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

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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Musical Instruments

Eva Hammarlund’s Christmas Present 1893

The German musical instrument manufacturer, Theodor Meinhold (1846–1913), played a significant role in the popularization of the autoharp in Europe. One of his contributions was a form of sheet music that is positioned underneath the strings (adapting a scheme presented in an a US patent issued shortly before his own German patent). It graphically maps the movement of the right hand from string to string when playing a melody and numerically indicates the chord bars to be held down by the left hand for accompaniment.

Meinhold obtained German Imperial Patent No. 63702 for it in October 1891, illustrating the device schematically to permit its use with “zithers of the most differing constructions.” It includes a mechanism “for sounding accompaniment chords [through which] the playing of certain melodies is extraordinarily eased.” This accompaniment device is seen under the word “Bass” in the following illustration and was co-opted from another US patent that presented a simplified alternative to the chord bars on an autoharp. (I’ll discuss the two earlier documents in a separate post.)

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