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

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.

Continue reading “Passing the bar exam”
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.

Continue reading “Zither accordions”
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.

Continue reading “Patent misrepresentation of patents”