Glass Harmonica

I found the following story on an episode of QI (series N, episode “Nonsense”).

When Benjamin Franklin visited Cambridge, England in 1761, he saw someone playing music on crystal glasses. Being Benjamin Franklin, he realized he could improve upon the design, and thus made the glass harmonica:

Rather appropriately for Ben Franklin, the glass harmonica looks like a big, weird phallus

Rather appropriately for Ben Franklin, the glass harmonica looks like a big, weird phallus

It comprises 37 glass bowls mounted on an iron spindle, which is turned by a foot pedal. Much like with musical glasses, you play it by touching the rims of the bowls, like so:

It became an instant sensation and factories were opened to make them. Even Marie Antoinette learned how to play. It wasn’t long before there was a backlash. Many people initially thought the music was soothing, but found that after a while, it became really grating. Some even believed that hearing the music for too long would drive you mad, or even summon the dead.

In particular, a number of musicians stated that they started to feel mental anguish when playing the instrument. However, this is almost definitely because they had low-level lead poisoning from the frequent contact, since glass and crystal from the eighteenth century often contained lead.

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