Harry Millington and John Young

A New or Improved Stringed Musical Instrument

British Pat No 9698 Application 27th April 1898 Accepted 1899
Us Patent No  625996 1899

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A British patent was granted in 1899 for another reverse action design made by Harry Millington, a piano manufacturer and John Young, a mechanic. It appears that Young then filed for, and was granted, a separate US Patent in the same year.

The damping action deployed here is much easier to understand than that of the previous invention and can easily be discerned directly from the description within the patent document:

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“This invention relates to a new or improved stringed musical instrument… damped by means of damper-bars having dampers which are normally held upon the strings by springs as hereinafter described. Each damper-bar is advantageously provided with dampers of an inverted T shape and is adapted to damper a note and its octaves so that by having a damper-bar corresponding to each note all the notes of the instrument are thereby damped.

Example image - aligned to the rightThe damper-bars are guided at the ends in grooves in suitable uprights which are provided at their upper ends with stops against which the bars can be brought by keys provided in a key board resembling that of a pianoforte, by means of wires which are attached to the damper-bars and to the said keys in such a manner that by depressing a key the damper-bar attached thereto is raised against the action of its spring thus freeing the strings which are normally damped by the particular bar”

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The instrument is reverse-sprung and similar in many respects to the Wigand design. As for Wigand (and unlike Back) an upward force is required to pull the damper bars up, provided at the far end of the key (after the key pivot point, as can be seen from the cross-section (right). The key is directly coupled to the damper bar. Interestingly the inventors have decided at some point that 12 keys are not enough to enable comfortable playing and have added an octave C, which is coupled to the lower C.

Uniquely among this group of inventions, Millington and Young have considered the issue of string distinction. A second keyboard representation is provided, oriented over the strings on the side of the keyboard oriented towards the dead-end, which is clearly intended to be the playing surface. This is described in the patent as the most convenient solution to string identification, perhaps implying that others were considered.

The playing surface and the overall sound of the instrument are both optimised — and from two perspectives. Firstly, the keyboard mechanism is tapered toward the treble side of the harp (in order maximise access to the treble strings as the speaking length of the string surface narrows), secondly the body of the harp appears to have been lengthened and acoustically improved from original autoharp designs. The description; “..the body of the instrument is made somewhat similar to that of a zither but is provided with a free sounding-board made on the principle of the sounding-board of a piano..” implies a re-consideration of the acoustic properties of the instrument itself. Fretless zithers, unlike the majority of string instruments, are most commonly fashioned with parallel top plate and back plate — an inherent design weakness that, in part, leads to a thin sound characteristic of most commercial autoharps. Piano soundboards, in contrast, are arched to a high point between the dead and toe end of the instrument, and this is probably the first property that has been considered and redesigned according to piano principles. Also the bass string bridging appears to be placed on the top plate itself, rather than on the frame, which would almost certainly lead to an improved bass response. These aspects are not overtly discussed, they could not form part of the patent claims and Millington would likely have been protective of overt discussion. However, they are known aspects of piano design, and it would seem logical that Millington would have wished to apply them to the poorly designed, parallel plated, framed bridged zither design.

A piano maker and a mechanic is an interesting partnership to have formed. The British patent is formulated jointly as Millington and Young, but it was clearly Young who worked on the American patent. I cannot help but speculate as to the nature of this relationship and wonder at the similarities with my own prototype series. I wonder if Young, (perhaps) the originator of the action, at a certain point in his prototyping sought the help of a specialist in piano technology, to improve the sound of his instrument, in much the same way that I sought the help of Alec Anness (with his background in piano restoration, and who routinely applies this design thinking to his autoharps) for the completion of my prototype five. Overall, I am very confident that the harp itself would have sounded very good indeed when compared to contemporary autoharp design.

This design specifies a complete damper-release system similar to that of Wigand; a bar simultaneously lifts the far end of all the keys, thus raising all the damper bars together. This harp has a generous 45 strings, but unlike Wigand, the proportions of the drawings look entirely accurate.