The history of the autoharp and other chord zithers is replete with innovations that were patented in one country and appeared shortly afterward in a patent issued in another country. When the dates are close enough, it can be difficult to determine who should be credited with the actual invention. Similarities do sometimes appear to be coincidental but plagiarism was common enough. One way of disguising it was to “extend” an earlier patent for a similar device to include the co-opted later innovation. Since the date of such revision was also recorded, this only partially obscured the actual priority.
Another technique was to label an instrument with the number or date of a patent that didn’t actually cover the design detail it was alleged to protect. One example of this that readers of the autoharp facet of this blog will already be familiar with, is Charles Zimmermann unilaterally repurposing the date of a US patent issued to him on 9 May 1882 for what in retrospect might be termed a proto-autoharp.
He placed that date on an instrument with a design and bar mechanism illustrated in a British patent that had subsequently been obtained by Johann Grob and Karl August Gütter. That is where the current basic form of the instrument is first attested. The design appeared in a revised specification for a patent issued to them in 1884. The revision is dated 1885, which was also when Zimmermann is generally believed to have begun the commercial production of autoharps.
It is now widely held that Grob and Gütter had precedent but it is still a close call. They filed the “Complete Specification” for their British patent on 11 March 1885, plausibly in response to having become aware of Zimmermann’s revised design. The balance tips in favor of Grob and Gütter nonetheless because of Zimmermann’s overt misrepresentation of the scope of his own patent.
He may have justified this as a necessary rapid response to a perceived infringement but never formally registered the innovation in the US. The matter is moot from the legal perspective in any case. A patent only confers protection in the country where it is issued and there was no infraction on either side.
Theodor Meinhold obtained two German Imperial Patents (Deutsche Reichspatente; “DRP” ) in 1891. The first was issued on 30 April 1891 as DRP No. 60200, for a “Zither with overlaid music sheet” (Zither mit aufgelegtem Notenblatt). It adapts a punch-card system to the instrument, harnessing a device that was fundamental to the burgeoning variety of mechanical musical instruments that were truly playable by anyone without the slightest musical ability.
The Individual openings in the card correspond to the notes in the melody. They are played “mechanically” with a plectrum inserted into each slot in the order indicated by the serpentine arrow beginning in the lower left corner of the illustration. The cluster of slots in the lower right hand corner are for the accompaniment chords. However, they do not delineate actual chords nor do the musical annotations on the card reflect anything of utility.
The second patent, DRP No. 63702, was issued as a supplement to the first on 13 October 1891, for a “Zither with music sheets placed under the strings” (Zither mit unter den Saiten angeordnetem Notenblatte). The following drawing is of the instrument without a chart to show the ribs that hold it. The device to their left labeled “Bass” replaces the portion of the overlay chart used for the accompaniment chords, with a shaped metal plate that remains mounted above the strings.
Meinhold illustrated this device in an earlier German patent headed “Zither,” issued as DRP No. 42967, on 1 May 1887, but made no mention of it whatsoever in the patent text.
Each depressed channel in the plate has openings above the strings needed in whatever context Meinhold designated as “bass.” The device does not permit them to be played in a rapid smooth sequence and it may therefore be unlikely that he had the production of full chords in mind. Of the three numbered channels in the illustration of DRP63702, only no. 2 allows for a complete triad. Those numbers are shown on the underlay chart, where the melody strings are indicated by solid dots on an undulating path just as the slots are on the overlay chart.
In the interval between the issuance of his patents for the overlay and underlay charts, it seems likely that Meinhold had become aware of a US patent for a “Music-Chart” applied for on 27 August 1890 by James Dodd, and issued as USP No. 45995 on 26 May 1891.
In using the chart with the zither or similar instrument the chart is placed under the strings or between the strings and the sounding-board in such a way that the vertical lines of the chart are exactly under the strings of the instrument.
In this form of chart I may dispense with the vertical lines x and may write the notes on a plain unruled surface, the distances between the notes corresponding to the distances between the strings.
The transatlantic borrowing changed direction with a US patent application titled “Harp” filed on 17 January 1891 by William Batchelder, and issued as USP No. 456977 on 4 August 1891.
My invention relates especially to an attachment for small harps, zithers and similar instruments, whereby a set of strings forming chords may be struck without setting the adjacent or unharmonious strings into vibration; and it consists in certain novel features, hereinafter fully set forth and claimed, the object being to produce a simpler, cheaper, and more effective device of this character than is now in ordinary use.
Neither of the US patents makes explicit reference to the autoharp. However, the “device … now in ordinary use” in Batchelder’s text can hardly have been anything other than the bars on an autoharp. This is also certain to have been among the zither-like instruments Dodd was targeting. The date on Dodd’s patent makes it exceedingly unlikely that it was inspired by Meinhold. Conversely, the date on Batchelder’s all but certainly indicates the co-opting of Meinhold’s device.
The transatlantic patent shenanigans don’t end here and it might make more sense to write them up as intrigue-filled short stories rather than as dry essays. As discussed in detail in the second of the posts linked to below, Meinhold licensed his patents for the overlay and underlay charts to the firm of Menzenhauer & Schmidt, which operated in Germany and the US, and therefore needed to heed the patent laws of both.
Oscar Schmidt aggressively and successfully defended the national rights to the underlay charts conferred by the German patents. Despite their questionable applicability elsewhere, the use of those patent numbers on the charts marketed with Menzenhauer’s guitar zither in the US does not appear to have been challenged. The likelihood of such action was also reduced by Meinhold obtaining a cagily framed US patent for the underlay charts, discussed below.
The chord plate as patented by Batchelder was put into commercial production by the Phonoharp Company, founded in the US in April 1892. It is seen on the first model of the eponymous instrument, stamped with the 4 August 1891 patent date. The chords are determined by what that patent terms “guards or shields.” A later advertisement refers to each vertical aggregate as a “bar” and the entire device as a “three bar shield.” (There was also a “larger and better” model with 25 strings and six bars.)
On 23 February 1893, Meinhold applied for a US patent for a “Zither Attachment,” claiming to “have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Zithers with Interchangeable Music-Sheets.” It was issued as USP No. 498561 on 30 May 1893 and includes an illustration virtually identical to the one in his German patent except for the omission of the shield plate. This may indicate that he was deliberately avoiding a possible dispute of that aspect of his German patent in US jurisdiction.
Dodd’s patent does not describe a mechanical device for securing underlay charts to a zither or aligning them with its strings. Meinhold could therefore be less circumspect in regard to it. He includes underlay charts in his own US patent but places emphasis on:
… devices for attaching to zithers the music sheet of the tunes to be played … placing the music sheet under the strings and between the grooved guide-bars and in a device for locking the music sheet in proper position relative to the strings …
A later US patent explicitly cites both the Dodd and Meinhold patents as prior art when claiming an innovative adaptation of underlay charts to a type of chord zither without separate melody strings that had its own multi-stage genesis. I’ll discuss key aspects of it separately before returning to the patent, which ended up being defended in a US court.
The two earlier posts mentioned above are here and here. Note also that the preceding text has been modified since its initial posting. The earlier version overlooked DRP42967 and therefore credited Batchelder with priority for the shield plate.
And thanks to my friend Lucille Reilly for providing me with a full copy of the 1884-85 British patent!