In May of 1761, Benjamin Franklin was in Cambridge, England, and he heard a man play a performance on musical glasses. They were crystal wine glasses filled with different levels of water, and when the performer rubbed the edges of the glasses, they produced different notes.
Franklin was entranced by the sound, and he invented a mechanical version of the musical glasses that he called the glass armonica – that’s harmonica without the H. Franklin’s instrument consisted of a set of glass bowls mounted in a trough on a spindle. The player turned the spindle with a foot pedal, and rubbed the bowls with moistened fingers. The instrument became extremely popular for a while – Mozart even wrote a couple of pieces for it, and much later Saint-Saëns used it in his Carnival of the Animals. One famous player of the glass armonica was Franz Anton Mesmer, who used the instrument in group therapy sessions to help mesmerize his patients.
A Minute with Miles is a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.