The Instrument Benjamin Franklin Invented, the Glass Armonica, Plays Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”

Must we ever see anoth­er port­ly, bespec­ta­cled re-enac­tor drag­ging a kite with key attached to rep­re­sent the inge­nu­ity of rak­ish found­ing father and avatar of cash wealth, Ben­jamin Franklin? Why, when he invent­ed so many won­drous things—including those bifo­cal specs—should we only memo­ri­al­ize him for this sil­ly (but very sci­en­tif­ic) stunt? Though it may be a true sto­ry, unlike Wash­ing­ton and his cher­ry tree, the famil­iar­i­ty of the image breeds a cer­tain indif­fer­ence to the man behind it. I’m not sug­gest­ing that we remem­ber him for, say, his inven­tion of the catheter, though that’s quite a use­ful thing. Or for his inven­tion, accord­ing to How Stuff Works, of “Amer­i­can Celebrity”—surely no friend to human­i­ty these two hun­dred-plus years hence.

But maybe swim fins, eh? That’s a pret­ty neat inven­tion. Imag­ine your fifth-grad­er in bald cap and ruf­fled shirt, plod­ding across the school stage in a pair of flip­pers. Or maybe the odome­ter? Or those reachy, grab­by things at the gro­cery store that pull items down from high shelves? Bor­ing. How about the Glass Armon­i­ca? The what? The glass armon­i­ca, I say, or—as Franklin orig­i­nal­ly called it—the “glassy­chord.” What is it? Well, Franklin, inspired by a con­cert by Roy­al Acad­e­my col­league Edmund Delaval on a set of water tuned wine­glass­es, decid­ed to improve upon the instru­ment. An ama­teur musi­cian him­self, writes William Zeitler as, Franklin left the con­cert “deter­mined to invent and build ‘a more con­ve­nient’ arrange­ment.”

Thus, after two years of exper­i­men­ta­tion, “Franklin debuted his glass armon­i­ca,” which How Stuff Works describes as “a col­lec­tion of dif­fer­ent-sized glass bowls arranged on a rotat­ing shaft. By spin­ning the shaft with a foot ped­al and run­ning wet­ted fin­gers over the rotat­ing bowls, Franklin found he could coax out chords and melodies that Delaval could only dream of.” You needn’t use your imag­i­na­tion. Just watch the video above to see a Franklin re-enac­tor play a beau­teous ren­di­tion of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sug­ar Plum Fairy” on a glass armon­i­ca. Love­ly, no? Sure­ly we wouldn’t expect chil­dren to pull this off in the school play, but they could mime along to a record­ing. (Don’t start yelling about revi­sion­ist his­to­ry just yet. We can still tell the kite and key sto­ry, too. Just watch these adorable chil­dren tell it in this video.)

Franklin pre­miered the inven­tion in 1762, though he didn’t play it him­self but enlist­ed Lon­don musi­cian Mar­i­anne Davis. It was an instant hit, “par­tic­u­lar­ly in Ger­many,” Zeitler writes, where “Mozart was intro­duced to it by Dr. Franz Mes­mer, who used it to ‘mes­mer­ize’ his patients, and lat­er Mozart wrote two works for it (a solo armon­i­ca piece, and a larg­er quin­tet for armon­i­ca, flute, oboe, vio­la and cel­lo).” Above, hear Mozart’s Ron­do for Glass Armon­i­ca and Quar­tet, per­formed by Thomas Bloch. Impressed? It gets bet­ter: “Beethoven also wrote a lit­tle piece for armon­i­ca and nar­ra­tor (!), and many of their col­leagues of the day com­posed for it as well—some 200 pieces for armon­i­ca… sur­vive from that era.”

What hap­pened? Tastes changed, put sim­ply, and the glass armon­i­ca fell out of fash­ion. That, and the lack of ampli­fi­ca­tion meant it was drowned out in increas­ing­ly larg­er ensem­bles. I pro­pose we bring it back, maybe in a hip Ben Franklin Broad­way musi­cal. Who’s with me?

Learn much more about this fas­ci­nat­ing instru­ment, and see sev­er­al more video demon­stra­tions, at

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ben Franklin’s List of 200 Syn­onyms for “Drunk”: “Moon-Ey’d,” “Ham­mer­ish,” “Stew’d” & More (1737)

Declas­si­fied CIA Doc­u­ment Reveals That Ben Franklin (and His Big Ego) Put U.S. Nation­al Secu­ri­ty at Risk

Sovi­et Inven­tor Léon Theremin Shows Off the Theremin, the Ear­ly Elec­tron­ic Instru­ment That Could Be Played With­out Being Touched (1954)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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