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. Continue reading “De Good Autoharp”

Musical Instruments

New article on the history of the autoharp

I am pleased to announce that my article “Northern European Contributions to the Development of the Autoharp” will appear in the next issue of The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 76 (2023). As noted in an earlier post, that is where my first research article was published fully fifty years ago and I contributed to the journal regularly for a long while thereafter. Readers of this blog who are interested in the history of musical instruments but unfamiliar with that publication will find it worthwhile to visit the website of The Galpin Society.

Here is the abstract of the forthcoming article.

Several means for simplifying the playing technique of the concert zither were devised during the latter decades of the nineteenth century, some significantly changing its physical design. The autoharp has its roots in that process and was greeted by the zither establishment with particular scepticism. It was a popular success notwithstanding and numerous patented variations on its definitive system of damping bars appeared in rapid succession. There are blurred lines between original invention and plagiarism, and assigning priority for the seminal innovation is itself problematic. The contending instrument makers were Charles Friedrich Zimmermann and Karl August Gütter. Both were born and trained in Germany but Zimmermann subsequently relocated to the US and became a naturalized citizen. They appear to have tracked each other’s work closely. This article reviews the basis for the uncertainty and attempts to clarify it. The persisting popularity of the autoharp in the US has diverted attention from European involvement in its development. Although Gütter’s initial role has been recognized, his engagement in the instrument’s subsequent development is less well known, as is that of other autoharp makers known only for their production. Swedish contributions are discussed as a case study in the broader northern European participation.

Readers of this notification who wish to receive a preliminary copy of the full text may request one via the following form. Continue reading “New article on the history of the autoharp”

Musical Instruments

Penny whistle, tin whistle

The earliest use of the term “penny whistle” attested in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1730, in the play Bays’s Opera by Gabriel Odingsells.

Musicians with Halters about their Necks — Their Instruments strung behind, penny Whistles, Trumpets, and so forth, in their Hands.

This doesn’t tell us what a penny whistle was but clearly refers to a musical instrument of that name. It is similarly uncertain what the name designates in the review of a performance at the Covent Garden Theatre, in the 22 September 1809 issue of the London newspaper The Morning Chronicle. An announced increase in ticket prices triggered an organized wave of disruption throughout the event.

A pause of some minutes ensued, and then the cat calls, bugle horns, and posthorns began discord afresh. … This was succeeded by the usual concord of sweet sounds proceeding from penny whistles, squeaking trumpets, watchmen’s rattles, horns, catcalls, &c. &c.

A letter to the editor in the 9 September 1810 issue of The Examiner complains about the noise caused by street criers.

… persuade them, if instrument they must have, to change the hoarse window-shaking and nerve worrying mail-horn, for the light and softer cadence of a penny whistle.

The 15 June 1818 issue of The Huntingdon, Bedford, Cambridge and Peterborough Gazette and Midland County General Advertiser, notes the following about the visit of a contentious politician.

… he entered the town amid the braying of trumpets, the beating of drums, and the shrill piping of fifes and penny whistles …

Compilations of Irish and Scottish traditional music began to name the flageolet shortly after the initial printed evidence of its English form (discussed in the preceding post along with its proximity to the fife). The first such collection I know of was published ca. 1804.

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Musical Instruments

Fifes and flageolets

The preceding post discusses a tune found in the third volume of “Aird’s Selection of Scotch, English, Irish, and foreign airs; Adapted for the Fife, Violin, or German Flute.” This is a six-volume series produced during the final two decades of the 18th century. The title page of the first volume illustrates a fife in a military context and the following volumes are dedicated to the British and Irish armed forces.

The collection does not include a noteworthy amount of military music and there is no obvious musical intention behind the dedication. This raises a question about whether the fife was highlighted at the start of the list of instruments simply as part of the homage, or if it had a more prominent role in civilian contexts than is generally recognized. A hand drawing on the back of the illustrated page sheds light on this and will be examined more closely below.

A fife is seen in a similar setting in this post’s banner image, taken from a French textbook on dance by Thoinot Arbeau, Orchesographie, published in 1596. His list of instruments used for military march and dance includes a “fifre” and an “arigot,” seen at the right and left sides of the illustration, respectively. In a subsequent discussion of recreational dance, he defines the fifre — fife — as “a small transverse flute with six holes, which the Germans and Swiss use, and since it has a very narrow bore the size of a pistol ball, it produces a sharp sound.”

