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

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

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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Musical Instruments

Guitar-zithers and barless autoharps

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).

Guitar-Zither patent drawing.

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.

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