Benjamin Franklin Invented the World’s Most Dangerous Instrument: The Glass Armonica

Many of us discovered very early in life that it was possible to make a musical sound by rubbing a wet finger over the rim of a glass. Perhaps we even were part of a school event where we played a song using multiple people and multiple glasses.

This isn’t something new. In fact, Ben Franklin saw a musical performance in Cambridge that used that very principle.

The performer was rubbing his finger over the rim of wine glasses. The glasses were either of different sizes or they were filled with fluid to different levels so the tones were different.

Photo: / Adrian Pingstone

Undoubtedly, it was an interesting and beautiful concert, but Benjamin Franklin wasn’t happy with the end result. He thought that he could do better, and that is when the concept of a unique musical instrument was born.

That instrument, known as the glass armonica, may not be well known, but it certainly does have an interesting history. In fact, you can trace its roots all the way back to 1761, when Benjamin Franklin invented it.

Photo: YouTube / Toronto Star

The glass armonica, which is sometimes just called an armonica, or even a glass harmonica, can produce some beautiful sounds. It turns out that Ben Franklin was successful in creating a musical instrument, but it eventually was not well received.

During Ben Franklin’s lifetime and even into the early 19th century, the instrument was popular. Even Beethoven and Mozart created chamber pieces using the glass armonica.

During the 1820s, the instrument was put on the shelf and people basically forgot about it. It still isn’t popular today, but the reason why it lost popularity is an interesting story.

Some people who played the armonica had to stop playing because they got sick. They were complaining about getting dizzy and experiencing nervousness and muscle spasms. Some people who listened to the instrument also experienced similar symptoms.

As a result of the symptoms, some towns even banned the use of the instrument.

According to the Franklin Institute, some people felt that it was the high-pitched tones that ‘invoked the spirit of the dead’ or that it had magical powers to drive listeners mad.

They also thought “that lead from the crystal bowls or paint was absorbed into the musicians’ fingers when they touched the glass, causing sickness.”

In the end, there was no proof or explanation as to why these claims continued. Even Ben Franklin himself played the instrument for the rest of his life and never spoke about having any symptoms.

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