Benjamin Franklin and the most dangerous musical instrument in history


In 1761, Benjamin Franklin attended a concert in London and heard a musician play a set of wine glasses tuned to water. A soft tone invaded the room, leaving Franklin delighted and a little dismayed. The instrument sounded beautiful but felt heavy. One wrong move and all the glasses would fall off. Inspired to improve design, Franklin invented an alternative: a stem of rotating glass bowls called “glass armonica”. The instrument would sweep Europe by assault; Mozart even composed music for her.

Then he started killing people.

In any case, that’s what the doctors said. Decades earlier, anatomists had discovered how the auditory nerves worked, and they began to warn that too much music, like too much coffee or tea, could affect the nerves, causing headaches, fainting, and pain. other medical problems.

These fears were not entirely new. Centuries earlier, Plato had suggested banning certain musical modes, arguing that “new musical modes… [were] endangering the whole fabric of society. The Roman rhetorician Quintilian once argued that the timbre of certain instruments could “emasculate the soul with all its vigor”, driving men mad. With the arrival of the 19th century, rickety science aided this musical fear. propaganda spreads: music is accused of being responsible for hysteria, premature menstruation, homosexuality and even death (in 1837, Penny satirist magazine would report that a 28-year-old woman died from listening to too much music.)

During this burgeoning period of anti-music mania, no instrument would be as dreaded as Franklin’s armonica. Critics have said it overstimulates the brain; the artists blamed him for the dizziness, hallucinations and paralysis. In 1799, Doctor Anthony Willich argued that the instrument deserved condemnation, claiming that it caused “a great degree of nervous weakness”. In 1808, people attributed the death of armonica virtuoso Marianne Kirchgessner to the strange tones of the instrument. Some psychiatrists have gone so far as to say that it leads listeners to suicide.

To say the least, the assault was a public relations nightmare. Within decades, the dreaded instrument was relegated to the great grand concert hall in the sky.

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