F Wigand 1888


US Patent no 390830 Oct 8th 1888

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Just six years after the Zimmermann autoharp patent (1882), one Ferdinand Wigand of Brooklyn, New York, filed the first patent for a reverse action autoharp; the patent is simply titled “Zithers”.

Wigand begins discussion within the patent by outlining the problems with the autoharp damping system, in a foreshortened, but entirely similar manner to the approach taken within my own patent application. He continues by outlining the principle of reverse damping:

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“It has been, therefore, my object to produce an instrument with only a limited number of damping-bars, but so constructed that by the various combinations of said bars with each other all the chords possible to be struck upon a piano can be produced.

In carrying out my invention a different principle of construction has been adopted from that heretofore employed in instruments of this class — that is to say, instead of providing each bar with dampers adapted to prevent or shut of the vibrations of all the strings except those of a particular chord, I have provided each bar with dampers adapted to prevent or shut off the strings representing only a certain fundamental note and its octaves, and instead of keeping the dampers normally out of contact with the strings I have arranged to keep them normally in contact with the strings, the result being, when a single bar is operated, to release or leave free to vibrate only the strings representing a certain note and its octaves…”

The keyboard is oriented, keys facing the bass side of the autoharp and we can surmise that the instrument is not designed to be held, but to be played as a table-top instrument (a point we will return to). Wigand describes playing the instrument thus:

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“The manner of using the instrument is very simple. The performer has only to press with his left hand upon such of the keys as represent the notes of the chord he desires to play, which will have the effect of raising the corresponding damper-bars and releasing, so as to be free to vibrate, the strings corresponding to said notes. Then with the thumb or fingers of his right hand he runs over the strings and sets said released strings into vibration and produces the chord. By manipulating the key-board [sic] with his left hand as he would the keys of a piano he can produce all the chords capable of being produced on the latter instrument."

This playing position, and orientation of the keyboard, provide the most obvious position from which to integrate a keyboard mechanism (we will also return to this point).

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The cross-sections right show that the instrument is reverse sprung (when compared to a standard autoharp) and so an upward force is required to pull the damper bars up, to release the strings. Therefore each key acts as a lever, providing this upward force from the far end of the key away from the playing surface and after the key pivot point, through a direct coupling to the damper bar.

The stringing is ambitious: Wigand specifies a 44 string harp with a three and a half octave, completely chromatic range, beginning from a low F.


The proportions on this drawing are interesting — a huge playing surface is depicted and the string lengths look unrealistic given the pitches of the pitch range. Wigand concludes his patent:

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“My improved instrument can be used either for playing melodies or as an accompaniment to the voice or other instruments, and will be found much more useful and pleasing than instruments of the same class that have preceded it.”