Ben Franklin And The Harmonica Of Madness

Ben Franklin And The Harmonica Of Madness

Have you ever seen a musician do a novelty act, playing music by rubbing their fingers on a bunch of glasses filled with water? That instrument is called a glass harp, and it's existed for centuries, longer than many more legitimate instruments. In 1761, Benjamin Franklin looked at the glass harp and thought, "That's cool. But let's see if we can make this work without all that water."

He made an instrument that uses differently shaped glasses, but piled horizontally so they all spin on a shared spindle. As with the glass harp, you run your fingers over the rims to make music. Franklin named the device the armonica. Today, it's more often called a glass harmonica, but it's not a variant of the harmonica—the harmonica wouldn't be invented till decades later.

So, Ben Franklin invented a musical instrument. Cool, cool. That would be the end of the story, except that people were convinced that the armonica drove them mad. 

There is something distinct about the sounds the armonica makes. Franklin called them "incomparably sweet beyond those of any other." Other people said it stimulates the nerves too much, enough to rip your mind apart. One professional armonica player grew depressed, and the strange sounds received the blame. A child died during one performance in Germany. A music magazine warned readers that no one should play it if they already suffer from any kind or nervous disorder, and even if you suffer from none, you should still limit your time with the instrument for the sake of your long-term sanity. 

One modern explanation for the armonica's effects is that it was made of lead glass, and so those who often played it suffered from lead poisoning. Another explanation says that it produces tones with a unique frequency that the human ear doesn't normally associate with sound, leading you to become disoriented, nauseous, or worse. Neither of these explanations stand up to scientific scrutiny, so maybe it just sounds kind of weird, some people's health suffered for unrelated reasons, and everyone was scared for nothing. 

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For more of Franklin's inventions, check out:

Benjamin Franklin Tried To Simplify The English Alphabet ... And Failed

The Jersey Devil Myth Was Started By Ben Franklin

6 Artists You Didn't Know You Were a Fan Of

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see. 

Top image: Glogger/Wiki Commons

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