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Benjamin Franklin's Musical Instrument


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The Armonica: Its Place in Colonial History: An Ingenious invention of The Enlightenment Destroyed by Medical Quackery and Hysteria.






David Mauldin





Benjamin Franklin’s musical invention, “The Armonica†is an example of pragmatic


visionary thinking that typified the 18th Century, only to be ruined by a quack physician


and a society easily influenced by rumors and given over to hysterics. On September 17th,


2007 I had the pleasure of introducing the armonica to a group of elementary school


teachers. Their reaction to the instrument is one of uniform amazement. Its ethereal tones


elicit quizzical reactions. Yet, rather than asking questions as to how the instrument


works, they want to know why they have never heard the instrument before? “Why is this


instrument so obscure?†“We all know who Benjamin Franklin is, we know he was an


inventor, but why haven’t we heard about the armonica, his ‘favorite invention’, before?â€


“Why did this instrument find such initial success, yet just a few years later, vanish from


the face of the earth?†In the following paper I will attempt to answer these questions by


introducing the armonica in its 18th century context along with its rise in popularity. Next,


I will discuss its downfall in popularity attributed to the physician Franz Mezmer. and


the paradox of credulity within the enlightenment. Finally, I will show that the


armonica’s history typifies the struggle between reason and emotionalism in the





Benjamin Franklin’s early life, born in 1607, could be viewed as a launching point


for the enlightenment. Franklin’s own minister, Cotton Mather, regrettably, had


participated in the Salem Witch Trials only a few years earlier and these events had only


served to decrease the power of the clergy and encourage alternative philosophies to


emerge. Franklin would become a leader in a period of history known as The Age of


Enlightenment. This, defined by Immanuel Kant, “is man’s emergence from his nonage.â€


This nonage or immaturity he continued was caused not by “lack of intelligence, but lack


of determination to use that intelligence without another’s guidance.â€1 In other words the


enlightenment is an era of history where theorists embraced new ideas about religion and


liberalism (reason being the primary basis of authority.) These ideas manifested


themselves in a form of systematic thinking. Theorists applied it to all areas of human


activity. More and more, as the 16th Century progressed, men began to think, if not to


say, that things were true in science because their own experience told them so-through


observation and experiment.2 As a result, the 18th century became the discovery point of


many new inventions, one being the armonica. Benjamin Franklin’s evidence of


enlightened thinking can be exemplified in this invention. Most people today are familiar


with the association of glass and music. It is a common occurrence at dinner parties to


hear someone producing a sound from a goblet. This practice has been around for


hundreds of years. The ancient Egyptians are known to have used porcelain in musical


instruments.3 During the 16th century, Galileo Galilei wrote about the effect of the “wet-


finger-around-the-wine-glass phenomenonâ€.4 However, it wasn’t until the age of


enlightenment that performers began to specialize in the genre.



These performers, Anne Ford and C.W. Gluck, could be found in Europe


during the early to mid 18th century.5 Benjamin Franklin attributes his first introduction


to glass music to a “Mr. Richard Pockeridge†who became famous for performing


challenging tunes upon his “Angelic Organâ€.6 This “Organ†was an arrangement of wine


glasses filled at different levels with water. The glasses were set on a table with three


different levels that allowed Mr. Pockeridge to reach without stooping over. These, when


rubbed, would produce a variance of sounds which enabled him to play a range of notes


and perform musical compositions. Afterwards Franklin took this idea and improved


upon it by arranging the glasses in a “narrower compass, so as to admit a greater


number of tunes, and all within reach of the handâ€.7



Franklin’s invention transformed musical glasses (which could be awkward and


difficult to arrange and limited in their musical possibilities) into one convenient


instrument. “Wishing to see the glasses disposed in a more convenient form,â€8 Franklin


nested the bowls inside of one another. These ascended in diameter from left to right. He


eliminated the need to fill the glasses with water, tuning the glasses by engineering their


size and thickness. They were also created with holes in the bottom and attached together


with the use of a rod.


A foot treadle enabled the bowls to spin. This allowed the performer to play a much


greater range of music.9 The convenience of the player to place all ten of his fingers on


the bowls at once enabled him to produce as many notes.



