J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, January 15, 2022

Franklin’s Lost Comments about His Armonica

Michael Hillegas (1729-1804) was one of Benjamin Franklin’s colleagues in Philadelphia. Son of immigrants from Germany, he became a merchant, then invested in refining both sugar and iron.

In 1775 the Continental Congress appointed Hillegas one of its two treasurers. The other, George Clymer, became a delegate to the Congress the next year, leaving Hillegas as the sole treasurer until 1789. 

Hillegas was an early member of Franklin’s American Philosophical Society, and he had a particular interest in music. Sources say he played the flute and violin, and he ran a shop offering musical instruments, printed music, staff paper, strings, and lessons.

Sometime in the late 1760s Hillegas asked his friend Franklin to send him that new glass instrument, the glassy-chord or armonica. Unfortunately, when it arrived, some of the glass bowls were broken, and in January 1769 Franklin promised to order replacement parts.

By November nothing had arrived, so Hillegas reminded Franklin of his request in a letter that also asked about other things. Franklin wrote back on 17 Mar 1770.

Some of those letters between Franklin and Hillegas no longer survive, but Hillegas and his nineteenth-century descendants made the documents now lost available to scholars.

The earliest publication of Franklin’s 17 Mar 1770 letter was in Mathew Carey’s American Museum, or, Universal Magazine in 1790. The same text appeared in William Temple Franklin’s 1817 set The Private Correspondence of Benjamin Franklin. That transcription contained a single paragraph about what sort of metal plates different European nationalities were using on their roofs. (Ah, the Enlightenment!)

In 1859, however, the Historical Magazine printed a longer text of what it said was the same letter. This transcription appears to have been made from the original since the article is prefaced with this comment:

The original of the following letters from Benjamin Franklin to Michael Hillegas, Esq., were found among the papers of the late Mr. Henry Kuhl, of this city, a son-in-law of Mr. Hillegas. Mr. Hillegas was an alderman of Philadelphia, and a prominent citizen.

W. D.
The paragraph printed in 1859 but not in 1790 or 1817 reads:
Charles James, who undertook to provide your Glasses, and the only Workman here acquainted with such Matters, was a very negligent, dilatory Man, and put me off from time to time. At length he died suddenly. And those who succeed him in the Shop cannot find the Directions. They were in your Letter which I left with him and I have no Copy. So I think you cannot do better than to go to my House and suit yourself out of the Glasses I left there. If you get one of the proper Size but too sharp, Mr. [Francis] Hopkinson will show you how to grind it down, tho’ it were a Note or two.
Obviously, that paragraph is significant in the history of Franklin’s glassy-chord/armonica. It also shows a less flattering side of the inventor, his annoyance at not receiving his order simply because the skilled artisan he relied on had died. Supply-chain problems!

Now we get into the mysteries of modern editorial practices. The current Papers of Benjamin Franklin project, as digitized at its own website and at the National Archives’ Founders Online, includes only the first paragraph of Franklin’s 17 Mar 1770 letter, quoted from The American Magazine. The paragraph about the late armonica builder is nowhere to be seen.

However, the Franklin Papers cites the Historical Magazine transcription as a source about the making of the armonica, even quoting from the missing second paragraph. At some points the Papers editors deemed the Historical Magazine transcription to be reliable, but they didn’t reprint the entire text.

The Franklin Papers’ truncated quotation of the second paragraph has proved misleading. The original sentences make clear that Franklin’s glassblower “died suddenly” before he could complete the order. The editors’ summary is ambiguous about who died, the artisan or the friend who was supposed to receive the instrument (i.e., Hillegas). William Zeitler at the thorough website glassarmonica.com guessed that the intended recipient died instead of the glassblower.

Now it’s possible that I’ve missed some explanation or supplemental material in the Papers of Benjamin Franklin because I’m relying on the electronic versions rather than the printed volumes. But for the sake of glassy-chord scholars everywhere, I’m making noise about the Historical Magazine transcription.

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