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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Friday, January 14, 2022

How Franklin Rebranded His Musical Invention

Rob Scallon’s long and lively video about his visit to musician Dennis James prompted me to look up more information about the glass instrument they played.

The first evidence of this new invention appeared in the Bristol Journal newspaper on 12 Jan 1762, as reprinted elsewhere:
The celebrated glassy-chord, invented by Mr. [Benjamin] Franklin of Philadelphia: who has greatly improved the musical glasses, and formed them into a compleat instrument to accompany the voice; capable of a thorough bass, and never out of tune.

Miss Davies from London, was to perform in the month of January, several favourite airs, English, Scotch and Italian, on the Glassychord (being the only one of the Kind that has yet been produced) accompanied occasionally with the voice and the German Flute.
The performer was Marianne Davies (1744–1816?). Her parents were musicians, and she had been on the stage since the age of seven, singing and playing the harpsichord and flute. In July 1762, Davies and her father entertained an audience that included envoys from the Cherokee nation.

Around the same time, on 13 July 1762, Franklin wrote a long letter to Father Giambatista Beccaria, a professor of physics in Turin, introducing his invention. But he didn’t use the term “glassy-chord”:
Perhaps, however, it may be agreeable to you, as you live in a musical country, to have an account of the new instrument lately added here to the great number that charming science was before possessed of: As it is an instrument that seems peculiarly adapted to Italian music, especially that of the soft and plaintive kind, I will endeavour to give you such a description of it, and of the manner of constructing it, that you, or any one of your friends may be enabled to imitate it, if you incline so to do, without being at the expence and trouble of the many experiments I have made in endeavouring to bring it to its present perfection. . . .

The advantages of this instrument are, 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.

In honour of your musical language, I have borrowed from it the name of this instrument, calling it the Armonica.
We thus call Franklin’s instrument an armonica rather than a “glassy-chord.” (But from now on I’m always going to think of the original name.)

TOMORROW: A missing source?

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