A History of Reverse Action on the Autoharp

When I first imagined the instrument I felt that the innovation was just obvious, such that there wasn't anything particularly original about it at all. Reverse action damping already exists in a number of musical contexts — most obviously the piano, and keyboards are musically ubiquitous. However, various musical colleagues (whose opinion I valued) insisted that they had never seen anything like it. Therefore, I investigated, following the preparation guidelines of the UK Patent Office. The internet was a very different, more limited place back in those days (although it is hard to recall change in this context) and these initial searches appeared to show that my colleagues were correct. General and patent database searches revealed that whilst there were examples of keyboard adaptations to fretless zithers, none were reverse-damped, and none resembled the ReAPH at all.

I am ambivalent regarding the role of patents within the history of musical instruments; the success of a musical instrument depends not only upon its design merits but also upon musical community, and the capacity for both propagation and innovation is ultimately dependent upon a shared vision. Patents are potentially a negative force upon community acceptance and on community innovation upon a musical instrument. For example, Adolphe Sax gained a patent for the saxophone in 1846, and held it for twenty years — an unusually long period of time. Some of the most interesting adaptations took place immediately after its expiry: extensions to the bell modified the tone, and a series of modifications to the keywork enhanced the expressive capacity of the instrument. These modifications took the instrument in an entirely different genre direction to that which the inventor had originally intended, and crucially, it was only at this point that genre-based communities were established, ensuring that the instrument became firmly embedded within musical culture.

There was also a second, more fundamental issue; since none of the design ideas that constitute the ReAPH are in themselves new - and if a reverse-damped keyboard applied to an autoharp is such an obvious and desirable local adaptation (at least for a pianist), then any reasonable form of evolutionary modelling (a mode of analysis in which I firmly believe) would predict that there should be other extant examples of reverse action keyboard adaptations to fretless zithers within history. A frustrated pianist surely cannot be such an isolated “local condition” as to have triggered this chain of events only once in one hundred and twenty years of autoharp history?

However, with mixed feelings I made the initial applications for a patent for the instrument. I received the results of the initial search phase of the patent on September 7th 2007, and rather than present the search results in a linear order from the outset, and so that the reader can gain a sense of the surprise I experienced upon receiving the search results, I have assembled a “see at a glance” plate of previous patents.

Previous designs dating from 1888

The initial search presented five similar patents. However, upon reading, I found that some of these referred to other patents, not presented in the initial search results. Over time, and as patent search tools became more integrated and open, I added to the narrative and dismissed other patents cited in the original search, as not relevant. So whilst the initial search result provided the starting point for this research, the following analysis is my own development.

The main article discusses each of these historical designs in detail, and seeks to understand each different vision of the instrument to see what can be learned. My analysis is of course, biased; all are eventually compared to the slightly different design approach that I took. On the other hand my design intent is alwayes centred on pianistic adaptation and this is a context which is of wider interest.

As I worked my way through these different designs, I gained a different perspective on the patent process and came to value it from a broader context. I have not used it for protection at all. Intsead I have used it purely to build community and to track research. This particular facet - this hidden design history was initially illuminated as a direct result of patent application; one of the inventors Henner remains completely absent from publicly searcheable datablases to this day.

I have developed an enduring sense of pride and kinship with these earlier innovators. All the different designs deal with the same set of musical issues and design concerns. To a greater or lesser extent we all share a similar vision of an instrument which we feel to be missing from the array of instrument choice. Each idea deserves to be discussed on its own merits. Each contributes different ideas to the vision of how the instrument should be, and is a truly related form. So it is with some pride that I present the following, which is, as far as I know, the first analytical commentary on the history of reverse action on the autoharp.

Main Article (opens in new tab)

For example The Celestophone (patent 1912), The Marxophone, The Supertone Phonoharp, The Piano Mandolette, Menze's Piano Zither (patent 1898), The Dolceola.