy as I'll need to drink plenty of it! Wait—I could just dip my fingers in that pitcher in the first place and skip the dry mouth and tongue exercise altogether.

Plus, licking your fingers and playing your instrument would be disgusting both to the player (at least this player!) AND the audience. I suppose players could have scrubbed their instrument before playing, but wouldn't a bowl of water for your fingers just be a whole lot easier?

"So from what DID Armonica Players Die?"

They died from the same ills as everyone else.

Far more people have died trying to repeat Franklin's kite-in-a-thunderstorm experiment than ever died from playing his glass armonica!

1 Picard (2000), 22ff.

2 Finger (2006), 181ff.

3 Lopez (1990), 208.

4at the Pharmacological Museum in New Orleans. I visited it in 1995. I don't know if it is still there.