Arbeau’s arigot is an end-blown duct flute — flageolet (“flajol”) — that “due to its small size has more or fewer holes; the best made have four holes in front and two behind.” This arrangement permits a closer placement of the fingers than does the one with all six holes on the same side. Arbeau otherwise regards the fife and flageolet as equivalent and notes that musicians accompanying recreational dance who find the sound of the fife too strident use the flageolet instead. (It may be more than a passing coincidence that the terms arigot and flageolet are echoed by the designations for the similarly diminutive haricot and flageolet beans.)

Marin Mersenne describes both the fifre and the flajolet in his monumental Harmonie Universelle, from 1636. He also clarifies the association of cylindrical transverse flutes with Germany. His discussion of the Fleute d’Allemande explicitly states that it had a cylindrical bore. The segment pierced by the toneholes was redesigned with a conical bore by French makers between 1660 and 1680, without giving the instrument a new name. The latter design is the one labeled a German Flute in Aird’s collection and numerous others like it.

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Looped Fabric · Musical Instruments

The Cardin’ o’t

The following song appears in the The Works of Roberts Burns, by Allan Cunningham, published in 1834, vol. 2, p. 430.

        THE CARDIN’ O’T.
 Tune—“Salt-fish and dumplings.”
                       I
I coft a stane o’ haslock woo’,
   To mak a wat to Johnny o’t;
For Johnny is my only jo,
   I lo'e him best of ony yet.
      The cardin’ o’t, the spinnin’ o’t,
         The warpin’ o’t, the winnin’ o’t;
      When ilka ell cost me a groat,
         The tailor staw the lynin o’t.
                       II
For though his locks be lyart grey,
   And tho’ his brow be beld aboon;
Yet I ha’e seen him on a day,
   The pride of a’ the parishen.
      The cardin’ o’t, the spinnin’ o’t,
         The warpin’ o’t, the winnin’ o’t;
      When ilka ell cost me a groat,
         The tailor staw the lynin’ o’t.

The title expands prosaically to The Carding of it and ‘wat’ appears as ‘coat’ in other sources. The remaining Scots vocabulary is:

coft a stane = bought a stone (14 lbs.)
jo = darling
winnin’ = weaving (winding)
ilka ell = all else
groat = small coin
staw = stole (overcharged)
lyart grey = silvery
beld aboon = bald above


Beyond the significance of this edition to the study of Burns’s poetry, Cunningham follows the song with a commentary that is relevant to the histories of both textiles and music.

The little of this song to which antiquity lays claim is so trifling that the whole may be said to be the work of Burns. The tenderness of Johnnie’s wife can only be fully felt by those who know that hause-lock wool is the softest and the finest of the fleece, and is shorn from the throats of sheep in the summer heat, to give them air, and keep them cool.

Burns was born on 25 January 1759 and died on 21 July 1796. The song initially appeared in a manuscript from the latter year. Cunningham’s commentary proceeds with a description of the provisioning of Highland wool to the Lowlands at that time. If the present text were intended solely for inclusion in the facet of this blog relating to fabric production, I would cite it in full and then delve further into wool processing in Scotland when my perennial favorite, shepherd’s knitting (aka Scottish knitting), was in its heyday. However, one of the thoughts underlying this post is to see if a single essay can prove worthwhile both to readers with an interest in textile history and to those more focused on musical instruments.

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Musical Instruments

Passing the bar exam


This post takes another look at the often blurry lines separating what are regarded as categorically distinct types of chord zithers. The focus this time is on variant forms of the autoharp that branched off before it had fully acquired its current identity. The baseline is an unmechanized zither with free strings only, tuned to a continuous scale that can be anything from single-key diatonic to fully chromatic.

It becomes an autoharp by the attachment of a battery of movable bars with damping pads — but there’s more to it. Adding that the pads on a given bar have to be arranged to mute the strings that don’t belonging to a specified chord still doesn’t cover everything. The lock bars now commonplace on two- and three-key diatonic autoharps mute strings that don’t belong to a specified scale, rather than chord. Systems that produce chords by pressing two bars simultaneously entail further variation, so it is also necessary to distinguish between one type of bar and another.

