In an earlier post, I announced the impending publication of my article “Northern European Contributions to the Development of the Autoharp” in The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 76 (2023). That issue has now been distributed to the organization’s members and its contents will become available in digital format via JStor at a later date. An abstract of the autoharp article is included with the initial announcement and information about obtaining an offprint has now been added to it here.
In the briefest review for readers of this blog who are familiar with previous accounts of the instrument’s history, it is true that Charles Zimmermann misrepresented the scope of his US patent for a “Harp” with a mechanical damping mechanism when he began producing autoharps in the now familiar wing shape. However, there is no evidence that erodes his claim of having invented chord bars or coining the term “autoharp” as a designation for a zither to which they are applied. He also made and exhibited such instruments in a trapezoidal form before contention about the wing-shaped design arose.
The starting point for the article is the wave of activity that began in German-speaking Europe in the 1870s with the intention of rendering the concert zither more amenable to use by players with little or no musical experience. It does not discuss earlier types of zithers or playing techniques that might have inspired those innovations. However, the principle of producing a chord on a zither by damping strings that do not belong to that chord with the fingers of one hand and strumming the open strings with the other, predates any effort toward mechanization by far.
Continue reading “The Baltic psaltery and the autoharp” →
My interests in the autoharp and Irish traditional music (ITM) should be apparent from the topics of the most recent dozen or so posts on this blog. I’ve approached them separately as a musicologist specializing in the history of musical instruments. This post marks a shift toward their intersection in performance from the perspective of a musician whose journey started on the autoharp seventy years ago and found his way more deeply into Celtic music a decade later via the Great Highland bagpipes. I’ve since become comfortably conversant with the Irish idiom on the tin whistle and would like to be able to say the same about melodic performance on the autoharp.
Irish dance tunes and airs figure prominently in its repertoire, not least in the US (where some of those tunes also have their roots), but the autoharp does not have an established position among the instruments normally associated with ITM in its home country. The list of those that are has, however, been less static than might be imagined. Some that are now fixtures on it became so relatively recently and others have relinquished their positions.
One particularly relevant example of the latter is the autoharp’s cousin, the hammered dulcimer. Its heyday extended through the 1960s and its most prominent exponent at that time, John Rea, was still recording in the late seventies. He appears in an interview from an unknown date and plays O’Dwyer’s Hornpipe here.
Continue reading “The Autoharp in Irish Traditional Music — Part 1” →
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” →
NOTE: The initial version of this post appeared before a publication date had been set. It has now been revised to reflect the actual release.
I am pleased to announce that my article “Northern European Contributions to the Development of the Autoharp” has been published in the The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 76 (2023). As noted in an earlier post, that is where my first research article appeared 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 are unfamiliar with that publication will find it worthwhile to visit the website of The Galpin Society.
Here is the abstract of the article:
Continue reading “New article on the history of the autoharp” →
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.
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 belong 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.
Continue reading “Passing the bar exam” →
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.
Continue reading “The value of $50” →
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.
Continue reading “Zither accordions” →
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.
Continue reading “Patent misrepresentation of patents” →
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.
with practical tuning device
The tuning device is a small fretboard placed under one string enabling the others to be tuned to it.
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.
Continue reading “Fretless zithers with frets” →
On 20 April 1893, Fredrick Menzenhauer, filed a US patent application for a “Guitar-Zither,” issued as USP No. 520651 on 29 May 1894. Its illustrations come very close to the current form of what is commonly termed a “chord zither.” The only differences are the fretted tuning device in the middle of the soundboard underneath the first melody string, and the separation between the bass string and the other strings in each of the chords (which are also recessed into the lower bridge).
Chord zithers in the form shown two images below (minus the tuning scale) are still being manufactured and Menzenhauer is generally credited with their invention. However, his patent sought protection for “certain new and useful Improvements in Guitar-Zithers” and he refers to the instrument as “my improved guitar-zither.” This implies the prior existence of some other instrument that he referred to by the same name.
Continue reading “Guitar-zithers and barless autoharps” →