How It Started
We all know Ben Franklin as a Founding Father, writer, scientist, and philosopher, as well as the inventor of the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove. As a man of many talents, he also played various instruments including the guitar, harp, viola da gamba, and his very own musical invention—the one and only glass armonica.
In 1761, Franklin attended a concert in London where the lead musician “played” a water-tuned set of wine glasses. While Franklin thought it was a unique, beautiful sound, it occurred to him that the instrument itself wasn’t all that functional.
He decided to take matters into his own hands and create another, more advanced version of this instrument called the glass armonica–a name originating from the Greek word for harmony.
How It Works
The glass armonica was an iron rod with rotating glass bowls, fitting one inside the next, held together with cork. The varying sizes of the bowls allowed them to vibrate at different pitches used in the Western scale. Franklin color-coded each bowl to represent different notes, making it possible to go beyond simple notes and incorporate various chords and melodies as well.
The rod was attached to a wheel, which was manually turned by a foot pedal. The musician would dip their fingers in water and touch each bowl’s edge as it turned to get a sound similar to that of the singing glasses.
This invention quickly made waves, and before he knew it, Franklin’s invention was being used professionally by industry legends like Beethoven and Mozart. Smooth sailing through the world of instruments, right? Not so fast.
Franklin’s armonica was becoming a true icon in the music world… until it started wreaking havoc on the minds and bodies of performers and their audiences.
Things Took a Turn, Quite Literally
Franklin’s intention with the armonica was to provide soothing, beautiful music mimicking that of the water glasses. But unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse. Living up to its present-day nickname, “the world’s deadliest instrument,” Franklin’s glass armonica allegedly began killing people. The complexity of the armonica overstimulated the brain, which ultimately caused dizziness, nervousness, hallucinations, and cramps amongst performers.
In 1808, German glass armonica player Marianne Kirchgessner passed away, and many attributed her death to the spooky tones of Franklin’s armonica. It was not only becoming an issue for musicians but listeners, too. A young child in Germany also died during an armonica performance, which resulted in some towns banning the instrument for good.
And as for the players of the armonica, it was also believed that, due to the constant touching of paint used to color-code each bowl, musicians were falling very ill from lead poisoning.
Summoner of Spirits?
Aside from the physical toll the instrument supposedly took on players and listeners, some also believed that the high pitch sound summoned spirits of the dead–that the armonica had magical powers and, in some cases, drove individuals mad. It was reported that it even caused listeners to commit suicide.
Where Have All The Armonicas Gone?
Thankfully, none of these bizarre killer claims have ever been proven true. In fact, Ben Franklin chose to ignore most of them and continued to play the glass armonica until he died in 1790.
At that time, about 5,000 glass armonicas had been built. Franklin never collected funds from his invention, nor did he patent the idea. Although still around, by the 1830s the glass armonica had become a thing of the past.
There are a few musicians who play the instrument today, such as Dennis James. If you’re brave enough, give James a listen as he plays one of Mozart’s compositions for the glass armonica!
By Sam McCormack, contributor for Ripleys.com