There are also instruments where the damping action is reversed, muting all strings until a bar is activated. Such arrangements are also scale-oriented, with a bar opening every instance of a given note, and typically present the player with a piano-type keyboard rather than one or more rows of buttons. However, both operate damper bars and the requisite additional qualifier is whether they cause strings to be muted — ‘additive action’ — or unmuted — ‘subtractive action.’

Instruments with additional devices that strike or pluck the strings, sometimes in elaborate hybrid configurations, are aggregated under the apt heading ‘gizmo’ harps. In terms of family relationships, they are cousins of the autoharp and don’t need to be weighed into any precise definition of it. However, plucking mechanisms appear side-by-side with damping mechanisms in early patents for instruments that are presented as autoharps and would otherwise be seen as such. The following closer look at them is intended to inform the discussion of how current notions of design specificity developed.

I’ll wade into it midstream with an illustration taken from a patent for a “Harp” applied for by John St. John on 11 December 1890 and issued as US Patent No. 463368 on 17 November 1891.

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Musical Instruments

The value of $50

One of the most widely known details about the history of the autoharp is that its name first appeared in a US patent issued to Charles Zimmerman in 1882. Seeing one mentioned in an advertisement in the 21 September 1884 issue of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat is therefore unsurprising.

E. W. Muller instructs on piano, guitar, mendiline, zither, auto-harp, singing, etc.: a lodging-room in exchange for instructions.

This also provides a concrete date by which the autoharp had come into circulation, pushing the generally accepted estimate back from 1885. There is a useful clue about the model that Muller owned, in the section headed “Criminal Notes” in the 16 February 1885 edition of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Frank Muller was jailed to-day on a charge of stealing an autoharp valued at $50, from Ernest W. Muller.

Assuming that it was made by Zimmermann, $50 is roughly what one might expect him to have charged for a handmade instrument of the design illustrated in his patent. We know that such things existed through a photograph of him playing one, in an article by Ivan Stiles in the Spring 1991 issue of the Autoharp Quarterly, titled “The True History of the Autoharp.” (However, a close look at that photo shows a bar arrangement that may differ from the one in the patent drawing.) Here is the patent illustration, flipped vertically for comparison with the following images.

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Musical Instruments

Zither accordions

For decades, my day job gave regular need for bridging the gaps between the academically derived terminologies used for the labeling and classification of musical instruments in museum collections, the craft-oriented vocabularies of musical instrument makers, and the freer glossary used by musicians. I was deeply embroiled in what remains lively controversy about classification systems and am finding it increasingly difficult to steer clear of that topic on this blog.

At the moment, though, it seems to be something of a “Patent of the Month Club.” The nomenclature applied to the description of musical instruments in the reported documents varies widely and wildly, and is often severely at odds with that accepted in explicitly music-oriented contexts. Dealing with this is keeping the terminologist in me happily occupied. The present installment also provides a springboard into the discussion of tuning and tuning systems, which is another topic that I’ve been saying less about than I ultimately intend to.

Before getting to it, some of this blog’s followers may wish to note that I’ve recently edited last month’s post about overlapping patent claims fairly extensively in light of one that I had previously overlooked (for reasons not entirely unrelated to the introductory theme of the following discussion). The shield bars that define the Phonoharp were not an American invention datable to 1891. They appeared in an earlier German patent issued in 1887.

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Musical Instruments

Patent misrepresentation of patents

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.

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Musical Instruments

Fretless zithers with frets

The following image is the banner of a full-page advertisement placed in the 1 May 1891 issue of the German trade periodical Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau (Journal for Instrument Making) by the firm of zither makers Müller & Thierfeld.

Müller tuning device

Chord-Zither
with practical tuning device
Legally protected.

The tuning device is a small fretboard placed under one string enabling the others to be tuned to it.

Tuning bar

Müller & Thierfeld acquired legal protection for it via the Design Registry in Greiz, for a “Scale for tuning the chord zither” (Accordzither). It was registered on 14 May 1891 as a “Design for plastic products.” This protection was weaker than that of a patent and extended for three years. Other makers were producing comparable devices before it expired and it was irrelevant outside Germany in any case.

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