Musical Instruments

De Good Autoharp

I’ve taken the summer off from blogging, tending instead to academic commitments and catching up on overdue reading and research. One of the areas I’ve been drawn into is the use of numeric, mnemonic, and letter-based alternatives to staff notation in the teaching of music. This has been a contentious topic in writing on the theory of Western music ever since the emergence of staff notation many centuries ago. The initial primary concern was how best to help unskilled singers gauge the size of intervals in vocal performance. In the late-18th century interest was additionally turned toward the desirability of music being printable using systems that “bring all its characters within the compass of a common fount of printing-types.”

The design of musical instruments expressly intended to bolster the pedagogical process became a focus of innovative activity that can be traced back at least to 1830. This was targeted both to use in schools and supporting members of church congregations in psalmody. Charles Zimmermann developed his autoharp with tutorial intent, incorporating a system for numbering the strings and the corresponding steps of a scale that could be indicated in simplified printed music. He also devised lesser known schemes for the similar notation of music for the button accordion and labeling the piano keyboard.

Zimmermann presented his contributions to the long-standing broader process as singularly inspired and profoundly significant, leaving obviously coopted prior art without mention. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that the variant autoharps that began to appear in the US subsequent to the release of his, were directly inspired by it. One such patent makes direct reference to the established pedagogical aim, noting that “this instrument is designed more particularly for use in church or Sabbath-school music.”

On 10 February 1891, US Patent No. 445978 was issued to Joseph L. De Good, a music teacher residing in Detroit, Michigan who assigned half of it to Lucius A. Randall, a travel agent in the same city who presumably funded the project. The application  was filed on 20 September 1890, for a “Musical Instrument” and specified a device that could be affixed to “a stringed instrument — such as a harp, zither, dulcimer, or the like.”

It claimed two primary inventions. One was an arrangement of twenty-one damper bars in three-bar groups of major, relative minor, and dominant seventh chords rooted in each of the seven steps of a diatonic scale, with the buttons for each chord type placed in the same one of three rows. The other was “means whereby [a bar] may be shifted longitudinally to produce a chord a half-step different from the chord produced when in its initial position.” Here is the patent drawing of the face of the instrument.

And here is the side view.

The immediately striking aspect of this tuning and bar arrangement is that it instantiates a 21-bar, 3-row, chromatic autoharp early in the instrument’s history, counter to the widely held belief that this disposition was a mid-20th-century development. Bars that can be shifted along their length between two positions a semitone apart appear in a German autoharp patent from 1886. De Good may therefore have been knowingly artful in the wording of his patent claim that,

I am the first, so far as I am aware, to provide a damper with such a shifting movement. I would have it understood that they may be shifted either individually or as a group.

Each group consists of three bars mounted together, producing the I, vi, and V7 chords for each labeled key. The first of the preceding drawings shows the group for C major shifted into the C# major position. A third drawing (of three) shows how a group is mounted. It is difficult to see how the individual bars can be shifted independently within it, nor is the side view drawn with room for any shifting at all.

The illustrated damper pads are not configured for actual chords either. Such imprecision is sometimes posited to be intended deliberately to thwart the reproduction of a design using its patent as the sole documentation. However, one of the requirements for the issuance of a patent was (and remains) that a skilled worker can reproduce the object on the basis of the information submitted in the application. De Good also attests at the outset of his application that it meets this requirement. Whatever the explanation for the discrepancies between its narrative and drawn components may have been, he did present a design that supports the major, relative minor, and dominant seventh chords in all keys.

The angular action of the bars, rather than employing the one that holds them parallel to the strings seen in most other patents, may suggest a conscious effort to differ from them. The asymmetrical mounting is otherwise more complex, and the use of flat rather than spiral springs suggests a recognition of problems with the latter. The device labeled,

E is a damper designed to muffle all the strings simultaneously, and a key or lever E’ may be located within convenient access of the player, whereby he may bring the same into action whenever for any reason he wishes to muffle all the strings.

However the overall viability of this mechanical implementation might be assessed, it clearly did not withstand the test of time. The fact that neither the patent holder nor the assignee is known for having made musical instruments may also indicate that it was never taken into production. (Any reader knowing otherwise is encouraged to leave a comment.) It is also possible that De Good did not perceive need for what would now be regarded as an adequately nimble bar action. He did make explicit allowance for the instrument being used melodically but activating the bars was not part of it.

If the player sees fit to pick the strings, there is nothing to prevent his operating the instrument in that way; but if he lack the skill necessary to so play upon the instrument he can, by depressing the proper dampers, muffle all the strings not required for the accompanying chords and can, by sweeping the strings, as in playing the guitar or zither, bring out just the chords required without introducing the tones from any strings out of harmony therewith.

There is a perhaps less obvious difference between De Good’s design and most others. Zimmermann’s initial patent drawing shows the instrument with the bass strings uppermost and the buttons aligned along the same side. However, a photograph of him playing the instrument has the long side toward his body. De Good’s drawing also has the bass strings toward the top, along with the buttons. However, the labeling of the chords is oriented to be readable when the short side is held closest to the player’s body. This is also the way a concert zither is positioned. The angle of the chord bars and the position of the full damper E indicate that it was De Good’s intention that his instrument be placed (flat on a tabletop) in the same way.

This has the forward-looking consequence of the strings being plucked between the bar housing and the tuning pins. It is in contrast to other autoharps from the early 1890s, including Zimmermann’s production styles, where the strings are plucked on the short segment between the bars and the hitch pins. Kilby Snow is the best-known performer to place the treble side of the autoharp toward the body. However, he was left handed and played on the short segments of the strings. Here is a video demonstration of the style he pioneered, by a right-handed player, instantiating the orientation that De Good apparently intended.

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