I love it when a confluence of interests come together, and such was the case for me last week when I learned something new about Benjamin Franklin that also involved Ludwig van Beethoven.  I wrote about Franklin last July 4th, not only due to his involvement in the founding of the country, but also because he was a peculiar, but talented, Rennaissance man.  Last week I began watching the new Apple TV series, “Franklin”, starring Michael Douglas.  I wanted to fact-check something I saw and that led me down the primrose path that I’m writing about this week.  First, I have to say, I’ve only watched the first episode of the series and it appears to be quite well done.  That said, whenever I see Douglas on screen, I can’t help but think of Gordon Gekko and his famous, “Greed is good” line.  I find it very distracting.  Secondly, much of the dialogue is sub-titled.  I’m all for authenticity (which is why they all speak French), but when you’re trying to do something else, in my case, knit, I hate it when I miss the gist of what’s going on because I missed reading the subtitles.  Anyway, it you don’t mind subtitles – or you don’t knit – you may thoroughly enjoy the story.

Franklin’s armonica

In doing my fact-check I discovered that among the items Franklin invented is the armonica.  No, not harmonica, like Stevie Wonder.  The armonica consists of a series of glass bowls that make different sounds.  Franklin got his inspiration after he saw an Englishman, Edward Delaval, playing water-filled wine glasses.  And haven’t we all done that at a dinner party? Franklin worked with London glassblower Charles James to build his new instrument and it had its world premiere in early 1762.  His armonica consisted of 37 glass bowls of varying sizes, arranged concentrically to eliminate the need for water and mounted on a rounded rod. The rod was moved by a foot pedal, and the glass bowls were played by rubbing one’s fingers along their edges. It was meant to produce tones similar to “singing” glasses. Franklin wrote from London in 1762 about his musical instrument: “The advantages of this instrument are, that its tones are incomparably sweet beyond those of any other; that they may be swelled and softened at pleasure by stronger or weaker pressure of the finger, and that the instrument being well-tuned, never again needs tuning.”

The armonica was an instant sensation. Marie Antoinette took lessons, Thomas Jefferson was a fan, and Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart both composed music for the novel instrument. As I recounted here in January, one of my goals for 2024 is to learn Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” by the end of the year, so I’ve been studying a bit about Beethoven as well.  He only wrote one major piece for the armonica (and thank God it wasn’t “Moonlight Sonata”.  But I do enjoy learning that two historical people that I admire also admired each other.

Despite its initial popularity, the armonica fell out of favor by the 1820s, due in part to its purported negative effects on mental health — attributed at first to the instrument’s ethereal tones, but later thought to be due to lead poisoning from the paint applied to the bowls. There was never any scientific proof of lead poisoning, but even without the sensation of social media, false stories spread about it and in some cities, it was banned as a safety precaution.

Franklin at his invention

Today, the armonica is used by some niche musicians, a second life that would surely please Franklin, who said the instrument had brought him “the most personal satisfaction.” An original Franklin armonica is in the archives at the Franklin Institute in Philidelphia, having been donated in 1956 by Franklin’s descendants after the children took great delight in breaking the bowls with spoons during family gatherings. It is only placed on display for special occasions, such as Franklin’s birthday.

I walked away from learning about this with two thoughts: first, I’d like to think that Ben and Ludwig are somewhere rocking out together on the armonica and second, I think the Franklin family gatherings might have been a lot of fun.