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The Armonica: Ben Franklin’s Music Invention That Became “The World’s Deadliest Instrument”

We all know the legendary Ben Franklin as not only one of the founding fathers of the United States, but a scientist, politician, writer and philosopher. Many know him as the inventor of the lightning rod, bifocals, swim fins and the Franklin Stove, but few know that he also invented a fascinating musical instrument called Glass Armonica.

Glass armonica
“The World’s Deadliest Instrument”

The story goes that Franklin attended a concert in Cambridge where the performer rubbed the rims of wine glasses to produce musical notes. Although he liked the sound, he thought that the method of attaining it was inefficient because you had to move you arms so much to reach all the individual glasses.

His solution was to take the glasses and have them move so you could stay still. He commissioned a London glass blower to create a series of 36 glass bowls to specific thickness and sizes tuned to the various notes he needed. The bowls were connected to a rod that was rotated by the foot motion of the performer, who would wet their fingers and play the moving color-coded glasses like a keyboard.

The result was the glass armonica.

It’s A Hit

When it was introduced, the instrument caused a sensation in the Colonies and Europe, so much so that even Mozart and Beethoven composed chamber pieces for it.

As you’ll hear from the video below, the instrument provides a pleasant soothing sound, but soon strange things began happening to both performers and audience members. The complex sounds of the armonica were said to overstimulate the brain, causing dizziness, nervousness, hallucinations, and cramps, which soon led it to be known as “the world’s deadliest instrument.” Some believed that its music summoned spirits of the dead and caused listeners to commit suicide.

While we can attribute all of that to hysteria, one thing that could have led performers to become ill was contact with the lead paint on the glass bowls, although even this seems to be far-fetched.

Franklin chose to ignore the accusations and continued to play the instrument in concerts until his death at the age of 84, so it obviously had no ill effects on him. He refused to collect money from armonica sales and chose not to patent his idea.

At one time there are as many as 5,000 glass armonicas made but few are around today, and unfortunately there are even fewer players. It is an unusual instrument with an unusual sound however, and there’s always room in any musical world for that.

Take a listen to what it sounds like.


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