Ben Miller

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Benjamin Franklin’s Madness-Inducing Machine

In Bizarre and Unusual, Colonial (American) Period, The Arts on February 10, 2010 at 2:08 am

In 1761, Benjamin Franklin unveiled a new musical instrument the like of which few Americans had ever seen. The genesis of Franklin’s invention took place several years earlier, during one of his visits to England. After seeing a performer play water-filled wine glasses with moistened fingers, Franklin rethought the instrument and invented a new version, consisting of 37 bowls mounted on an iron axis. Franklin’s design notably improved upon previous versions in the sense that it was possible to play ten glasses, and hence ten notes, simultaneously. This machine Franklin dubbed the “armonica,” or glass harmonica.

Armonica

Franklin’s instrument was popular in its day, and was played by celebrities such as Marie Antionette and Franz Mesmer, the founder of mesmerism. At this time, legends began to arise pertaining to its power to affect the mental state of those who heard its dulcet, ethereal tones. An early medical book stated that listening to the sounds produced by the glasses was “sure to cure certain maladies of the blood”. In the spring of 1772, Franklin visited Prince Adam Czartoryski, heir to the throne of Poland, whose wife had been afflicted by ‘melancholia.’ Her account relates:

“I was ill, in a state of melancholia, and writing my testament and farewell letters. Wishing to distract me, my husband explained to me who Franklin was and to what he owed his fame… Franklin had a noble face with an expression of engaging kindness. Surprised by my immobility, he took my hands and gazed at me saying: pauvre jeune femme ["poor young lady"]. He then opened an armonica, sat down and played long. The music made a strong impression on me and tears began flowing from my eyes. Then Franklin sat by my side and looking with compassion said, “Madam, you are cured.” Indeed in that moment I was cured of my melancholia. Franklin offered to teach me how to play the armonica — I accepted without hesitation, hence he gave me twelve lessons.”

Several years later, the Prince’s unfortunate wife relapsed. Legends of the instrument’s healing powers continued, however. Between 1778 and 1779, an army surgeon paid a visit to Mesmer’s clinic for treatment of the gout. A witness described what happened next:

“After several turns around the room, Mr. Mesmer unbuttoned the patient’s shirt and, moving back somewhat, placed his finger against the part affected. My friend felt a tickling pain. Mr. Mesmer then moved his finger perpendicularly across his abdomen and chest, and the pain followed the finger exactly. He then asked the patient to extend his index finger and pointed his own finger toward it at a distance of three or four steps, whereupon my friend felt an electric tingling at the tip of his finger, which penetrated the whole finger toward the palm. Mr. Mesmer then seated him near the armonica; he had hardly begun to play when my friend was affected emotionally, trembled, lost his breath, changed color, and felt pulled toward the floor. In this state of anxiety, Mr. Mesmer placed him on a couch so that he was in less danger of falling, and he brought in a maid who he said was antimagnetic. When her hand approached my friend’s chest, everything stopped with lightning speed, and my colleague touched and examined his stomach with astonishment…. The sharp pain had suddenly ceased. Mr. Mesmer told us that a dog or a cat would have stopped the pain as well as the maid did.”

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Such popularity was not to last. The armonica eventually sank into obscurity after rumors arose that the music produced by the machine induced madness in those who heard it. In 1798 Friedrich Rochlitz wrote,

“There may be various reasons for the scarcity of armonica players, principally the almost universally shared opinion that playing it is damaging to the health, that it excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood, that it is an apt method for slow self-annihilation… Many (physicians with whom I have discussed this matter) say the sharp penetrating tone runs like a spark through the entire nervous system, forcibly shaking it up and causing nervous disorders.”

He goes on to give some warnings:

“If you are suffering from any nervous disorder you should not play it,
If you are not yet ill you should not play it excessively
If you are feeling melancholy you should not play it or else play uplifting pieces
If tired, avoid playing it late at night.”

Armonica 2

J.C. Muller warned in his instructional manual of 1788:

“If you have been upset by harmful novels, false friends, or perhaps a deceiving girl then abstain from playing the armonica — it will only upset you even more. There are people of this kind — of both sexes — who must be advised not to study the instrument, in order that their state of mind should not be aggravated.”

J.M. Roger’s Treatise on the Effects of Music on the Human Body (Paris, 1803) describes the melancholic timbre of the instrument as “plunging us into a profound detachment, relaxing all the nerves of the body”, while the author Chateaubriand writes of the musical glass that “the ear of a mortal can perceive in its plaintive tones the echoes of a divine harmony.”

When rumor began to spread that such maladies could be attributed to the instrument, panic erupted. The instrument was blamed for domestic disputes, premature births, even convulsions in dogs and cats. The instrument soon fell out of favor and was forgotten by all but a sundry few.

Listening to the modern French artist Thomas Bloch play Franklin’s instrument, it is not difficult to understand why early Americans might think that such music could cause insanity:

For more information, check out the primary source for this blog post, William Zeitler’s amazing site:

http://www.glassarmonica.com/

And if you enjoyed this post, and all things historically fascinating, you may also enjoy

The Victorian Gentleman’s Self-Defense Toolkit.

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