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Glass Armonica

Among his many interests and talents, Benjamin Franklin enjoyed music and developed an instrument called the glass armonica, or glass harmonica. He had been delighted by performances on the "musical glasses", a popular 18th century entertainment where a musician would rub the rims of several glasses with moistened fingers. The glasses were filled with varying amounts of water, each glass thus emitting a different tone when rubbed. Before each concert, the performer would tune the instrument by filling each glass with just the right amount of water to ensure the availability of all the tones required by the music. Franklin 's contribution was to give this set-up a more convenient form.

The glass armonica in the Bakken collection, shown above, was purchased in 1975 through a French instrument dealer from the descendants of Mme. Brillon de Jouy, a neighbor of Benjamin Franklin's during the years he lived in Passy, a suburb of Paris (1777-1785). She and Franklin became good friends despite the difference in their ages when they met (she was in her early 30's, he his early 70's). The instrument is made of mahogany and the upper part consists of a spindle that originally bore 28 glass cups (now there are 27), held in place by corks. The diameter of these cups increases from 70 mm to 160 mm. Extending beneath the cups is a pan that would catch any water dripping off the fingers of the player. By means of the lower pedal acting on the flywheel and the drive-pulley, the spindle with the glass cups is rotated.

In a letter written in 1762 to the Italian scientist Giambatista Beccaria, Franklin described a musical instrument he had designed that bore 37 cups. He wrote that this new instrument was one "that seems peculiarly adapted to Italian music, especially that of the soft and plaintive kind". He added that the advantages of his design were "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." He closed his letter with a compliment to Beccaria, saying, "In honour of your musical language, I have borrowed from it the name of this instrument, calling it the Armonica."

The armonica was popular with the public and received the serious attention of many 18th century musicians. Franklin himself enjoyed performing on it and seems to have always had one in his living quarters. His friend Mme. Brillon, an accomplished and intelligent woman, was a fine musician and a master of the harpsichord and the pianoforte; she played other instruments and also composed music. The music book on the stand belonged to her and the red label on the front reads "Madame Brillon"; it includes several sonatas written for the clavecin or the piano, and violin.

Several 18th century composers wrote for the glass armonica, including Mozart, Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Karl Leopold Röllig, Johann Abraham Peter Schulz, and Johann Gottlieb Naumann. The music of the glass armonica was also a component of the healing sessions conducted by Franz Anton Mesmer during the heyday of his Parisian practice (1778 through the 1780s) and he continued to play it at home in his retirement in his native Germany.


The Bakken
A Library and Museum of Electricity in Life

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© The Bakken Updated: March 19, 2007

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