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Here's a "census" of all the Franklin era armonicas I've been able to find.

Franklin Museum

Location: Philadelphia, PA

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Philadelphia, PA, USA

Benjamin Franklin's Own Armonica!

It's missing about half of its glasses, and nowhere near playable, but isn't it wonderful that it survived at all?

The usual home of Franklin's armonica is the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA, USA. But in 2006, the 300th anniversay of Franklin's birth, an exhibit of Franklin artifacts—including his armonica—is touring the United States and Paris. When the tour opened in St. Louis, I was invited to give armonica concerts as part of the opening festivities. While I was there, I was permitted by the curator (before the exhibition opened to the public) to examine Franklin's instrument as close as I wanted (sorry, no touching and no pictures).

Meanwhile, the only pictures of Franklin's instrument for the general public are the expected variations of the same-old perspective from the front, so this afforded me the opportunity to make some new observations about the Mother Armonica:

  • It's one thing to read about these things in history books; it's another thing to see Franklin's own armonica glasses, inscribed with 'G+' (for G#) by his own hand, up close and personal!!
  • There is no 'trough' for the water, or possibility thereof (as an occasional source has asserted).
  • The left-hand drawer works (comes out, somewhere to put stuff), the right-hand drawer is 'fake' (doesn't come out at all).
  • Currently the museum has put foam-rubber under the glasses (inside of the case—where the public can't see it) to help support the glasses (good idea!!).


Bach Museum

Location: Eisenach, Germany

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Photo by Stephen Hartshorne.

Bakken Collection

Location: Minneapolis, MN

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Corning Museum of Glass

Location: Corning, NY

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Glass Harmonica
Pohl, C. T.
Bohemia, Kreibitz (bowls)
United States, OH, Cincinnati (case)
glass harmonica made 1818-1830; wooden case possibly made 1930-1939
Non-lead glass, Paint, Gilding, Wood, Iron, Brass
Blown, ground, reverse-painted, gilded, mounted, assembled
Case W: 111.6 cm; Smallest Bowl Diam: 8.2 cm; Largest Bowl Diam: 24.6 cm 

Colorless non-lead glass; blown, ground, reverse-painted and -gilded; assembled.  Set of hemispherical bowls of descending size, with openings at their tops and with cork shims to permit their arrangement along a square iron shaft; the bells painted white or black on the interior, and with gilded bands at the rims; domed brass cap on the largest bell; a large circular iron wheel with five spokes on one end of the shaft, the other end with an iron disk attached near the rim to an iron strap, the strap attached at the other end to a foot treadle; the bells and rod mounted in a rectangular wooden case with angular back, curved sides, and tapered flat front, with pierced S-shaped holes in front; the edge of the wooden case near the bells inscribed in ink:  ""C / Cis / D. / Dis / E / F / Fis / G / Gis / A. / Ais / H / C. / Cis / D. / Dis / E / F / Fis / G / Gis / A / Hs / H / C / Cis / D. / Dis / E / F / Fis / G. / Gis / A / [H / His] / C / [Cis] / D / [Dis]""; flat board front and angled boards underneath; flat board ends with curved cutouts at the bottoms; two horizontal stretchers in back.

In 1762, Benjamin Franklin improved the process of making music by rubbing the moistened rims of glasses.  He attached perfectly tuned glass bowls on a horizontal spindle, which was set in motion by the foot.  This arrangement allowed a player to produce several tones at one time.  The instrument, known as the glass harmonica, attracted the interest of several composers, including Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Richard Strauss.  The tones, which resembled those produced by the violin and the flute, sounded almost celestial, and they were thought to make a considerable impact on those who heard them.  After hearing a performance on the harmonica by the famous, blind Marianna Kirchgessner in Stuttgart in 1808, the composer J. R. Zumsteg died from a ""vehement attack of cramp [sic] in the chest.""*  Shortly thereafter, Kirchgessner herself contracted a fever from which she did not recover.  The Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer apparently played the instrument for his patients in Vienna. 

Concerns about the glass harmonica arose not only from listening to it, but also from playing it.  From the late 1870s on, it was believed that the vibrations produced by rubbing the glasses could cause serious nerve damage.  C. F. Pohl, grandfather of the probable maker of the instrument in the Corning collection, reported that playing the harmonica ""was forbidden in several countries by the police.""*

The making of a glass harmonica was a very demanding task.  The glass bowls had to be blown and cut to the right size and pitch, and they had to fit inside one another on the spindle.  Benjamin Franklin himself probably supervised the production of only two such instruments.  The most famous harmonica manufacturers were members of the Pohl family in Kreibitz (Chribská), Bohemia, who continued to produce the instruments from 1785 to 1945. 

* Charles Ferdinand Pohl, "Cursory Notices on the Origin and History of the Glass Harmonica," International Exhibition of 1862, London: Petter and Galpin, 1862.

(Information courtesy of Stephen Koob, Chief Conservator at the Corning Museum of Glass)

Cutler Gallery, University of South Dakota, U.S.

Location: University of South Dakota, U.S.

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NMM 6208.  Glass armonica, France, ca. 1785.

Handel Hause

Location: Halle, Germany

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R. Hack, London, about 1850

Horniman Museum

Location: South London, England

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See Taylor, Charles; Sounds of Music; (1976) Charles Scribner's Sons; NY; ISBN 0684154765; p.40ff

The author of this book asserts that only Adagio (slow) music can be played on the armonica because 'the notes take a considerable time to emerge' (p. 41). SUGGESTION: PRACTICE! Folks can't play fast music on the piano (or any other musical instrument) in the beginning either!

Kreibitz, Boemen

Location: ?

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by C.F. Pohl, Chribska, 19th century (see Buchner, A; Musikinstrumente von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart; (1972) Dausien, Prague; ISBN 3768442713; 272

Mannheim Staadt

Location: Mannheim, Germany

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Museum of Fine Arts

Location: Boston, MA

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Royal College of Music

Location: London

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Photo courtesy of Sally James at the Franklin House in London. See her article here (pdf)

St. Petersburg State Conservatory

Location: Sankt Peterburg Gosudarstvennaya Konservatoria, Russia

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Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung

Location: Berlin

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c. 1810

Wurttemberg State Museum

Location: Stuttgart, Germany

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At the 'Music Instruments Museum' on Schillerplatz 1.

The sign says only '18th Century Glass Armonica'.

Notice the attached 'finger bowl' for water.

Many thanks to Peter Delchev (Sofia, Bulgaria) for these pictures!