As with many of man’s great achievements (or is that blunders?), it all began with the wine. In this case, however, it was actually the glasses and their capacity to produce sound. Wet your fingers then rub them over the ridge of the goblet and (after a few minutes of frustration) a high pitched tone will fill the room at a loudness unexpected from such a gentle motion. It’s a surprising sound – a clear pitch with a gentle vibrato that, while emanating from the glass, seems to surround you as the sound bounces off the walls of the room.

The first time that musicians took advantage of the musical properties of glass bowls was in the mid-1700s, when performers created music using a collection of glasses filled with varying levels of liquid to alter pitch. Benjamin Franklin first heard a glass bowl piece while in Europe as an ambassador and loved what he heard. However, he noticed a fundamental problem with the setup – it’s very difficult to play complex music on fifty glass bowls on a table. He decided to make a much more practical method of creating music from glass. Always the inventor, he succeeded in creating a much more elegant instrument: the glass armonica, an instrument of ingenious design that eliminates the need for tuning as well as allowing a musician to easily play melodies and chords. Franklin’s invention took Europe by storm, and the glass armonica was in such high regard that some said it was more popular than the violin.

Benjamin Franklin incorporated several ideas into a better glass instrument for players. First, he envisioned bowls that were already perfectly tuned. That way, one would not need to mess with having just the right amount of liquid inside to correct intonation problems. Actually making bowls that were tuned to specific tones turned out to be quite difficult; for every 100 bowls made, only one would be suitable for Franklin’s instrument. Second, his bowls would be lined up in close sequence on a spindle that would rotate via a foot pedal; this removed the need to rotate one’s own hands, as well as allowed a player access to all notes in easy succession, much like on a piano.

Despite the difficulties in blowing perfectly tuned glass, in 1761 Franklin had created the world’s first glass armonica. Franklin named it the armonica after the Italian word for “harmony.” It is an amazing instrument – a full compliment of 48 notes, two octaves above and below middle C. All one needed to do was set the spindle in motion, moisten one’s fingers a little, then lay them upon the instrument to conjure forth its sounds. Best of all, the instrument never needed to be tuned since glass bowls don’t have the same intonation troubles as wood and metal instruments.

Returning from Europe with his newest invention, Franklin set up his armonica in the attic of his house while his wife was asleep downstairs. Franklin had not yet played for his wife, and when she heard the glass armonica’s unique sound for the first time she “awakened with the conviction that she had died and gone to heaven and was listening to the music of the angels.”

Though the armonica had its fans in America, it was in Europe that the glass armonica was really popular. Franklin enjoyed playing his armonica at the many parties he attended, where his performances were always well received. It became a topic of conversation for many of the rich of the land, and even Marie Antoinette learned a little of the instrument. There were at least 300 pieces written for the glass armonica, some by great composers such as Ludwig von Beethoven and Amadeus Mozart. The glass armonica was put into production all throughout Europe, with one factory even employing a hundred people just to meet production demands.

People found other purposes for the glass armonica’s unique sound. Franz Mesmer, who brought about the term “mesmerized,” was a lover of the instrument, and also thought it an important component of his hypnotic methodology. He would often combine his “animal magnetism” healing cures with the glass armonica to induce deeper states of hypnosis in patients. Though the curative powers of hypnotism are suspect, the beautiful sounds of the glass armonica are not; Mesmer’s dying wish was that the instrument be played for him one last time.

The armonica’s sound was so haunting that some listeners began to suspect that there was something supernatural about the instrument, and over time its popularity plummeted in the wake of rumors that the armonica was responsible for numerous ailments. People feared that its sound caused insanity, nervous disorders, convulsions in cats and dogs, marital disputes, or even the waking of the dead. Mesmer’s experiments with hypnosis certainly did not help its reputation with regards to the supernatural. Some thought that it was the touching of the instrument that caused problems, and created a keyboard version, wherein striking a note would cause a leather-covered hammer to rub against the glass. Still, this wasn’t enough to dispel fear, especially in some German towns where the armonica was banned from use. Just forty years after it was introduced, it disappeared from the public eye.

Photo from Dee Johnson (flickr)
Photo from Dee Johnson (flickr)

The only vaguely plausible claim of negative effects, made in more modern times, was that the materials used in creating the glass armonica would cause lead poisoning to those who played it. However, these claims are pretty wild with no proof – merely handling lead objects does not cause lead poisoning, and back in the day people often died of lead poisoning, whether they played armonica or not. It was not fortuitous to live in an age where many doctors prescribed “cures” filled with toxic substances.

Luckily, in the past fifty years the glass armonica has been brought back to life. In the 1960s Gerhard B. Finkenbeiner, a German glassblower and musician, discovered an old glass armonica in a museum and endeavored to recreate one himself. Experimenting over the next thirty years, he ultimately improved the design with modern technology, such as a motor in place of a foot pedal for rotating the bowls and improved glass bowl creation methods. Though Finkenbeiner mysteriously disappeared in 1999, his new instruments live on, and I invite (nay, implore) the reader to visit some of the links below to hear the wonderful sound of this unique instrument.