Everybody knows Benjamin Franklin was a total G. Dude was a classic polymath, mastering tons of shit from languages and writing to diplomacy, chess, music, and even oceanography. Aside from being a founding father and a notable philanderer, Franklin was also quite the inventor. This old-school bro had his fingers in many pies, his fingers on many thighs, and also had his finger on rotating glass bowls of diminishing sizes.
Hold up... glass bowls? That's right. One of Franklin's lesser known but still totally radical inventions was the Glass Armonica, an instrument played by running one's wet finger tips around the lips of various glass bowls.
You know that trick you do at boring restaurants where you dip your finger in your water and run it around the rim of the glass producing a cloying, piercing note? Well that's a pretty old trick and some old guys in France figured out that if you delicately measure out your cups and water then you can play notes on key. The arrangement of a few of these glasses with different levels of liquid and/or cup sizes can create an a complete octave on which you can preform full songs. This collection of glasses is called the glass harp and when Franklin encountered it in Paris he was like “Neat, but I can do better.” What did Franklin do? He invented the hydrocrystalophone, also known as the glass armonica.
Named for the Italian word for harmony, the glass armonica applies the basic theory of the glass harp but allows the player to use up to ten fingers at a time, allowing for far more complex performances. Franklin collaborate with London glassblower Charles James to produce 37 bowls mounted horizontally through their centers on an iron spindle. The spindle is then mounted on a waist high contraption that spins the bowls by means of foot peddles like an old sewing machine. The player then dips his fingers in a small bowl of water and sets their fingers on the edges of the bowls, which already spinning, produce a strange, etherial tone.
The quiet, eerie instrument was highly celebrated and played in the parlors of Paris and the courts of London, but with the rise of the bourgeoisie fell into obscurity as concerts became larger spectacles and the subtle instrument failed to project throughout bigger theaters. It was too quiet, also, people thought it drove you insane. German musicologist Friedrich Rochlitz wrote:
“The harmonica excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood that is apt method for slow self-annihilation.”
This is probably an overstatement, but listening to the armonica does drive the brain a little crazy. This has to do with the ways humans perceive sound. When people hear a noise they automatically try to determine its location. When a sound is very deep, like a rumbling motorcycle or a deep note we rely on 'phase differences' between our left and right ears to determine the sound's origin, basically sensing which ear hears it first. When a sound is very loud we measure in a similar way relying on volume as a spacial indicator. The thing about the armonica is that it's too loud for the first method, and too quiet for the second method; hitting this sweet spot in human perception that lends the instrument its etherial quality. We can see the armonica being played and understand that it's producing sound, but our ears are saying to our brains "we have no freaking clue where this sound is coming from" and then the brain doesn't know what to believe and starts to implode a little. If you've ever played with your wine glass long enough you know what I'm talking about, you can go into this anxious little trance and reality starts to slip.
Personally I think trying to understand all that bio-acoustic wave theory is a quicker way to self-annihilation than listening to this oddly beautiful ghost music. Here's an actual, real, one hundred percent authentic video of Ben Franklin himself playing “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” (which was only written about a hundred years after his death) on a true-to-form glass armonica. VICE Media and Noisey are in no way responsible if this song drives you mad, fair warning.
Into wacky instruments? Try learning to play:
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