The first public performance of the armonica occurred on February 18th 1762 by


Marianne Davies.10 Miss Davies, a friend of Franklin and an accomplished singer,


flautist and harpsichordist, toured with the instrument for many years in England, Ireland,


France and Italy. It was during these tours that composers like Mozart, Hayden and


Beethoven became familiar with the armonica. (Mozart composed three works for the


instrument, The Adagio in C, the Adagio and Rondo and Fantasia in C.)11 In a letter to


Mr. Franklin in 1767, a Mary Rich writes that “Miss Davies has been performing


with great applause.†More than anyone else, Ms. Davies was responsible for the


vogue the armonica was to enjoy, especially in the German states and Vienna 12



When considering the armonica in the colonial American context we have to remember


that New England was settled by English Puritans. Because these Puritans sought to rid


themselves of the bishops, rituals and elaborate music of the Catholic Church and were


intent upon imposing their own religious demands and restrictions upon New England,


the development of public music entertainment would be stunted.13 One historian states


that,“The Puritans in both England and New England had mixed feelings about music.


All agreed that neither instruments nor any other sort of music apart from unaccompanied


congregational singing of psalms in unison had any place in public worship…†14


Although privately music and musical instruments were enjoyed it wouldn’t be until after


the death of Cotton Mather February 1728, that the city of Boston would perform its first


public concert on February 3rd 1729. 15 Gradually there were more and more public


concerts and the Puritan culture would give way to the commercial and political culture


that led to the Revolution. 16 Yet the Puritan way was deep rooted: significant concert


activity, theater and opera would only come in the years after Independence.17 It was


during this time musicians in America were routinely counted amongst the least desirable


elements of society.18 In colonial America a musician was tabulated at one notch above


an actor, a sausage maker and a perfumer.19 Most musicians were forced to work a


number of jobs. It was common to read advertisements that listed skills like, “Shaves,


dresses hair and plays the French Horn†20 Interestingly Franklin’s own attitudes towards


music reflected these same sentiments, suggesting to the founders of the University of


Pennsylvania to emphasize the practical instruction in the English language, history,


philosophy and science. His own interest in music did not surface until he was past fifty


years of age and he preferred the simple folk music of Scotland to the classical learning


of his day. The following is a statement from a letter he wrote concerning Scotch tunes,


“ …it is my opinion they will never die, but in all ages find a number of admirers among


those whose taste is not debauched by art…†21 The armonica was played publicly


on a number of occasions. Benjamin Franklin advertised the first public performance on


December 27 1764 and George Washington attended a performance at Williamsburg


Virginia during April 1765. At this point it should be noted that the enlightenment was


not only an era known for its emphasis on reason and science but also for pseudo science,


visionaries and outright quacks. Individuals during this time persuaded people that they


could perform a variety of wonders. They could transmit invisible healing powers, give


birth to rabbits and correspond with a man on the moon.22 Into this context entered Franz





Franz Mesmer was a German physician who developed a theory of “animal


magnetism†or “mesmerismâ€.23 This “animal magnetism,†according to Mesmer, was the


existence of a magnetic fluid or ethereal medium as a therapeutic agent. Mesmer’s


doctoral dissertation was, On the influence of the Planets on the Human Body. He


believed that just as the planets have a gravitational effect upon the oceans they have an


effect on the “tides†within the human body. Mesmer performed treatments on the ill by


channeling his magnetism with the use of a number of mediums one being the armonica!


His individual treatments involved touching the patient with his hands on the affected


area of the body. Mesmer, an accomplished musician, came into the possession of an


armonica around 1773 and is noted for performing on it with skill.24 Mesmer


incorporated the armonica into his group treatments. These treatments were characterized


by a number of people gathered around a wooden tub. This was filled with magnetized


bottles of water. Iron rods extended from the bottles outwards from the tub and could be


reached by the patients gathered around. While the treatment was in progress Mesmer


played the armonica with its ethereal tones, from behind a dark curtain with astrological


signs printed on it in order to propagate the magnetism from the bottles to the patients.25



During his career as a physician in Venice, Mesmer claimed numerous successes.


Many of his patients testified to being “relieved of symptoms†after receiving his care.26


Yet after having failed to cure the blindness of a famous pianist, Maria Theresa Von


Paradis, he found himself discredited and moved to Paris.27 Remarkably he was well


received and soon built up a thriving practice. Hundreds of patients were under his care.


He treated all kinds of illnesses: blindness, deafness, apoplexy, asthma, tumors of all


kinds, skin and scalp diseases, leprosy and migraines.28 However, in 1784 King Louis


the XVI appointed four members of the faculty of medicine as commissioners to


investigate “animal magnetism†and five additional commissioners from the Academy of


Sciences, ironically one being Benjamin Franklin himself. The investigations into


Mesmer’s claims were conducted in Franklin’s Paris home. Five months later the


commission concluded that the “cures†were the result of good salesmanship and the


patients’ imaginations. Mesmer’s career was over and that same year he left France. 29



In the years that followed the armonica became the target of numerous


accusations. No longer was it looked upon as a healing instrument but rather the opposite.


