Playing the Ol’ Armonica

Benjamin Franklin invented an instrument that takes musical glasses to a whole new level.

Dennis James plays the glass armonica. Photo: Hugh James/CC BY-3.0
Dennis James plays the glass armonica. Photo: Hugh James/CC BY-3.0

Who’s heard of an armonica? No, not the blues harp—the armonica, sans “h.” It’s an instrument based on the water-filled-wine-glass idea, only more efficient. The brain behind the setup was none other than master innovator Benjamin Franklin.

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As an American ambassador to England, Franklin attended a concert in 1761 featuring musical glasses—a concept explored by 17th and 18th century European musicians. While the tunes charmed him, “he thought the playing method, jumping from individual glass to glass, was too cumbersome,” says armonica player (and SciFri guest) Dennis James, citing Franklin’s diary. So, the polymath devised a way to mechanize the setup. He named his creation “armonica,” after the Italian word for harmony, armonia. In the video below, James offers a brief history and a musical number.

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About Julie Leibach

Julie Leibach is Science Friday’s managing editor of online content. She is a huge fan of sleep and chocolate.