In 1798 Fredrich Rochlitz wrote, “…it excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the


player into nagging depression…dark and melancholy mood.â€30 In 1788 J.C. Muller


warned that people who have been upset easily should abstain from the armonica, “That


their state of mind should not be aggravated.â€31 During this time people attending


concerts began exhibiting hysterical emotions, even running from the halls screaming. To


add to all this, performers began complaining of “loss of feelings in their hands.†A


panic seemed to spread through the music world. The armonica was now being blamed


for domestic disputes, premature births, and mortal afflictions. In certain German states


the armonica was banned from use. By 1830 the armonica had literally disappeared from


the music world.32 In all fairness it should be mentioned that these types of hysterical


behaviors were not uncommon occurrences. It was not uncommon for concert goers to


have extremely emotional reactions to music during this period of history.



In conclusion we have seen that the armonica was invented during a


period of history known as the enlightenment. We have seen that it was invented by one


of the leading thinkers of the enlightenment, Benjamin Franklin, who is famous for


numerous other inventions and ideas of this time period. We have seen that initially the


armonica was well received by the leaders of the musical world, composed for by Mozart


and performed on in colonial America and throughout Europe. We have seen that the


Puritan influence on colonial society affected the popularity of the instrument in contrast


to that of Europe. We have also seen that the armonica was used as an “instrument of


medicine†by a physician who was later dismissed as a fraud. Lastly, we’ve seen the


armonica become the target of rumors and blamed for numerous maladies and societal


ills. Finally, we’ve seen that the armonica virtually disappeared from the world of music.


It’s clear that the armonica and its history typify the struggle between reason and


emotionalism during the Enlightenment. In particular, one can see that elites such as


Franklin wanted to take a rational approach to issues such as public health. This can be


seen in the convening of the panel of experts to investigate Mesmer. This panel rightly


concluded that Mesmer was a fraud and should not have been trusted. However, the


public overreacted and rejected not only Mesmer, but the armonica as well. In a few short


years, the public went from believing that the armonica cured illnesses, to believing that


it caused them. This kind of wild swing in public opinion with regards to an invention,


indicates that during the enlightenment, the scientific establishment did not yet have the


kind of authoritative influence it later would.


What are we to conclude of Franz Mesmer and how does he fit into the scientific


context of the enlightenment? Was Franz completely a quack or can we find anything


redeemable about his medical practices? Was there anything scientific he could base his


theories on? It should be pointed out that Franz received his medical license at the


University of Vienna in 1759. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on, “The influences of


the Planets on the Human body.†This however wasn’t medical astrology, yet relying on


Newton’s theory of the tides. Mesmer simply expounded that certain “tides†of the


human body might be accounted for by the movements of the sun and moon. In 1774


Mesmer sought to produce an artificial tide in a patient by having her drink a preparation


containing iron and then attaching magnets to her body. In this background we see


Mesmer’s ideas are not completely beyond science. If the “fluid†did exist then it could


possibly be effected by magnetism.33 (It should be pointed out that human blood does


contain iron and it is believed today that magnets can improve circulation in the human


body.) Given that the enlightenment produced a mood of optimism it not only opened the


door to science but also to irrational schemes. In this context we can see very easily how


Mesmer would fit. His error seems to have been his assumptions about the “tides of the


human body†yet there may not be any reason to believe he was a complete charlatan as



some have claimed. It should also be noted that Mesmer’s recognition of the ‘healing


power of music†is not without merit (people continue claim its effect today) and it


should be pointed out that the practice of hypnotism (autosuggestion) can be traced to


Mesmer. 34


What are we to conclude concerning the reactions towards this instrument? In one


setting it is a instrument of classical music, in another it is accepted as a physician’s


medium for an invisible force called “animal magnetism†and in another it is the cause of


domestic afflictions. Why this spectrum? Is this telling us something about the 18th


century society? Given the information discussed it seems reasonable to conclude that


17th century society could be easily persuaded by myths, rumors and information that


could not be supported by truth. It seems more reasonable to conclude that the Age of


Reason was more of the Age of Transitioning Towards Reason. Franklin, being its


Champion, demonstrates his character by not only inventing the armonica but


exposing Mesmer as a fraud as well.

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Can someone edit this for spacing? Cheers!

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In the 2nd paragraph it says he was born in 1607...it was actually 1706. Just thought you might want to know that :)

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